Last year in June I enrolled in a 10-week long online course provided by Coursera. Coursera is a social entrepreneurship company that collaborates with many top universities and offers a wide range of free online courses. It’s a great place to look for free world-class education.
It was the first time I was participating in a massive online open course (MOOC for short), and my course was “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World“. On Jan 22nd, Coursera relaunched this course, now 14 weeks long. The lecturer is Prof. Eric Rabkin, Professor of English language and literature at the University of Michigan, and the objective of the course is to understand how Fantasy in general and Science Fiction in particular provide insights into our own minds and into the functioning of the world.
The format of the course was very simple. It was divided into 10 sections (one for each week). Each section comprised of a short reading, an essay assignment, peer review, and video lectures. Every week we were supposed to read a book or a couple of short novels, and write a 300 word essay “to enrich the reading of an intelligent, attentive fellow student”. That is to say, we had to write about something that we found particularly insightful or interesting about the plot, theme, style, structure, imagery or allusion etc. in the book. We were not supposed to write book reviews, and we were not supposed to discuss non-literary matters (we had to focus on the book itself).
This was followed by peer review. Each student was given a minimum of four(anonymous) essays to grade (anonymously again) on two counts: form and content. ‘Form’ consisted of structure and grammar of the essay whereas ‘content’ meant insight, argument and examples. The grades were quite simple too: for each category, we could give a grade of either 1(poor to can do better), 2(average) or 3(outstanding), so that the final grade ranged from 2 to 6. I used to think of it in terms of OWLs: 2=Poor; 3,4=Acceptable; 5=Exceeds Expectations; 6=Outstanding. There are no ‘Troll’s and ‘Dreadful’s since giving ‘0’ wasn’t an option.
One of the great things about this review system was that reviewers were also asked to comment on the essay they just read; for both ‘form’ and ‘content’ they were asked to write about at least one thing they liked, and at least one thing that the writer could do well to improve/change. I was fortunate in my reviewers; most of them had something to say to encourage me as well as to help me write better.
After the peer review submissions came the lectures. Every week Prof. Rabkin released a series of videos dealing with the week’s reading, which helped us understand the novel itself and all the general subjects it dealt with. For example, the first week we read Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Prof. Rabkin talked about the brothers themselves, how and why the book came into being, about the morality of fairy tales, natural symbols and colour symbolism in the stories, how to read the back story of a story, etc.
And it was a wonderful experience! I got to read a number of wonderful authors–Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ursula LeGuin (‘The left hand of darkness’), the Grimms, Lewis Carroll (‘Through the Looking Glass’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’), Ray Bradbury (‘The Martian Chronicles’), Cory Doctorow (‘Little Brother’), Mary Shelley(‘Frankenstein’)–rediscovered Edgar Allan Poe and fell in love with him all over again and re-read many wonderful books (Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, H.G.Wells’ ‘Country of the Blind’ and ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’, a few of Poe’s short stories). ‘Discussion forums’ was a resource all by itself, I found out many amazing things there. I got to read other people’s essays and most of them were amazing, especially with regards to content, but also form; I learnt a lot from my fellow students. Most importantly, I managed to complete the minimum required 7 essays+reviews, and got a great grade (70%, based on participation, i.e. for completing 7 out of 10 assignments) and even a certificate to show for it! I was so thrilled with Coursera and with my first MOOC experience that I’ve already completed one other course (and got my certificate), am in the middle of four courses, and enrolled in half a dozen others.
Although it’s possible that the ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’ course has a different format and grading policy this time around, it should be a great experience for anybody who loves books in general and science fiction in particular.
Coursera is a great place for anyone who loves to learn. They provide such a wide variety of courses–Humanities, Biology, Medicine and Healthcare, Astronomy, Computers, Maths, Business, Social Sciences etc.–that I’m sure everybody can find something of interest there. Not only that, but most courses require no prior specialized background to enroll in a course. If the wide variety of courses on offer make you confused, just remember this:
“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
-Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.