Monday, 5 November 2012

Coursera

One of the major features of Mali life has been the curfew. It's now been lifted to midnight, but for my first few weeks here it kept me trapped at home every evening, with nothing to do but watch my way through the whole of Dr. Who. Which got dull after a while.

I did a lot of reading, but after a while even that started to get old. So I decided I needed a project, something to keep my brain ticking over. The solution: Coursera. Coursera is a free website, where you can take short, not-for-credit courses produced by major universities around the world, especially the American Ivy League schools. The lectures are posted online as videos, and then depending on the course there are often assignments, either multiple-choice quizzes, or short essays which are marked by a peer grading system - you submit your essay, then the next week you grade five other people's essays, and your result is the average of those results. I've been considering doing something with the OU, but I'm concerned about the money and long-term commitment, so this seemed like a great way to test the water.

I started out by signing up for a ten-week course in Greek and Roman Mythology, run by a chap called Dr Peter Struck at UPenn, which I'm currently just over halfway through. Each week there are about 90 minutes worth of lectures, plus texts to read ranging from the enormous (half of the Odyssey) to the short (the Oedipus tragedies). Then there's a weekly quiz and two essays over the course - all in all it's been taking about six hours per week. The readings have been interesting - mainly forcing me to read things I've wanted to read for ages anyway - and the lectures have been interesting and relevant. One of the best parts is the online forum, where the thousands of students have started threads discussing different aspects of the text - I've learned as much from those as from the lectures. The Mali bandwidth means I have to be a bit organised with the lectures - usually I start them downloading on Monday evening, go to the gym, then watch them later in the week - but that's not too much of a problem.

As for the assignments - they're surprisingly similar to being at a real uni. The multiple choice quizzes I mainly guess, a strategy that has so far been successful, and I started writing the essay at 9pm on a Sunday night (it was due midnight US East Coast time). Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Luckily, my carefully-honed last-minute essay-writing skills haven't deserted me, and I ended up with a pretty good score considering that the entire process took about an hour.

One of the odd things about it is how it's worked as a mental trick. The course doesn't matter, at all. It doesn't matter if I fail (obviously it does, because that would condemn me to a life of mediocrity... but it doesn't matter *really*). But since I'd signed up and committed to it, I've been making sure to do all the readings (well, most of the readings...), and doing things like listening to lectures at 7am on a friend's sofa the morning after my friend's wedding in Canada, because I didn't want to fall behind. Because once I've committed to something, I feel like I need to do it, even if I don't really. So it's functioned as a trick to make me learn things I want to learn anyway. And best of all, I'm excited to listen to the lectures (yes, I'm a loser), so I've got more efficient at work and am making myself leave earlier, which is a double win.

It's also been interesting as a way to identify friends. One of the things people ask one another here is 'what do you do with yourself in the evenings'. When your answer is 'well, I'm doing this online course in Greek Mythology', people split into two camps: 'AWESOME, what a great idea', and 'huh?'. If you say 'Awesome', then you mark yourself out as a geek like me, and someone I want to be friends with. And even if I didn't find anyone, I'd have learned loads of really interesting things about Greek and Roman Mythology, which makes me cool... right?

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