It’s been 3 weeks of thunderous whip cracking rain and frankly, I’m over it. After the lightning wiped out our phones and internet I think I’ve had enough rain. A week of no internet has left me feeling incredibly isolated and it’s separated me from my MOOCs.
MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses are a relatively new initiative by start ups and off-shoots of prestigious universities like Stanford,Yale, MIT, Harvard and Princeton to open up the knowledge base to the rest of us. It’s the latest in distance education, one that attracts thousands of online users but which gives you no real degree or certificate at the end of it, just the satisfaction that you’ve learned more. It’s premier quality education at a very low cost, at your own pace, in the safety of your own home. Some of us are not good at learning in classrooms where you may not get the concept as quickly as your peers. When I was in school I used to feel so dejected when my friends would grasp concepts so easily and I’d be struggling. Then I’d pretend to have got it just to escape the self-imposed shame of the after-school remedial class. It’s the reason why many turn to “rote” learning – which is just by-hearting things and not really understanding the fundamentals. You see, there was no dignity in taking your time to learn. If you didn’t get it quickly, then you were one of the slow stupid ones. When there’s a class of 40 kids, sometimes you can’t always blame the teachers, although we did have some shocking ones in the course of my schooling. This has been the fate of Indian education for years.
Udacity, Coursera, Academic Room, edX, Venture Lab and Khan Academy are some of the most popular MOOCs around. I see it as the ‘Everything You Wanted to Know About….(fill in subject matter you think you should already know about) But were Too Embarrassed to Ask’. Beautifully explained, at your own pace: pause, rewind, complete exercises and not feel rushed and no peer pressure to distract you. I’m currently taking the Physics course at Udacity, viewing a range of video lectures in history, sociology and environmental studies at the Academic Room and brushing up on my basics of Maths, Physics and Chemistry at the Khan Academy. In fact, I feel infinitely cleverer after just a 20 minute session at Udacity and have learned more Trigonometry in those 20 minutes, that I have still retained, than I ever did in 6 years of learning Physics and Maths in school. AND it’s actually really interesting and thoroughly addictive once you grasp the basic concepts; which is why a week without the internet and unable to do my MOOCs has driven me to a very dark place.
Everything from Computer Programming, Chemistry, Physics, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, Environmental studies, Finance, Business, History, Art history, Literature, Educational studies, Biology are all available for you to sample. It’s higher education at your own pace. If you have children I highly recommend you check out Khan Academy where they teach kids everything from basic addition/arithmetic right through to Calculus. A great online resource for learning and practicing basic Maths, taught in a really friendly intuitive way. Even if your child has a good handle on Maths now they may struggle later on and it’s good to keep them in check using their online tools. I wish I had this when I was in school – I may not have done so badly at Maths! Here’s a video of the founder Salman Khan at the TED Talks on how he started the Khan Academy and using video to educate. TED talks on You Tube are also a great free educational tool. Just type in TED talks in to YouTube search to listen to inspiring lectures by the greats in industry, science and social sciences. I use Download Helper on Firefox to download the videos and watch them later offline. So you don’t need a steady internet connection to keep streaming the videos.
The downside of some MOOCS is when they are just talking heads on a screen. The lecture format is proven to be the least inspiring form of learning but that is the predominant form of instruction the world over. However, we’ve all experienced at least one lecture where it was the lecturer’s style that totally blew us away. You walked out not knowing what exactly you’d learned but you were somehow changed. Some of these really great talking head type lectures are present on sites like Academic Room. I’m far from any expert on education but I do know interaction, experiential learning and visual stimulation appeal, and more importantly inspire you to learn.
So why learn Physics again at this age? Why (re) learn Newton’s laws and electricity and how to connect circuits or know what exactly the Greek debt crisis is really all about or listen to a comparison of the writings of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner? What is an ethnographic study about slums in Delhi all about? The brain is like any other muscle – the more you work it, the stronger it becomes. Sometimes we get too focused on what we are used to – we read books in the same genre as we always have, our professions keep us from reading and learning outside of them. Often our neurons and synapses aren’t firing as quickly as they could be because we’ve slipped in to a knowledge slump – a lethargy where we’re happy knowing what we do and don’t really find the need to actively learn much more. If something happens to seep in to the brain via the news or newspaper or a novel, then that’s great. Often we just don’t have the time. There’s also a fear that if we dip our toe in to the deep end of the pool of knowledge, we’ll find out that we can’t learn and that we’re pretty stupid. I guarantee you that you will not feel stupid if you take up a MOOC because it’s at your own pace and you’re not asking a real person to repeat it for you a thousand times – all you do is rewind. You can ask questions in forums and no one is going to ridicule you for it. Those who know me will know the mental block I have when faced with something numerical. But you would be amazed at the level of Physics and problem solving I’m now able to do and attempt without fear of failure.
The idea of keeping the brain active is inspired by my mother. In her late fifities when Sudoko was first being featured in the Hindu newspaper, she made it an active practice to solve the puzzles, not just because she enjoyed it but because she wanted to keep dementia and other such geriatric conditions at bay. I remember when I was little my parents would do the Cryptic Crossword on Sundays and in the last 10 years or so my mother has picked this up again. Now, where ever she goes you’ll find either a cryptic crossword puzzle book or a Sudoku book in her handbag. So when she’s waiting at airports, in a train or on a long car journey or just relaxing at home, the synapses and neurons are being gently but actively being stretched, crunched and pounded.
I’m a firm believer that education is wasted on the young. The DH is currently learning computer programming and is convinced that it is much easier for him to learn now and he’s quicker at grasping concepts than he was 10 or 15 years ago. I find it much easier to understand the texts I read in my Masters degree now than I did at the time. In India we rush to complete all our education – school, Bachelor’s degree, Post Graduate, Phd and then we realise we have no real life experience, no context to frame all this education. There were a few people in my Master’s course in London who were 30 and 40 years old and at the time I didn’t understand why they were there. Now I envy them that they took their time and came back to education when their brains and world life experience better equipped them to learn. I’d have much more fun learning in school now than I did at the time. We complete the majority of our formal education in our teens and 20s when we are obsessed with everything other than learning – our image, our peer groups, rebellion, the opposite sex, booze, drugs and any other distraction we can find.
There’s a theory that some of us like the DH, are more left brain people (objective, analytical, logical) and others like me are more right brained (subjective, intuitive, thoughtful). Note that some left brain people are also right brained like the DH and his father (possibly my nephew too) who can approach computer programming and drawing with the same creative perspective. I’ve always wanted to be a more left brained person and I think it takes a certain amount of active coaching to be as centred as possible. So why MOOCs, why now? For one, I have the time. Second, sometimes I have too much time.
10 years ago when I went to the UK and after my Masters, I jumped straight in to a very satisfying, very fast paced, very exciting, very stimulating world of social research. The topics were varied, the skills you had to draw on were vast and I got to meet and interact daily with ordinary people in the UK from all walks of life to talk about their lives or certain aspects of it anyway. An example of a week I would have is one project with a Hindu based NGO on using the temple to promote environmentalism; another was talking to millionaires about Inheritance Tax and the third was visiting people’s homes in the impoverished areas of Aston, Birmingham to talk about crime and the government’s initiatives to reduce crime in the area. Completely diverse but all equally captivating aspects of life in Britain. This type of week was normal not unusual. But now in India, I have no opportunity to continue this type of research and instead I’m reduced to FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) corporate style quick and dirty research – what you think of your washing machine, dish washing liquid, TV program, tractor – you get the picture. Occasionally something interesting will come along but these are rare. Research agencies are based in the big cities of Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. Living in Vizag I have to be a freelancer. But perhaps it’s not the place but the type of work that has disinterested me…thoughts for another post.
As a freelancer work is not always guaranteed and often you have a lot of time on your hands. Of course, there’s plenty to do around the house but there’s only so much cleaning, cooking and sewing one can do. Plenty of time to read of course, but some days you just don’t feel like it. Being a “housewife” is not as easy as it seems. For those with children there’s plenty to keep you busy. But if you don’t have kids you can sometimes feel like you’re not really using all of your brain and the urge to bring in money can make you a bit anxious. Going from fast paced, fulfilling London career to housewife/freelancer in Vizag can be quite an adjustment. Even after 4 years of being back in India I haven’t fully adjusted to not earning an assured wage but rather pimping yourself out for work.
Ergo, the MOOCs. While I’m not earning money off it, it helps me learn, it helps activate the parts of my brain I know are not functioning as well as they should and it makes me motivated and energised. After a session at my MOOCs I actually feel refreshed. So I urge you to try out a MOOC and work that brain in to hape but especially work those parts of your brain that are comfortably asleep. If you are retired or a housewife, it will help you to feel less like someone’s mother or wife or picker-upper of things and more like a working active brain that’s thoroughly energised and firing on all cylinders.