Saturday, April 06, 2013

MOOCs as eBooks

My belief that opportunities for greatest personal growth tend to lie along the lines of one's greatest weaknesses led me to decide about 15 or 20 years ago that I had to greatly increase my minimal knowledge of modern biochemistry. 

I took freshman chemistry way, way back in 1958-59, lecture plus lab, but had found both courses to be profoundly uninteresting because they were so unlike physics. Physics was elegant; it was mathematical. Whereas chemistry, at least freshman chemistry, seemed to be a mishmash grounded in physics, but as inelegant and as hands-on messy as cooking. 

Within a few years my first love, theoretical physics, gave way to an even deeper love of pure math. My fascination with abstract structures subsequently expanded to a lifelong interest in information systems. Graduate school was a painful, but gratifying introduction to the social sciences. And so decades went by without my giving a second thought to chemistry. As for biology, my ignorance was abysmal. Nothing since I skimmed a few basic textbooks in high school.

Meanwhile along came Watson and Crick, DNA, and the revolutions in genetics and molecular biology. Of course, I read a few popularizations, including Watson's book (The Double Helix); but I found myself feeling intellectually marginalized by my superficial grasp of the heady mix of chemistry and biology that had suddenly usurped physics at the white hot, creative center of modern science.

The years kept slipping by because the opportunities for learning what I wanted to know were never sufficiently convenient  ... until a few weeks ago when I stumbled across the description of an edX MOOC that would provide an introduction to the "Secret of Life" (MITx: 7.00x Introduction to Biology)

Unfortunately, the timing was lousy. The MOOC started the next day, but my job had suddenly kicked into a much higher gear. Although I scored a good grade on the first week's homework, I knew that I wouldn't have enough time in the next three or four weeks to keep up and would quickly fall too far behind to earn a passing grade by the end of the course.

Indeed, I had earned my high score on the first week's homework via a few sleepless nights -- sleepless because I had been so excited by the instructor's introductory lectures. The biochemistry and genetics that explained how cells worked still aren't mathematical; nevertheless they embody the same conceptual elegance -- power and simplicity --  that I had previously enjoyed in math, theoretical physics, and computer programming.  

My enjoyment of this course was all the more remarkable because I had forgotten 90 percent of what little chemistry that I had learned over 50 years ago. Fortunately my memories had been recently refreshed by my efforts to coach my granddaughter through a high school honors course in chemistry this semester. Fortunately for me (and for her) the textbook for her course is surprisingly excellent. Had I had a textbook even half as good when I was a freshman back in 1958-59, I probably would have taken a few more chem courses. So my first week in the MOOC, found me scrambling back and forth between the course videos, notes, online references, Wikipedia, and my granddaughter's high school text.

By the beginning of the second week of the MOOC, however, I was saddened by the recognition that I would have to drop out again. (See my notes on dropping out of another MOOC last fall, cited below) ... then it hit me. If I thought of the MOOC as a course, I would feel compelled to finish the course "on time" and get a "passing grade" ... which I couldn't  ... but if I thought of the MOOC as an eBook, i.e., as a 21st century, multimedia, Web-based equivalent of a traditional printed paper book, then I wouldn't "drop out" of the book; I would merely put it down from time to time, then continue reading it at my own pace. 

So this weekend, as the MOOC officially enters "Week 5" and I complete "Week 3" I will begin to download all of its lecture videos and course notes as soon as they are posted to my Mac. Then I will continue to "read" it whenever I have the opportunity, just like I would have read a good printed book. To be sure, I won't get a grade that certifies my knowledge of what I've read. I will merely get the same profound satisfaction that I have always obtained from learning about interesting subjects when I have read and re-read good printed books ... :-)

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