By Amy Wilson
If you’re like me, you may have heard so many acronyms in your lifetime that you no longer have space in your brain to manage any more. But, maybe before you ran out of mental real estate, you managed to store MOOC, which stands for Massive Online Open Course. (If not, I just gave it away.) Depending on whom you ask, MOOCs can be considered either a blessing or a curse – or both – to higher education. For homeschoolers, they offer one more tool in the toolbox, available for us to consider as potential ways of expanding learning opportunities in our families.
Coursera is just one of many sources for MOOCs, and it is the one my family has used most so far. My children (ages 12 and 14) and I have taken several Coursera classes together, on subjects including philosophy, physics, computer programming, history , literature, and art. Our reviews have run the gamut from “great additions to our homeschooling experience” to “mediocre” to “complete flop.” Many were interesting and accessible to both of my learners, while others were too intense for my middle schooler, and a few were too much even for me! Since the courses are free, we take what we can use and ignore the rest. The classes that are not a good fit, we simply drop.
I will be presenting a session on MOOCs for Homeschooling Middle School and High School at VaHomeschoolers’ 2014 Conference and Resource Fair, so please join me if you want to learn more. In the meantime, here are three Coursera classes coming soon that look interesting to me. Take a look at the Coursera website for more choices.
Introduction to Astronomy, Duke University (Starts December 2; 12 weeks long)
In this class, we will be studying, quite literally, everything in the universe. It starts with “classical” astronomy, describing the night sky and organizing what we see as was done in ancient times. We will then embark on a journey, starting here on Earth and progressing outward, to study the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, and the wonderful and strange objects we observe in deep space, such as black holes, quasars, and supernovae. We will end with some discussion of what scientists know today about the universe as a whole. Along the way we will introduce some of the methods, theoretical and experimental, that have been used to understand all of this, to include Newton’s laws, our understanding of light and matter, Einstein’s theory of relativity, as well as Galileo’s telescope and WMAP (Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe).
The Modern World: Global History since 1760, University of Virginia (Starts January 13; 14 weeks long)
This is a survey course in modern world history for students, beginning or advanced, who wish to better understand how the world got to be the way it is today. In order to understand modern history, a global perspective is essential. This is true whether you are interested in economics, warfare, philosophy, politics, or even pop culture. This course can therefore be essential for students in many fields, a base equipping them with tools for lifelong learning.
It is tempting to think that if we can just understand the big patterns, we don’t have to get too caught up in the details. In this course, though, we care about chronology. We care about individuals. Without some careful attention to sequences of cause and effect, without tracing how big changes come from the choices made by particular people, history can turn into just a series of descriptions, a somewhat tiresome recitation of one fact after another. Beyond just offering a set of remarkable stories, this course offers training in how to analyze a situation and how to think about explaining change.
Imagining Other Earths, Princeton University (Starts February 3; 12 weeks long)
Over the past two decades, astronomers have discovered over a thousand planets around nearby stars. Based on our current knowledge, it seems likely that there are millions of stars in the Galaxy that host Earth-sized planets in Earth-like orbits. What is the range of conditions for these planets to host life? In this course, students will engage with a wide range of concepts in astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and physics with a focus on developing the background they will use need to think further about this profound question. We will explore the origin and evolution of life on Earth, particularly in extreme environments, the properties of planets and moons in our Solar System, the properties of stars and the newly discovered extrasolar planets.
Course assignments include two short papers describing proposed space missions to study nearby planets and to search for extrasolar planets and a final paper. In the final paper, students will have an opportunity to invent their own planetary system and describe it in terms of either the astronomy of how it was discovered, the properties of their planet and its host star, or the biology of life in the system. Papers will be circulated and evaluated by fellow students as part of the learning experience in the course; this will provide opportunities to develop students’ abilities to think like a scientist by applying principles of scientific thinking, to learn new ideas from other students, and to creatively make new connections across different sciences and parts of the course.