What does it mean to learn virtually?

Because I’m not busy enough, I signed up for a class on Coursera. Because an estimated 5-7 hours a week is (clearly, in my mind) nothing.

This isn’t my first venture into virtual/remote/whatever we want to call it learning. A few years ago, the Buddhist centre that I go to moved my weekly 4 hour study program from a very-convenient-for-me Wednesday evening to an oh-my-god-I-have-children Sunday afternoon. So I switched to the correspondence option. The class is recorded and uploaded to a file sharing site. I write notes on the assigned reading, listen to the class and write up any questions and comments I have and email them off to my teacher. It’s simple and it works, although I sometimes feel a little distant from people I don’t see very often. But it’s been over four years now and I’ve stuck with it.

From January 2012 to August 2013, I took classes with the Writers Studio in NYC through their online option. (As as aside, if you write fiction or poetry, I highly recommend them. The classes — I did levels 1 through 3 — were incredibly helpful and I feel that my writing improved tremendously.) What the Writers Studio offers is slightly more sophisticated than my Buddhist centre. Assignments are posted once a week, followed by an online chat with the instructor and other students. Then one posts your response to the assignment (a two page work of fiction or poetry, along with a brief description of what you understand the assignment to be asking for). Fellow class members and the instructor comment on the assignments. The classes are intense in their way. The assignments focus on identifying key elements in a piece of writing and attempting to imitate them in your own work. It works best (I think) when you feel very challenged by pieces that you would (most likely) never read otherwise, let alone attempt to write. I enjoyed the classes immensely and would, most likely, still be taking them if I could afford it.

So here we are now in January 2014. I have been writing quite a bit (which is best), short stories as well as working on editing my novel (“my novel” !! all 400 and some pages of the first draft). But then I saw mention of this class… Coursera is free (there is an option with some classes to get a ‘verified’ certificate of completion, but that is it), but it wasn’t the free part that got me. It was the geeky part of me that has spent the last twenty years working in international development and environment and peace/security who saw that Jeffrey Sachs was teaching this free, 14 week online course on sustainable development and, well, I couldn’t help myself.

The class so far (we’re in week two) is awesome. There are video lectures posted each week, along with reading materials (links provided). There are discussion boards, along with Google hangouts. The class has already spawned groups on LinkedIn and Facebook.

Then my sister told me that she likes EdX even better than Coursera (EdX describes their courses as “interesting, fun and rigorous” — count me in!). Maybe I’ll try that next. Except that Coursera offers these “specializations” — groups of related classes — and there is one on “Challenges in Global Affairs” that is, you know, sort of work-related.


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