Sunday, 31 March 2013

Learning About Learning

One of the ideas that always crops up when we discuss education is that good teachers (a good system) encourages students in how to learn, as well as just imparting information. This was what was so clearly missing from the school I went to. There really was no concept of that at all.

But I am discovering for myself just how certain aspects of study affect my ability to learn.

This week I did terribly on a test in my Philosophy course. I thought I had done far better. The test was on Freud, or specifically on his lectures on Parapraxes and Dreams. I read the material. Twice actually. I watched the lecture videos attentively. And I got a pitiful 40% on the test. I was horrified.

When I reviewed the questions I'd got wrong, there was no "Aha!". I really couldn't see where I'd gone wrong.

The only thing I can think of is that I didn't enjoy Freud at all. I don't agree with much of the theory involved. That shouldn't prevent me from understanding it, but apparently it does. I need to investigate this phenomenon a bit more.

Several courses have finished or are winding up, and mostly I've done quite well. On the Genetics course I haven't a hope of obtaining a pass mark at this stage, so I am not even bothering to take the final exam. I am, however, still watching the lecture videos intently, and I'm still learning. I love the material covered in this course, I just can't handle the math. I probably could if I put enough hours into it, but there's really no point.

I think, for now, my attitude towards my studies has evened out, and I have found my ideal weekly workload. So, I've cut back on the courses I had signed up for over the next few months, there aren't enough hours in the day, and they will be offered again (I hope).

Thursday, 21 March 2013


It's funny, I never really saw any point in philosophy, and yet, now I realise I've been engaging in it, deeply, my whole life.

This really defines the problem with lack of a formal education. Despite reading so much, on so many topics, for so long, without the guidance that would be given by (good) teachers and professors, I missed the real crux of the matter.

I am enjoying "Know Thyself" so much, in so many ways. I am learning so much, so quickly.

I agonized over Week 3 (Ryle). When it came to the quiz, I was convinced that it was going to be a poor effort, and yet I got 100%. So, I think we can agree that not only am I enjoying it, I am understanding it.

I am now going to buy a hard copy of this book, and read it at my leisure, probably several times.

Friday, 15 March 2013

End of Week Report, 15th March

I took one look at the material for week 2 of Chemistry* and dropped the course. Math. I suppose I should have expected it, but that's not going to happen right now. It's an extremely good course, I love the approach, and the professor is very clear, but now is not the right time for me to attempt another course with math in it. Maybe next year.

AIDS is very different this week, looking at prevention by behavioural changes. I admire those in public health etc with the staying power to remind people for the umpteenth time to use a condom. It must get very discouraging that it has to be repeated. And dealing with the shame and denial (the social cause of the spread of the disease), well all I can do is take my hats off to them for their patience and tenacity. These are dedicated people.

Aboriginal Worldviews is heavy this week, testimonies from survivors of residential schools, more and more details about the abuses of native people. Another piece of information came from the forums, this was not in the course, a student posted a lecture from a Mohawk doctor......"there is an established history of american indians being subjected to psychiatric interviews after they are arrested for minor crimes such as vandalism or disorderly conduct in which they are asked if spirits were involved in their minor crimes. These questions are of course not asked of non-indians. When the indian admits his belief in spirits, he is diagnosed with schizophrenia and required to take pills and receive electro-shock treatments that damage his brain and dull his thinking in order to control his "illness". He is also labelled publicly and may end up being shunned as mad by his own family, which makes things worse."

History this week was the first half of WWI, how and why it began, and why it went so badly. I have a horrible feeling those lessons, even if they were ever realised by TPTB, were quickly forgotten. Looking at current long slow war situations, the parallels are clear. Bad planning from the get-go.

Between these three courses, I could easily lose all faith in humans altogether.

Thankfully there's Philosophy. It's a light in a dark tunnel. This week was Descartes, and it was done so well (Professor Mitch Green is a treasure) there was no single moment I felt lost. So glad I took this and didn't let the other Philosophy course (ended) put me off. I have never read Descartes, I had been avoiding him, and now I love him. That's quite a feat.

In Energy we looked at how electricity is produced, including the sustainable technologies. Clearly the way forward is wind, if only we can get people past their superstitions.

Physics went well, I'm not clear on a few points, but the purpose of this course is to introduce the concepts, and that's working. Several aspects are counter-intuitive, and seeing it explained so well helps remember why things are the way they are. I was fascinated to discover that grams and ounces aren't just different scales, but different systems. Grams are mass, ounces are weight, they just happen to be equal at the Earth's surface due to gravity.

First week of "Introduction to Sustainability" is somewhat depressing, Malthusian catastrophes, and all that (knew about those from History) but good to see that several predictions have not actually come to pass. Still, at least there is such a discipline AS Sustainability, which is the key, of course, we have to say "Now what?" because we are very close to the edge.

Genetics is on March Break, and we are over the math intensive part of the course. I don't think I can pull my grades up enough, even if I get 100% from now on, to pass, but it's still been worthwhile. I get it, I just can't do the figures myself. If nothing else, this course caused me to purchase Jerry Coyne's book Why Evolution Is True, which everybody needs a copy of. It's the layman's guide, and it might just be enough to convince people with open-minds, but hitherto wrong information (i.e. from their church, or biased school).

*Using short names for the courses, see my full list for their full names.

Monday, 11 March 2013

A Few Short Course Reviews

I will add to this blog over time, and may change my mind on some  where the review is early in the course.
I have not given any review of courses I dropped, but more on those can be found on my full list. Further details will only given privately out of respect for the professors, who are offering these courses without any compensation for their time. 

Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life 
Interesting, fun, informative, and well-presented. Quizzes are cleverly done.
Outstanding point: "What have we learned" section of review at the end of each video.

Introduction to Genetics and Evolution 
Very engaging professor and very in-depth course. This is not an easy course, and I am quite certain I will not achieve a pass mark, but I recommend it anyway.
Outstanding point: Slides are extremely well done.

The Modern World: Global History Since 1760
Professor is a treasure. The perspective of this course is unusual, and despite having studied history for pleasure for 40 years, I have learned much here because of this different angle.
Outstanding point: Art used as examples of the zeitgeist.

Energy 101 
Very clear presentation, and a LOT of data presented. Very balanced and fair approach.
Outstanding point: It's just impossible to misunderstand the information presented.

Aboriginal Worldviews and Education 
Probably the most enjoyable of all courses so far, a lot of material to get through, but so worth it. This one will change your heart.
Outstanding point: The style of presentation is perfect for the subject matter.

Packs a lot in, but never feels "difficult". I have never learned so much in such a short space of time, or understood biological concepts so easily.
Outstanding point: Very engaging professor.

Know Thyself
Extremely well-planned order of study and good presentation (professor filmed giving lectures outdoors, very appropriate).
Outstanding point: Overview followed by more details on each area.

How Things Work 1
Huge fun (professor filmed falling off skateboard), very easy to follow. This is how to teach basic concepts. I've never done physics before, and I get it.
Outstanding point: Visual demonstration things work.

Chemistry: Concept Development and Application
Very clear explanations that make perfect sense the very first time. A novel approach, that works.
Outstanding point: Showing how and why, and not just presenting data.

All Courses Are Not Equal

Now, you get what you pay for, and these courses are free, so I will not complain about them in the way one would if paying. In fact considering they are free they are absolutely incredible. I don't know of anything else you can get for for nothing in this world that is so valuable. (Don't say "love", you know what I mean!).

But let's tell the truth, some are better than others. Some professors are better speakers than others, some material is deeper, some lectures longer, and so on.

My particular observation here is on two courses on the same subject. I will go further than not naming names, publicly, I will not even mention the subject. I do now wish to show ingratitude to those who have freely given their time to offer the poorer example.

But the difference is profound.

In the poorer course the length of each video is shorter, and the number provided each week is less. Therefore the amount presented is less. It becomes a "skim". It appears that to make up for this in some way, the instructors decided to talk faster, and this must be extremely difficult for students for whom English is a second language. Subtitles are provided but are not always correct.

In the better course the professor appears more relaxed, perhaps age and experience count for something here, but the effect is to slow everything down. His presentation style is more natural, and the structure is very cleverly done, each week one lecture is an overview, then each point is covered in more depth in the rest of the week's material.

When it comes to the tests, there is no comparison. The questions in the better course are not ambiguous. Provided you paid attention and took notes, they can be answered. In the poorer course, despite multiple choice answers being offered, and watching one particular video 6 times, I still couldn't decide on an appropriate answer. And.....I don't think the problem there was me, frankly.

I have seen some complains on discussion forums about lack of instructor activity in the forums. That they have time to visit them AT ALL is remarkable. That anyone complains about this.....well, some people want blood from a stone. From the start I expected only peer support, it's really quite enough. So I would not assess a course on the level of instructor support.

There are a few students whose complaints are considered unjustified by other students, are told pretty much "if you don't like it, go" in no uncertain terms. I was then shocked to see many, many comments of "I can't find how to drop out". Somehow they managed to sign up, but cannot figure out for themselves how to leave. I'm not really buying it. I think it's an attention seeking device.

EDIT: Final week of the poorer course was excellent. So, it really does depend on the professor.


Obviously I aim to pass these courses, and as many people have pointed out, the quizzes are a way of learning in themselves. In order to get as high a mark as possible it's often necessary to watch the video lectures more than once, and in some cases to do further research. In one or two courses the answer simply isn't in the lectures, and I think this is quite deliberate.

What I have decided for myself is not to repeat any of the quizzes unless there was a technical issue (i.e. an error caught after I had taken it). My first mark, is my mark, and if it's less than 100%, I take note of what the correct answer should be and move on. That is how testing is done in the real world, and as I'm not here to gain entry to or win anything, if I re-take a test, all I'm doing is trying to impress myself with a higher score. That's pointless to me.

I am failing one course. I may take it again next time it is offered. But even if I don't, I have learned so much from it that my time has been well spent. I understand the concepts, I just struggle with the math, and the score I get reflects that aspect of it. I get the conceptual questions correct.

When it comes to peer marking of essays, the hardest part is the marking. My son tells me this is commonly done in school these days, and I hope they are given plenty of guidance, because frankly I agonize over it. In the last essay I marked I found myself obliged to give 6/7 according to the rubric, of two very dull essays that didn't really understand the purpose of the assignment. While an excellent essay could only gain 7/7, despite being exponentially better.

But I see no alternative when there are 50,000+ students in some of these courses.

The AIDS Course

One of the courses I'm enjoying the most, yet is one of most challenging (I'm repeatedly finding these go together) is the AIDS course.

I never realised for a moment before I began it how much I would learn, and how much I didn't know, but what I was really very ignorant of was the controversy surrounding AIDS. I had no idea there were "AIDS deniers" but they are an angry, active, and vociferous group.

Unbelieveably, although 25 of them have died from AIDS, there are still those believing it was sheer coincidence.

An option for one of our essays was to counter this, and I opted for it, so that after having done the research, the details would be in my head should I ever run into these deniers. I am firmly convinced in my own mind that they are wrong.

But the usual issue that comes up when I find this topic being discussed casually is simply misinformation. People have acquired some very odd ideas about AIDS, presumably from poor media, hearsay, or whatever. It is going to be very satisfying to get the correct information out there. I only mix with a few people socially who are in healthcare, most are not, and it is the layperson who really needs help here.

Let's be honest, most people will never take a course like this, or even watch a short documentary on the topic, it's something they'd just rather not think about. So I think it behooves anyone who is interested and who has studied it, to keep educating.

Friday, 8 March 2013

The List

For my own use. This will be edited as I go along.

What I've done is sign up for everything that looks interesting. Obviously it's an impossible workload. So when each one begins, I look at the first week's material and choose whether to continue or not.


Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life (92%)


Introduction to Genetics and Evolution (8th week of 10, failing, may take it again)
The Modern World: Global History Since 1760 (8th week of 15, doing well)
Energy 101 (6th week of 9, doing well)
Introduction to Philosophy (6th week of 7, doing OK)
Aboriginal Worldviews and Education (2nd week of 4)
AIDS (2nd week of 9)
Science, Technology, and Society in China I: Basic Concepts (Starts next week)
Know Thyself (1st week, doing OK)
How Things Work 1 (1st week, doing OK)
Chemistry: Concept Development and Application (1st week, doing OK)


Introduction to Sustainability
The Ancient Greeks
Democratic Development
English Composition I: Achieving Expertise
Economic Issues, Food & You
Global Sustainable Energy: Past, Present and Future
Introduction to Psychology as a Science
Genes and the Human Condition (From Behavior to Biotechnology)
Useful Genetics
Climate Literacy: Navigating Climate Conversations
Introduction to Psychology
The Camera Never Lies
Why We Need Psychology
English Common Law: Structure and Principles
Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets
Epigenetic Control of Gene Expression
Social Psychology
Climate Change
Preparation for Introductory Biology: DNA to Organisms
Experimental Genome Science
Greek and Roman Mythology
A Brief History of Humankind
Planet Earth
The Law of the European Union: An Introduction
Introduction to Sociology
Modern European Mysticism and Psychological Thought
A New History for a New China, 1700-2000: New Data and New Methods, Part 1
Diversity of Exoplanets
Confronting The Big Questions: Highlights of Modern Astronomy
From the Big Bang to Dark Energy
Analyzing the Universe
Introduction to Guitar
Introduction to International Criminal Law
History of Rock, Part One
Introduction to Art: Concepts & Techniques
Volcanic Eruptions: a materials science.
History of Rock, Part Two
Introduction to Environmental Law and Policy
Animal Behaviour
The Future of Humankind
Energy, the Environment, and Our Future
Calvin - Histoire et Réception d'une Réforme (FRENCH)
Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World
Søren Kierkegaard - Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity
Human Evolution: Past and Future
Origins - Formation of the Universe, Solar System, Earth and Life
Conditions of War and Peace
The Holocaust
The Science of Gastronomy
Soul Beliefs: Causes and Consequences
Early Renaissance Architecture in Italy: from Alberti to Bramante
Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas
Recovering the Humankind Past and Saving the Universal Heritage

Watch for repeat: (Galaxies and Cosmology)

Of the courses I dropped, the reason was mostly the professor's style. That is important to me, I have to find the person giving the presentation engaging. They make or break it. With some it's an accent or voice thing, or they say "UM" a lot, which I can't tolerate, or whatever. Other reasons include marking systems, and workload.


Critical Thinking in Global Challenges
The Modern and the Postmodern
Women and the Civil Rights Movement
Introductory Human Physiology
Sustainable Agricultural Land Management

Of the courses I am taking, or have taken, the only one I really didn't enjoy was Introduction to Philosophy.

It's not the topic, because I've now begun another philosophy course (Know Thyself), and I am enjoying that very much. It's not the workload, which is very low. It just wasn't done well, I gained very little from it, and we'll leave it at that. 

The others, so far, are frankly, just amazing. 

What The....? Another Blog?

Yes. With Good Reason.

Very few people want to read this. I absolutely don't blame them. I mostly write this for myself, in fact. So filling up my general blog with it was making no sense.

Back in January a friend posted on Facebook that she had just completed an online course on Coursera. I had a look and liked what I saw. Free courses, which you could do on your own schedule. For fun. I signed up for one immediately, but it was months away so I looked for others. I browsed the entire selection.

Each course showed how much time was required on a weekly basis to do the work involved, which consists mostly of watching short video lectures. I decided I could manage two, and signed up for those. In the blog I wrote at the time, I said:

"Who says Facebook isn't serious and educational. HUH? I went on there this morning and a friend posted about this:

Online courses offered free by various universities around the world. Irresistible. 4 to 6 hours a week? Easy. A far better use of spare time than playing games, that's for sure.

Straight away I signed up for Social Psychology. Then I noticed that Genetics and Evolution had already started, but only just over a week ago - I can catch up. I have so far resisted the temptation to join anything else,

EDIT: I caved and signed up for The Modern World: Global History since 1760 and very glad that I did, as it is absolutely awesome, but I am looking at others:
SECOND EDIT: This history course is perfect. It really is. If you have any interest in history, or why things are the way they are, I promise you'll love it. It costs nothing, and the material is so easy to follow. I cannot recommend it highly enough."

I enjoyed it from the get-go, and started adding more, and more. I discovered I could fit quite a lot in, it just meant sleeping a bit less and changing my schedule. All doable, and well worth it.

I celebrate my 51st birthday in a few weeks, and this is the first education of any type I've done since I left school in 1979. I didn't get any further education. That's a long story, not for now. But I've always studied in my own way, reading a lot, writing a lot, and generally taking an interest. I am effectively self-educated. This however is a step up. It's structured and it extremely well-presented.

So, on the whole it's not too difficult.

My next blog on the topic went like this:

"I warned my family officially last night, I'm going to be annoying for a while.

They often say you simply don't realise what it is that you need until you get it, and I had been perfectly content with my life. Unlike an enormous number of people my age, I was not unfulfilled. I have a great life, a wonderful family, my own thriving little business, and so on. I also have my writing which allows me to get outside of myself, and that's important for all sorts of reasons. Add on various hobbies and interests, I had no sense of needing more. And I'm busy, which is how I like things. I get bored easily.

So along comes this opportunity to study and I'm blown away by how I suddenly feel, yep, apparently I needed that. I wasn't aware that I did, but clearly there was a great gaping hole in my schedule, that, in one fell swoop, when I added this, has lifted me from content to giddy with happiness.

The level of difficulty is just right. It's nicely challenging without being oppressive. The first thing I will be doing this morning is looking up a few words that cropped up in the Genetics video yesterday, which I had never come across before, and want to be quite clear on before I proceed.

Then I have to check some data from the History video yesterday, which was covered so fast, I don't think I got it.

The latter issue was the death rate of slaves in the New World, and how this varied from place to place. So I was talking about it to the boys while we made dinner. That was when I warned them - as I learn stuff, I'm going to talk about it, and above all you are going to hear me say:

"My professor said....."

This is new to me.

Many of you have been to college. Some of you are very highly educated. Perhaps at the time, when you were young, you took all this for granted, as the young tend to do.

I can't do that. I'm far too excited, and far too wrapped up in my discoveries.

Not that learning new things is different per se. My choice in reading materials and things to watch on screens is frequently informative. I have done plenty of research over the years in all sorts of areas, often in considerable depth. I have many, many books that are in effect textbooks, and I have read them for pure pleasure.

But this discipline, this dedication of study, is new to me. It's good for me. I am learning more than just the material presented. I am learning about myself, and I am learning about the effect of formal guided education.
Just don't be surprised if the material I'm studying causes blogs."

Since then I have mentioned it a few more times, including the confession that I had signed up for lots more courses, some I've started, some I dropped, in fact, and there are lots more ahead. I am addicted. There's no other way to describe it.

I was in fact quite relieved to discover that there are many others like me at Cousera. Some are people with free time, some are cramming it in, but many, many of us are addicted. It's a good addiction.

The time I am spending on my studies each week is no more than other people spend watching TV, playing games, reading magazines, or indulging in other things they enjoy, take up time, but are not educational. And they are not ashamed of it. So I'm certainly not ashamed of this.

But I do also feel the need to talk about it. So this is the space I created for that, even if I'm talking to myself. If you want to read it, please select some sort of follow option, as I won't be announcing it!