Friday, August 30, 2013

Learn from home: Take free online courses from top institutions

Published in the Portland Phoenix

As long as you have a computer, you have access to some of the best classrooms in the world, for free. MIT, Stanford, Georgetown, and the University of California–Berkeley all offer massively open online courses (called MOOCs in edu-jargon) — classes that can have students numbering in the tens of thousands, all around the globe, getting course materials online, watching streaming video of the lectures, and participating in discussions in online forums. These digital learning environments are increasingly popular and accessible, so much so that the New York Times dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.”
Sadly, there aren’t many such options originating in Maine just yet. The University of Maine, the University of Southern Maine, and Bowdoin College all have nothing of the sort. Colby College’s communications staff didn’t return multiple calls and voicemails.
Bates College is in the early stages of contemplating starting such a program; Al Filreis, a pioneer of massively open online courses at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke in May to the college’s faculty about his 36,000-student course on modern poetry. Filreis, who teaches English at Penn and is also a parent of a Bates student, had students from South Africa and Pakistan, among other far-flung locations.
And in July, Bates president Clayton Spencer joined a group of about a dozen college and university presidents from around the country in discussing MOOCs and access to higher education. She was the only participant from Maine, and the only representative of a liberal-arts college. That said, the college’s public statements about those two events make clear that Bates remains protective of the “liberal arts college experience,” which counts residence in a physical academic community as one of its key values.
Global humanitiesThe University of New England has done the most so far in Maine, through its Center for Global Humanities. While the CGH doesn’t offer courses per se — in the sense of classes that have multiple lectures and discussion groups — it does have one-off events quite regularly that are open to the public both in person and online.
“We wanted to widen the notion of ‘the humanities’ to include all kinds of people,” says Anouar Majid, who not only is the founding director of the CGH and UNE’s vice-president of communications and marketing but also serves as the university’s vice-president of global affairs.
If you head to, you’ll see options for both “Seminars” and “Lectures” on the right-hand rail. The “Seminars” page lists nine upcoming talks by university faculty or other scholars, accompanying reading (often the speakers’ own books), and specific event information if you want to attend in person. For the 2013-2014 academic year, topics include health-care, international relations, history, and philosophy.
If you can’t make it, first check with your local library: many of them around the state convene groups to read the books and watch the lectures, and then have their own local discussions. There’s no credit, and no writing assignments. You just read the book, watch the lecture, and learn something new.
If your nearest library isn’t participating (and you don’t want to start a group yourself), the video is streamed live on the site during the lectures; people watching on their computers can email their questions to an on-site moderator, who will add them to the list of possible topics to address during a question-and-answer period that follows each talk.
It gets better. Past years’ seminars, back to 2009-2010, are listed and archived on the site, letting you learn from international experts on a wide range of topics. What’s more, the “Lectures” page lists two other upcoming talks, and includes an archive of other speakers’ presentations (see sidebar: “UNE Highlights”).
Top-notch schoolsIf you want something more structured, or more like an actual college class, check out these free options from leading institutions around the world.
Introduction to Computer Science three-course package (Programming Methodology, Programming Abstractions, Programming Paradigms) | Stanford University |
Skynet University: astronomy classes, including remote control of telescopes for observations | University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill |
“Edible Education: Telling Stories About Food and Agriculture,” taught by Michael Pollan | University of California–Berkeley |
“Global Warming Science,” an overview of the processes by which the climate changes, as well as its effects | Massachusetts Institute of Technology |
“Sets, Counting, and Probability,” a look at the math behind card games, sports, and election results | Harvard University |
“Doing Business in Latin America,” a business and economics class | University of California–Los Angeles |
“The American Novel Since 1945,” a literature class | Yale University |
“Logic and Proofs,” a course with a rationally self-explanatory title | Carnegie Mellon University |
There are, obviously, many more options — foreign-language classes, advanced scientific topics, and much more. Explore — the world is yours for the learning. 

UNE highlightsParticularly notable or interesting talks in the online archive
From the 2012-13 series“The Trouble with Malaria in Africa,” by James Webb Jr., author of Humanity’s Burden: A Global History of Malaria (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
“On the Brink of the Grave: Early Stories of Blood Transfusion,” by Ann Kibbie, with readings from an account of medical procedures from 1896, and from Bram Stoker’s 1897 thriller Dracula.
From the 2011-12 series“What’s Happening in Yemen?” by Daniel M. Varisco, with readings from Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s Yemen: The Unknown Arabia (Overlook, 2001).
 “Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788,” by Pauline Maier, author of the book by the same name as the lecture, published by Simon and Schuster, 2010.
From the 2010-11 series“The President, Democracy, and Permanent War,” by Dana Nelson, author of Bad for Democracy:  How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People (University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
“Desperate for Some Kindness: A History of Asking for Help in Hard Times,” by Elizabeth De Wolfe, with readings from Horatio Alger and Mary Marshall Dyer.
From the 2009-10 series“The Russian Soul in the Twenty-First Century,” by George Young, with reading from James Billington’s Russia in Search of Itself (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2004).
“You Are What You Read,” by Reuben Bell, with reading from Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (HarperCollins, 2007).
From past lectures“Does America (Still) Need Unions,” by Robert Zieger.
“Lessons from the Emerald Isle: The Implications of Mass Tourism,” by Eric Zuelow.