Non fiction

Introduction to Astrobiology: My Coursera MOOC Experiences


I mentioned startup, Coursera, and their MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in this post, starstruck-be-careful-what-you-wish-for.

MOOCs have been getting more mainstream press attention, partly because of eye popping registration numbers in the multiple tens of thousands for some courses.

However, I’ve now taken two ‘courses’ and have a better idea of the possible impact of MOOCs on lifetime learning, and on ‘higher’ education.

I believe that there are three attributes for study success with Coursera’s MOOCs:

  1. You must be interested in the subject.

  2. You must find or make the time to complete the study program.

  3. You must be ready to go beyond the prescribed course of study.

Nothing new there, then!

I signed up for the Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life offering because I want to do some world-building for science fiction stories.

The course lasted five weeks and I was able to watch the videos, read the brief notes and answer the weekly quizzes. Unfortunately, I did not spend much time in the active discussion forums, in Google+ hangouts, or in reading additional recommended texts. My bad!

Completing this MOOC has made me want to learn more. And while I didn’t go the ‘extra mile’ (or ‘light year’!) while it was live, as per success attribute #3 above, I’m now in a better position to apply the knowledge to my SF stories. In a way, these early stories will become my ‘knowledge labs’. Stay tuned.

The other course I attempted, Duke University’s Introduction to Astronomy, was more demanding than the Astrobiology offering, mainly because the weekly problem sets required additional reading and time.

I got through the first two weeks OK but only after spending long weekends staring at notes/videos, and making lots of mistakes on the homework. I quickly realized that I could not keep this up for eight weeks.

Nonetheless, I have downloaded the materials and will go through the course again by myself.

Are MOOCs just a passing marketing fad for famous centers of learning to increase their reach and, they hope, their cash flow? Time will tell. There are strong arguments being made for both the ascension and the demise of MOOCs.

I think that the potential for MOOCs to offer accredited courses for life-long learners is their key selling point. And, while they may also bring ‘free’ learning opportunities to the poor and disadvantaged around the world, there are many people and organizations who would pay reasonable fees to attend MOOC offerings from prestigious centers of learning.