Friday, May 17, 2013

Coursera: my own experience

Image from the course "Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life" offered by Coursera

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about some great opportunities for free high-quality online education. Because CPD is so important (natural sciences is one of my specialization areas), and out of genuine interest for the subject, I signed up for the 5-week course “Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life” on Coursera, offered by the University of Edinburgh and the UK Centre for Astrobiology and taught by professor Charles Cockell. I successfully completed the course and got a certificate with distinction, having scored 100% in the weekly quizzes.
I would like to share my own experience, which is very positive.
Far from having to do with some science fiction stuff, the course dealt with some concrete issues with scientific rigour: astrobiology is a rapidly developing branch of science that aims at understanding the origin and evolution of life on our planet and investigating the possibilities of life elsewhere, whether it’s microbial or intelligent. Of course there are still a lot of unanswered questions, things we still can’t understand. The lessons were structured so that scientific data and reasonable hypotheses were effectively balanced –  I would say, science with an open mind.
Astrobiology is also a very multidisciplinary subject involving astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, genetics, geology, even philosophy.
The course was designed to be accessible to a wide audience but did not lack detailed insights, so my subject-matter knowledge turned out to be helpful to grasp concepts better and link the dots.
Some of the things I especially appreciated are:
- you can pause and replay the videos as often as you like;
- you can take extensive notes and use them as a reference to carry out further research on the issues that pick your interest, and to compile a glossary (very helpful for translators!);
- scripts and videos of the classes are available in an archive and can also be downloaded, and stay there in your personal course record even after you have completed the course, so you can get back to them anytime;
- the teacher regularly interacted and answered some of the most interesting questions from students in a dedicated forum, and the course staff was very open to feedback;
- for those who take courses in one of their non-native languages, it’s a great chance to keep your ear trained.
As for the quizzes, I think the difficulty level was quite appropriate; what I especially liked was that some questions were not strictly related to this or that sentence or slide from a given lecture – instead, they required further research or, at least, an effort to go beyond a single concept and try to grasp the bigger picture behind it.

Since February, Coursera has some news: 29 new universities joined the platform, which means more courses on different subjects and 4 more languages available: Spanish, Italian, French and Chinese, even if for a very limited number of courses (the vast majority are in English).

Like I said, the classes are offered by different universities and institutes, so the course logistics can vary a lot. I had a very enjoyable experience with the Astronomy course and have already signed up for more courses – I’ll report back!
What about your own experience with MOOCs? I’d like to hear from you.