A Tale of Two Moocs: Serendipity, Synchronicity, and Simple Survival

When I started participating in my first MOOC experience, through Coursera, there were around 60,000 people in the class with me. Now there are around 4000. This is my Introduction to Mathematical Thinking course, in which Professor Keith Devlin tries to help us transition from High School Math (yes, that was back in the days before you could fit a computer on a desk, in my case) to University Math (yes, that was before Fermat’s Last Theorem was a twinkle in Andrew Wiles’ clever eye).

A few weeks after starting Professor Devlin’s course, I started Dan Ariely’s course, A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Thinking. Not sure how many people were in that class when it started, nor how many are still there; all I know is that I’m still there and I don’t have any time to do anything but the required work, so I’ve missed all the discussion forums. It’s still been a terrific experience, though.

Taken on their own, each class has been a joy — even though the math class has me howling at the imperfectly round moon. Taken together, the two classes are so beautifully entwined that I can’t imagine these two professors don’t require students to take them simultaneously. Of course the MOOC paradigm doesn’t really provide a way to require anything, but students who take only one of these two classes are missing something amazing.

The math class is about precise expression and clear processing of abstractions. The behavioral economics class is all about how we humans misunderstand, resist, ignore, defy, and strive to obscure precise expression and clear processing of real world data. One class helps me understand what ‘belongs’ in a set and what doesn’t; the other class helps me understand what happens when we fray the edges of these sets. One class helps me understand how to prove something abstract; the other class helps me understand how to obfuscate what can be clearly proved. One class helps me understand identity; the other helps me understand how confused we can be about identity.

These days, I can hardly choose between an apple and a cupcake at a meal, let alone between a policy and its negation at a board meeting, without thinking about what I know and what I don’t want to know. And that’s an extremely satisfying state to be in, from my point of view.

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