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I love learning but I’m lazy. When it gets too hard I’m strongly tempted to give up. Luckily though, I’m also quite competitive and I hate to fail. This means that when I’ve enrolled in a formal course my competitiveness and fear of failure overcome my laziness and allow me to succeed.

Whenever I’ve tried self-directed learning though, I’ve always given up. I’ve tried teaching myself algebra through self-learning books. The same glazed feeling came over my brain that I used to experience in school — and I gave up. I’ve recently become interested in the sciences — thanks mainly to my hero Richard Dawkins who manages to explain complex concepts so simply that even I can understand them. So I tried reading Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and was going quite well until I got to quantum mechanics. And I gave up.

MOOCs are the ‘new thing’ in learning. I’ve been interested in online learning for some years but I’ve always found it really clunky and frankly, I’ve never found the courses very good — especially the free ones. However, I decided to give MOOCs a go and visited Coursera to have a look at their offerings. I was impressed by the calibre of the universities offering courses and decided to enrol in a course called Introduction to Genetics and Evolution which was being conducted by Professor Mohamed Noor under the auspices of Duke University.

More than 30,000 other students from around the world joined me in enrolling. The course is conducted over ten weeks. Each week there are six or seven mini-lecture videos. These consist of a video of Professor Noor taking us through a series of slides (see screenshots below). Interspersed in the videos are little test problems that let me make sure that I’ve understood the concepts. I love the fact that I can speed up the lectures if I want to. After I’ve watched each video once, I usually go through it again at 1.25 times speed.

screenshot of course video

Screen Shot of course video quiz

There is also an assessment to complete each week. This takes the form of a multiple-choice quiz of about 10 questions. After the deadline passes, these are marked automagically and my mark is posted online for my eyes only.

If I find a concept difficult I can re-watch the videos until I grasp it. If that fails, I can go to the discussion forums and read the discussions on the topic. Sometimes I even ask (or answer) a question myself. Other students are extremely helpful and a few of them seem to have an excellent understanding of the subject. Occasionally Professor Noor himself will join in the discussions and elaborate on the topic to help us out. Usually though it is his teaching assistant, Justin, who will assist us, either with the subject matter or administrative issues.

After week 5 we had our mid-term exam. This consisted of two multiple-choice quizzes, each with 10 questions. Once I started each exam quiz I had 90 minutes to submit my answers. I was really worried that my internet connection might go down (Sod’s Law) but it didn’t and I managed to complete both parts of the exam within the given time-frame. We’re not allowed to talk about the content of the exam or we’ll get kicked off the course. So I won’t. But I will say I found it difficult. Bloody difficult.

There are no prerequisites for studying this course. But remember I mentioned that I tried to teach myself algebra and failed? There’s a lot of formulas in this class. Quite a bit of algebra. Well, I’m not much good at algebra but I can use Excel. So whenever the formulas appear, I go through the videos paying careful attention to each step, and I set up an Excel spreadsheet with explanations for each step, to help me get the answer. Find out the deviation from Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium? I can do it, I just put the given values in and out pops the answer. Work out dN/dS values? No problem. Conduct a McDonald-Kreitman test? Piece of cake. All in my Excel spreadsheets.

Still, that’s a lot of effort I’m making. So, if it’s so hard, why haven’t I given up? Lots of others have. Of the original 30,000 students only a little over 3000 took the mid-term exam. When I analyse it, there are a few reasons.

  • The subject matter is really interesting.
  • Even if it isn’t, Professor Noor is a fantastic teacher — he’s enthusiastic, funny, interesting and really engaged with his material. I feel as if he is talking to me personally and every time he says “Hello, and welcome back to Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” I find myself returning his greeting. Bizarrely enough, I feel I would be letting him down if I gave up.
  • I like the platform and method of delivery. I feel as if I am really a part of a class, and I can engage in discussion on the topics with other students. Even if I find something difficult, the course provides several different ways for me to engage with the concept until I can understand it.
  • I like the structure of the course, the way it leads me through the subject matter step by step until I get the whole picture.
  • I mentioned that I’m competitive? I want the satisfaction of achieving 80% or more in the assessments — I really want that certificate. I don’t want to fail.

So I have to say I’m enjoying it enormously. I spend between four and six hours per week studying and I’ve learned a lot. Through the course, I’ve also been given the opportunity to have my DNA analysed and mapped against more than a million markers at a discounted price through a US service call 23andme. I’m looking forward to learning more about my ancestry and about my genetic predispositions!

Do I have any criticisms? Only minor ones, because I didn’t have terribly high expectations. There was a minor glitch with the mid-term results which took a few days to sort out — exacerbated by the fact that it happened over the US Thanksgiving holiday. I’m also glad that I’m a native English speaker because the language used in the assessment questions can be a little tricky if you don’t read them carefully. It must be difficult for people who don’t have English as a first language.

Overall though, I’m quite impressed. Maybe I’ve just been lucky in my choice of MOOC and Professor Noor is exceptional. I’ll soon find out because I’ve enrolled in more courses.

At the price, what have I got to lose?

See related blog What is a MOOC?