MOOCs: Another way to study

I’ve just signed up for my first MOOC! Until recently, I had no idea what a MOOC even was, and now that I do, I’m devastated that I didn’t get onboard with them sooner. So for those scratching their heads, I thought I’d share a quick post about what they are, where you can sign up for them and why they’re awesome.

MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. It’s a way of studying online, but rather than enrolling in an entire degree or diploma, you can sign up for single topics. MOOCs are run by universities around the world. Some can be taken as part of a qualification while others have peer reviewed assignments which you complete in order to earn a participation certificate. These certificates aren’t equal to an academic qualification, but can still look good on your profile.

While a certificate course comes with a fee, a lot of MOOCs are free. Free. Enrolling gives you access to the course materials (readings and lectures), class discussion boards and optional assignments (you just won’t get them marked). The obvious downsides are that you don’t come away with a formal qualification, and you have to rely on self-discipline rather than assignment deadlines to keep on track. But for those who are keen to learn out of interest, the free MOOC model allows you to work through the materials at your own pace.

MOOC List, as the name suggests, offers a comprehensive listing of free courses and course ratings, and from there you can find out where to sign up for the particular course that interests you. For example, I’ve enrolled in Harvard’s ‘The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours’ via edX. I’ve found the edX portal fairly user-friendly and easy to navigate. It does keep asking me to upgrade my enrollment to a certificate for $150, but that’s easy enough to ignore.

So who are MOOCs good for? Well, I’d recommend them to people who are keen to expand their knowledge in a particular area but don’t have the time, funds or need for a formal qualification in that area. For example, at Adelaide Writers’ Week Lauren Groff spoke about using MOOCs as background research for her novel Fates and Furies. For me, after completing my Ph.D. a few years back, I felt I’d had my fill of formal education. However, I still love learning. In particular, I’ve always had a bit of a thing for the ancient Greeks. I’ve read a fair hunk of Plato and Aristotle, love Greek tragedy and adore Homer, particularly The Odyssey. But I’ve never had the opportunity to study any of this stuff in context, which limits how much I can get out of it. I don’t want to go back and do an entire classics degree—that seems excessive—but the twenty-two-page introduction included with my translation of The Iliad reads a little thin. A MOOC seems the perfect compromise.

‘The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours’ is an introductory topic offered to Harvard students as well as online participants. The title is perhaps a little misleading, in that it refers to the number of lecture hours, not hours in the course entire. That’s going to take rather a lot longer—the required readings are extensive (the epics, the tragedies, some dialogues and histories, plus critical readings), although being an introductory course, they’re at least in translation. I’ve only completed ‘Hour One’ (in which students are introduced to the concepts of kleos and hora and how they inform the ancient Greek understanding of ‘hero’. We looked at Achilles, Heracles and (for a contemporary parallel, the way Roy Batty ‘scripts’ his death in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). We also touched on the ‘cult of the hero’ in ancient Greece, the history of the epics and the structure of their openings. It was fabulous, and I can’t wait to learn more.

I’ll post again when I complete the course to talk about the experience of being a MOOC student, but for now, if you’re keen to learn more or find yourself a MOOC, head on over to MOOC List.

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