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.

It’s MOOC, Son; I Say, a MOOC

. . . not a mook which can be best described by stealing TVTtropes.org’s quote from Terry Prachett — a man who can best describe anything . . . but I digress . . . this is a mook:

They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they wanted to.

I’m taking a MOOC, a massively online open course (or maybe the ‘open’ comes second). I’m using Coursera; and the course I’ve chosen is Introduction to Mathematical Thinking, the thought of which should kill off any of my remaining math teachers left alive.

It’s been a rich and wonderful experience so far — learning math foundations with 20,000 people around the world. I’ll try to comment about it as I go. There have been no disadvantages yet, and I have benefitted greatly from the video lectures, which can be paused and replayed. AND, most especially, from the little quizzes embedded in the lectures to help track whether or not you’re attending to what the professor expects you to attend to.

Just as an interesting aside — indeed, a digression  there is a guy named David Hume in our class, and there is a guy in our class who randomly mentioned the philosopher David Hume in his profile. What are the chances? Maybe this class will help me figure out the chances. In a class of 20,000 people, maybe the chances are  pretty high.

Besides this MOOC, I recently took a live webinar  class to learn how to use a Content Management System for our website at Judea Reform. That was another wonderful learning experience for me because, while it was live and couldn’t be paused, I could mute my microphone and think out loud without bothering anyone else. Also, to pose a question, we could use a chat window, which meant I had to formulate my questions clearly, often answering my own questions in the process of clarifying them for the teacher.

Learning is so cool!

I’m sure that I’ll have more to say about the MOOC learning context, but for now,  I’ll just direct you to an article about it.