MOOCing along: The Pleasure of (Free) On-Line Learning

This is an expansion of a post on my writer’s blog, Wind and Silence, so if you read that too, you’ve pretty well read this post, although there are a few differences.

In an earlier post, I wrote about how I sought out community and intellectual stimulation during my house-bound period last winter, following surgery, through becoming involved in Project Feederwatch. In that post, I mentioned there were other ways I found what I needed, and, because this also relates to one of my themes of being frugal, I decided it was worth writing a post about.

I subscribe to a site called Lifehacker on my Facebook newsfeed. Originally I started reading it because it often had technology-related reviews, ratings and ideas,which I needed for work. But then some time last summer, there was a post about free, on-line education.  Intrigued, I looked at it, and found a link to FutureLearn. Associated with the Open University in the UK, this completely free educational site offers dozens of courses on subjects as diverse as Global Food Security, The Works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and The European Discovery of China.  Universities from around the world are involved in the design and teaching of the courses. All you need to sign up is a computer and the internet.

I browsed through the course offerings, with, of course, an eye to courses that would increase my understanding of the Roman Empire, the historical template upon which the world of Empire’s Daughter rests. As I wrote in an earlier post on Wind and Silence, my understanding of my created world needs to be thorough, or I can’t write about it convincingly.   Two caught my eye: Hadrian’s Wall:  Life on the Roman Frontier, and, Archaeology of Portus:  Exploring the Lost Harbour of Ancient Rome. These looked promising, and the Hadrian’s Wall course’s timing was perfect – it would start soon after the surgery, but not immediately, so I had time to be able to handle sitting with my laptop again.  So I signed up for the it – we’d been to the Wall a couple of times, the most recent just over year before, and in that case specifically for research for the book and its upcoming sequel. I’d learned a lot from visiting the museum at Vindolanda, as well as just walking the Wall and thinking about what it was like to be a soldier there in the second century A.D., on a cold, damp, windy March day, waiting for your relations to send you more socks.

I’d taken on-line courses before, in relation to my work, so I was prepared for the basic format of readings, videos, questions to be answered and on-line discussions to occur. The course was well-designed and fun; I learned a lot, but the (for me) unexpected benefit was the literally hundreds of viewpoints that were expressed.  These courses are what are known as a MOOC – a Massive Online Open Course – and can have many, many participants.  Not everyone is very vocal, of course, but the wide range of experience, background, imagination and world-views of the participants who did express ideas made me think – not just about Roman Britain, but about my imagined world, and, some of my own preconceptions. It was rich discussion. The result is that some of what happens in the next book(s?) has been directly influenced by this community of learners (in both courses) who were willing to share their knowledge, ideas, and expertise with each other. I hope I remember to thank them all in the author’s notes!

There are, of course, lots of other opportunities for free or low-cost learning (the Lifehacker link is a good place to start) and I’d be interested to hear what others have found.  FutureLearn is just one place you can find free courses, and I’m waiting to hear if another on-line course that looked intriguing is to be offered again, this time through a different provider, Coursera.  My local Senior’s Centre…(yes, it appears I qualify, being over 55, although there is part of me that doesn’t believe this…) offers a number of no-cost face-to-face programs this winter. I am, actually, overwhelmed by choice, and have to be mindful, to stay focused on courses that will inform my writing…and leave me time to actually write.

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