Earlier this year I discovered Coursera and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). A MOOC is a course that can take an unlimited number of students to study for free online.
I was told about Coursera as a good way of updating skills or knowledge, or as a way to begin to branch out into a completely new area. In the list of courses I found one called “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World” and so of course I had to do it…
The course is taught through a series of video lectures, given by Professor Eric Rabkin of the University of Michigan. Each week a “before you read” lecture is released on that week’s book(s). After the essay deadline several more lectures are released, looking at the text in more detail.
To pass the course, and gain a printable certificate, you must submit at least seven essays out of a possible ten, and average a pass mark for your seven highest scoring essays, and also review and grade five other students’ work for each essay you submit. From comments people have made in the course forums it seems this is a fairly typical way of running a MOOC.
The good thing about this Science Fiction course is that it encourages you to read the books in detail, really think about what they are saying and how they say it. It makes you look deeply into what makes good literature. The short essays (270-320 words) make you really focus your writing, make every word count in arguing your thesis. And as well as this you read other people’s essays; see their opinions, you can watch the video lectures to gain further insight, and you can discuss the books on the course forums.
However, when the “before you read” video is released on Thursdays and the essay deadlines are on Tuesdays, it can be a bit of a rush. I’ve realised that it’s best to start reading before the video is released to ensure I have enough time to read it properly and think about my essay. There are also problems with the peer reviewing system; there are many people posting on the forums who believe they’ve been unfairly marked down, or saying their reviewers have made insulting comments, and although reviewing five essays is necessary to receive your grade and comments, not everyone does it, meaning someone might only get one or two reviews on their work.
In spite of these faults though, I think taking this course has been positive and beneficial. I’m reading- and rereading- books I might not have picked up otherwise, and I’m engaging with them on a deeper level. I’m practising ruthlessly editing my writing and thinking carefully about my use of words.
MOOCs are an opportunity to increase knowledge and to use your brain, and so I think most of these courses, not just the literature based ones, can benefit writers; the more you know the more your imagination has to work with, the more connections you can make to form new ideas.