Journal,  learning

Brain Gains

A few years ago, I stumbled on a free online course from Yale University called The American Novel Since 1942, a self-paced, semester-long study of the so-called Great American Novel. Fourteen of them to be exact. From Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1942) to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated (2002) with layovers in every decade between (O’Connor, McCarthy, Robinson, Kerouac, Pynchon, etc.). I decided to go for it. If I finished, great. If not, I’d at least read a few good books along the way.

For those unfamiliar with open learning, this class serves as a good representative. Consisting of 26 hour-long lectures, a set of quizzes and a final exam, the course strives to mimic the complete classroom experience minus deadlines and late-night pizza sessions. It’s a hefty undertaking. After all, reading fourteen novels in three months far exceeds the median book consumption most Americans undertake annually.

Throughout the course, instructor Amy Hungerford focuses on the analytical aspects of these novels–thematic development, structure, intent–with numerous sidebars on the publishing industry, the role of critics, the secret world of booksellers, etc. Later in the course, she invites her students to stand up and pitch the final book and, of course, these pitches align with what you’d expect from Yale kids (amazing). Everything Is Illuminated took that prize thanks to an electrifying presentation by a student named Eli: watch here.

After finishing the final video lecture on the final book, I remember stuffing Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel (novel number 14) into my bookshelf and thinking: holy crap, I really did this. Somehow among a full-time job and a life that most definitely did not involve school, I kept pace with the demands of the class as if I were one of the sweatshirt-clad twenty-somethings seen furiously scribbling notes on the front row. Except those kids still have hair.

And by the way, I was now officially hooked on online learning (I’m currently taking my twelfth class*).

My interest in this course coincided with a new era in online education. Previously, the term “online university” aligned with the spate of pseudo colleges shilling meaningless degrees at exorbitant fees. This perception was about to change.

Today, virtually every top American university has joined the fray–Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Duke, Rice. Full lectures, reading lists, homework, even discussion forums with the teachers and other students. And again, all this for free?

To be clear, MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses), as they’re called, do not offer degree plans or college credit; that’s not their purpose. For MOOCs, it’s simply about providing high-quality education to those who may not have access to it otherwise, or to those, like me, who just enjoy learning new things.

If you need more inspiration, read the following Scientific American article on “Fluid Intelligence,” the impact that late learning can have on your brain:

Five Ways to Increases Your Cognitive Potential
Thanks to Danielle Reich Seale for sharing this link

Here are the popular MOOC sites as of 2016. Some offer grades and certificates, others just upload course materials. Enjoy!

MIT OpenCourseWare:
Stanford Online:
Khan Academy:


* For those interested, here are the courses I’ve taken

Literature: The American Novel Since 1942 (OpenYale) ****
EE Circuits and Electronics (edX/MIT) *****
EE Signals and Systems (edX/Rice) ***
Biology Proteins: Biology’s Workhouse (edX/Rice) ***
Biology Essential Human Biology: Cells and Tissues (edX/Adeliade) **
Medical Human Physiology (coursera/Duke) ****
Biology Principals of Biochemistry (edX/Harvard) *****
Chemistry Principals of Chemistry Science (OpenMIT) ****
Chemistry Organic Chemistry (HCC on campus)

Finance Finance Markets (coursera/Yale)
Finance Pricing Options with Mathematical Models (edX/Caltech)

Computer Science Algorithms (coursera/Princeton) ***
Biology: Introduction to Biology (edX/MIT) *****

Add to this a ton of Khan’s Academy mini-courses.

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