Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): An Introduction by Erin Blower

I’ve recently developed a slight addiction to MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses. They are free (though some offer certificates for a fee). They are open to anyone with an internet connection – which makes them “massive,” with upwards of tens of thousands of students. A huge variety of nationalities, ages, and education levels can be found on their message boards. I’ve found that MOOCs are a fun, low-stress way to keep my mind active for a little while each day, dabbling in areas of interest to me.


The first MOOC that I tried was a module of “The Book: Histories Across Time and Space,” which is presented by Harvard University’s Houghton Library through the edX platform. My interest was piqued when I saw it mentioned on the MU Special Collections tumblr. It was fascinating to learn about the interrelation of language and technology. The course content consists of articles, video lectures, and quizzes. There are nine open-enrollment modules to "The Book," and I plan to explore more of them in the future.


I am currently working on two six-week courses, which are more interactive in nature than “The Book” is. The first is “Ancient Egypt: A History in Six Objects,” taught by the University of Manchester through the Coursera site. It's an incredibly condensed survey of thousands of years of history, using objects from the Manchester Museum's collection as jumping-off points. From pottery to hieroglyphs to pyramids, this course covers the highlights of Egyptology and has been a lot of fun. There are a wide variety of course materials utilized: chronologies, maps, articles, video lectures, 3D models, quizzes, weekly activities, discussion forums, and a peer-reviewed assignment. There are also supplemental readings available each week for those who want to dig deeper. I will definitely be making a trip to the MU Art & Archaeology Museum in the near future, and I feel like I will have a better background for appreciating its Egyptian artifacts. Hopefully, one day I will have an opportunity to travel to Egypt and see the pyramids themselves!


The other course that I’m taking is FutureLearn’s “Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales,” hosted by the Hans Christian Andersen Centre in his hometown of Odense, Denmark. We've touched on Andersen's life, the folk tale tradition, and the fairy tale genre. Last week, I read "The Little Mermaid" for the first time and enjoyed it immensely. The course content consists of articles, video lectures, discussion boards, quizzes, and a peer-reviewed essay. A fantastic Danish storyteller reads fairy tale passages as part of the video lectures. The instructor presents questions and invite responses, before offering his own analysis. It's been interesting to see how closely my own interpretation matches (or doesn’t match) the instructor’s, and also to see the variety of interpretations from other students. I do plan to read more of Andersen's tales in the future.


Though the subject matter and format vary, something that all of these courses have in common is enthusiastic instructors. They are obviously passionate about the material and about sharing it with a world-wide audience.

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