The Professor Takes a Course…sort of

Even if you don’t do much online, it’s very hard to avoid knowing of, and having an opinion about, MOOCs. Every so often I’ve cruised by Coursera, the MOOC-maker that has always seemed to have the most items of interest. Many have been the siren calls; last year I came very close to signining up for one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas with the excellent pianist (ex Curtis) Jonathan Biss. Flagged that temptation by, with difficulty.

But they got me this time. When I saw a four week course “Learning How to Learn” with one of the insructors the author of a favorite book …well, how bad could it be?

The book is A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley.


Despite the subtitle of “Math and Science”, the book really covers strategies for learning, in this particular case making the very convincing case that improved learning techniques can cure a phobia of math and/or science. Did I say “how bad could it be”?

So I enrolled. Four weeks of assignments and lectures, the lectures for each week amounted to maybe one hour plus, both by Oakley and a quite eminent neurobiologist. Three quizzes and a final, all multiple choice. Plenty of optional extra readings, from the general to the really hi-tek. Keep in mind that since I spent forty-one years in the classroom, I’m incredibly opinionated about how to teach in all its minutiae: lectures, quizzes, readings. Also keep in mind that I was familiar with the (optional) text supra. And finally, that’s it’s been the same amount of time since I sat on the other side of the desk. A triple theat, to say the least.

And what happened? Briefly,  a wonderful experience. In my field you can’t know everything you need, even ex of a topflight graduate program and equally topflight undergraduate major. If you aren’t a good autodidact, you’re dead. As a result, from the School of Hard Autodidacts I knew maybe two-thirds of the material. Hearing other points of view, following a lecture, and preparing for quizzes was humbling and something every professor should have…more than once. But that’s not all. Some bullet points, in no particular order….

  • None of the students was very good at speaking in the optional short video selfie, graded by other students. The stuttered. They preened. They ran out of time, or else mumbled two sentences and quit. As for the comments. The most useful one I got was “nice beard.” Well, thanks, I think. Even so, everyone gave my selfie the highest possible mark. Understandable about me (all that time in the trenches) and my fellow students (usually no time in those trenches).
  • One of the lectures, Barb Oakley, aka  the book’s author, was superb by any standard. I’d give here eleven on a scale of one to ten. The eminent neurobologist Terry Sejnowski, not so much. Did he know a lot? Yes, and I base this on having been a serious science jock through college. He was clearly reading from the teleprompter. Bad. I never read from notes either in class or at conference presentations. If you’ve been in the field more than a couple of years, you damned well better be able to speak it smoothly. Worse, he didn’t read smoothly. Worst, he went at trans-warp speed. I with my science background had to hear his lectures twice. Non-science types…technical terms come at you like bullets, and light-speed bullets at that. Many, many science and math types lament why there are so many math and science phobes around. Just look in the mirror, gang. What’s so obvious to you isn’t obvious to those who aren’t initiates. Try to recall when it wasn’t obvious. In my case, I know there was a time when the chronology of the Pentekontaetia, the period between the end of Greece’s Persian War and the start of the Peloponnesian War seemed impossibly hard. Now it seems totally obvious. But I try to put myself back to when it was new and strange. And the students then understand and enjpy. In short: math and science professors, recall your own learning struggles and teach to those. Terry gets overall a minus three on the scale of one to ten.
  • Quizzes. Muliple choice. I guess in a course like this the format is necessary. But too easy to game, and really didn’t test understanding.
  • Reading. Excellent from start to finish. I’m going to PDF those lists for future reference.

Would I take another MOOC? In a second, with the caveats supra if it’s a math or science course. It got me out of my comfort zone. I got to learn  more about what I already new, and a lot of new techniques like memory palaces. MOOCs are not the same as a classroom experience which remains fundamental. But if used carefully and with self-awareness, they can be a very good thing indeed.

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