Old dog, new tricks

Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective of Agatha Christie’s novels, said “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I was a bit surprised recently, to find that I can indeed learn new things even when I feel like an old dog. When I retired, the little grey cells were feeling stagnant (I’d love to borrow some of Poirot’s little grey cells, though he can keep his moustache). I often imagined retirement as an opportunity for endless learning and reading. Instead, my days were dissolving into the seemingly endless and definitely mindless puttering abyss. You may know what I mean—start with one thing, start another, go back to the first thing, watch TV, surf the web and so on.

Aside from learning the new language of bridge, it was definitely time to wake up. I decided to explore the online world of education. I dabbled in some of the YouTube learning videos, but there wasn’t quite enough structure for me. That’s when I discovered Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.
MOOCs are generally offered by well-known and lesser-known universities. There are video lectures, related readings and quizzes that you can take (or not). Many of the courses have set start dates, but during the week you can go at your own pace. If you fall behind, some courses will let you restart the due dates. Some will even let you download the lectures and the course materials so you can learn at leisure. I tend not to do that as otherwise (see above note about puttering).

If you want to engage more with other students around the world, or send questions for clarification, there are forums associated with the courses. I don’t use these features as I am not aiming for a grade or a certificate, but the option is usually open. The length of each course is varied. Usually the video lectures are little more than an hour a week. The newer MOOCs tend to break those down into videos ranging from six to ten minutes. You can start again from where you left off, which is a great boon when it’s time for online bridge, or the phone rings, or the timer chimes, or the smoke from the oven tells you something is burnt. Many of the MOOCs are free if you do not want a certificate. Some of the more popular courses which require more engagement with the prof do cost; creative writing is one example. After the courses, you will often be asked to do a short survey, whether or not you finished the course. To me doing the survey is an easy way to pay back the institution.

The best way to access a MOOC is by downloading an application (or app), but you can often just use your web browser. Some of the better-known MOOC providers are edX, Coursera, Khan Academy and Udacity. I have never tried the last one, but I have tried the first three. The nice thing about MOOCs is the range of interests you can explore. For example, I’ve taken the following courses and finished most of them:
History, structure and challenges of the European Union (University of Paris)
Origins of Common Law (University of London)
Greek philosophers (Wellesley College)
Greek and Roman sculpture (Yale University)
History of Christianity in North Africa (can’t remember the university)

I am currently working on renewing my acquaintance with sociology through an introductory course from the University of Amsterdam. I’m almost finished, although I am dreading a rather massive final exam. No consequences if I fail, other than a blow to the little that remains of my pride, but I would like to know if I retained anything from the eight-week-stretched-into-twelve-week course.

There are courses in data, sciences, health, humanities, arts, philosophy, history, computer science/information technology, business, math and logic, governance and society, law and the list goes on. I suspect that many providers will increasingly charge for the courses, but for now it’s so much fun to explore my rather eclectic interests at no, or low cost.

Next on my list is the Yukon First Nations course offered by Yukon University. It costs a bit more than other MOOCs, but in this case the offering is unique and important. After that maybe I’ll brush up on my algebra, or dive into the history of medieval Europe, or who knows what? The world of learning awaits!

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