Marjorie's guide to MOOCs

(Reposted from FB for my non-FB friends.)

Thinking of learning something new this year? There are a zillion free online classes out there these days, and a lot of spring semester MOOCs (massively open online courses) will be starting up in the next couple weeks. Since I've gotten several questions on the topic lately, here are some of my favorite MOOCs for those of you interested in dipping a toe in the water:

Coursera has TONS of classes in everything from Artificial Intelligence to Equine Nutrition. Whatever you're interested in, there's probably a Coursera class on it. The professors are from good universities -- Johns Hopkins, Princeton, etc.

EdX is smaller but perhaps more high-brow: it was founded by MIT, Harvard and Berkeley. I'm taking MIT's intro to CS class through there. Compared to Coursera classes I've taken, my EdX is less heavy in multiple-choice-quizzes and more heavy on actual programming assignments.

Udacity has fewer classes, but the benefit is that they're asynchronous; you don't have to start and finish on predetermined dates. I haven't taken one here yet.

Another good group of asynchronous classes are MIT's OpenCourseware lasses, but be forewarned that only the OCW Scholar classes (ocw.mit.edu/courses/ocw-scholar/) have ALL their materials online. I'm switching to this for calculus this semester.

And I can't mention that without plugging CMU's own Open Learning Initiative. My friend Doug developed the Proof Lab for the online Logic and Proofs class, which I took while in Doha.

If you want to learn programming, these are two good places to start: Waterloo & Codecademy.

For math, I don't suppose anything beats Khan Academy.

I know iTunesU is out there, but I've never explored it.

[Edited 1/5: other useful things I forgot to post on FB: the Foreign Service's language learning materials are all available for free at FSI-Language-Courses. And lots of other courses can be found through Open Culture, which lists classes from the above sites, and the OCW Consortium, which lists lots of other cool ones from Open University and lots of other European universities. And speaking of OU, the list of OU classes available to people in the US is here.]

Where do you guys learn stuff online?

Online courses and the future of teaching

I had a conversation over lunch with a professor friend the other day about whether online classes are the future of academia -- at least for basic, quantitative classes like Calculus, which is one of the two classes I'm currently taking online.

I'm really loving taking calc online. At first I thought it was an OK substitute for taking it in person, but a lot of things about an online lecture class are better. For one thing, I can pause the lecture to do a problem myself and then unpause to watch him do the problem on the board, which is great practice. Second, I can rewind the lecture if I didn't understand or got lost in my own thoughts. Third, I can watch the parts of the lecture I already understand at 3x speed, which is so much nicer than being bored while he goes over things I already understand. It's also great to be able to watch the lectures whenever I want, which means I can work ahead in one of my classes if I have two assignments due the same day. We always tell students to do that, but often homework relies on a lecture they haven't had yet, in which case they're stuck.

At first I thought the online forums would be no substitute for asking questions in class, but in many ways they're better. I wouldn't get to ask many questions in a 97*-person class, which is what my calc class is. If the class were in real life, I'd get my questions answered by my friends in the class. In the online version, though, I get access to all the conversations classmates have had about the problem sets. Whenever I get stuck, chances are that someone else has gotten stuck in the same place and already asked my question. I can just read the replies they got, instead of making some poor TA go over the same problem over and over. (As an added bonus, the professor and TAs can read all the conversations the students have had, which must help when an academic integrity infraction is suspected.)

A downside occurred to me today, though, and I'm curious what you all think about it. Here's what I wrote to my friend:
It's a big time-saver for the professor that he can reuse a lecture year after year with different students. However, that means that he doesn't get the opportunity to experiment with teaching the material different ways and to figure out which ways are most effective. That seems bad in the long-term for professors' teaching skills.

If we imagine a future in which all college freshmen in the world (or at least the English-speaking world) take the same online calc class with lectures recorded by the best calc professor of all time (MIT's open courseware has calc lectures recorded in 1970!), then that's also a future in which nobody is learning how to teach calculus to other people. That just seems weird. I don't like the thought of having nobody, or a very small number of people, experienced at teaching calculus.

Then again, did bards make the same argument against the evils of recorded music? Did it bother people that we'd lose most of our campfire storytellers when books were invented? I think overall it's probably better to give everyone access to the same amazing recordings of Mozart than to leave us all stuck listening to our mediocre church pianists' renditions. (Church pianists might disagree...) Would it be OK for the same thing to happen to teaching?
* Just rechecked and it's up to around 145. Nice to know I wasn't the last slacker to add the class.

Secret questions

I just set up an an account on the website for one of our utilities, so I had my password program generate a nice strong password for the site.

Then it asked me to answer one of the following "secret questions," which can be used to reset my password if I forget it.

I hate these things. Half of them ask for things like your hometown and your mother's maiden name, either of which could be easily gleaned from my Facebook account.

Here are the questions this site asked. It made me curious: how many of them can you answer ABOUT ME? I feel like there are a lot of people out there who could answer some of these questions correctly.

  • Where is your favorite vacation spot?
  • What is the name of your first pet?
  • What is the last name of your best friend?
  • What is the title of your favorite book?
  • What is the name of your first school?
  • What is your favorite food?

Language and thought

I feel silly for not really pondering this question before, and for not having a ready answer to it, but: do we think in language?

A few days ago my friend who lives in Japan send me a video he'd taken, during part of which he can be heard talking to himself in Japanese. (He opens a door in a prospective apartment and says, "Ah, toire.") I was curious whether he was talking to himself in Japanese as a way to practice the language or because he actually thinks in Japanese. Did he open the door and think "toire," or did he think "bathroom" and then translate?

Or are those both wrong? Did he open the door and have a concept or thought or feeling of bathroomness which is only then translated into a word at all, such that the concept of "thinking in English" or "thinking in Japanese" is meaningless in the first place?

I feel certain that several readers of this blog will have learned or thought about this before. I am finding myself flummoxed by not being able to work out whether I think in English or not.

Certainly some words seem to be very closely tied to the experience that they convey. Sometimes Zoe briefly wakes up between sleep cycles and is angry at the prospect of waking up. (Join the club, kid.) When she was tiny, she used to just cry in those moments. Now she says "NO!" or sometimes "Uh-oh." (Once she woke up as I was moving her from the car seat to her stroller and, with her eyes still closed, she both said and signed "All done" -- clearly meaning "Cut it out, Mama.") It has been interesting to see that, even when she's not fully conscious, a word rather than a cry has become her instinctive expression of a strong feeling. But is that the same as thinking in language, or is language always layered on top of the feeling or thought itself?

As if nothing really matters

A friend recently stopped reading Wicked because he really didn't like any of the characters. I scoffed at this: the point of literature isn't to create pretend people that we want to be friends with.* Then I read The Stranger, and found myself more sympathetic to the idea that it's hard to enjoy a book about a person you just want to punch.

Actually, maybe the problem isn't that I don't like Meursault but that I don't relate to him in any way, and I can't work out whether or not Camus thinks I should. I certainly never thought, "Ah yes, this man epitomizes the human condition." Mostly I thought, "Is this guy a sociopath, or does he just have Asperger's?" Does Camus really think we're all in the same existential position as Meursault? Is he putting Meursault forward as an example of someone who copes well with the absurdity of life, or poorly? I feel like this is a book I needed to read with my AP English teacher on hand to explain the point to me.

I also think this book really let me down as an atheist who largely admires existentialist philosophy. Thanks, Camus, for furthering the idea that atheism involves trading in our moral compass for an utterly meaningless life! I actually think there's something really noble about the idea of creating our own meaning in the face of what Meursault calls "the blind indifference of the world." But Meursault doesn't create any meaning, and there's certainly nothing noble about him. I don't know much about absurdism, but it seems closer to nihilism than existentialism than me. And we all know what nihilists are like.

So, LJ friends, what am I missing about The Stranger? What makes this book an unforgettable classic?

* Or is it? All the other books I've read this year have featured protagonists so nice they beggar belief.

Reading log: The Fault in Our Stars

Confession time: I've been following the Vlogbrothers on YouTube since 2007. It's a video blog done collaboratively by two brothers and definitely aimed at a more teenagery audience than me, but I enjoy their videos.

One of the brothers is a fairly successful author of young adult fiction, and a couple weeks ago he released his latest novel, The Fault in Our Stars. The book is about a 16-year-old girl with terminal cancer and opens on the day that she meets a hot, albeit one-legged, 17-year-old boy at cancer support group.

It's definitely a much more entertaining book than that suggests, though, and contains many more madcap adventures than you'd expect a terminally ill girl to be having.

The teenagers in Green's novel definitely seem a little too smart and eloquent and witty to me -- I'm sure I wasn't as erudite as Hazel or Augustus when I was 16. Then again, I remember once reading Orson Scott Card defending Ender's Game against the same charge; he said (and I'm paraphrasing) that it always seems to be adults who feel the teenager characters are unrealistically smart; teenagers themselves find them to ring true. When I read that as a teenager I nodded my head sagely. So maybe all this really says is that the perennial gap of understanding between teenagers and non-teenagers hasn't gone away since I crossed to the grownup side.

My favorite quote from the book is this one, in which the narrator is remembering a memorable event:
I could imagine it. I could remember it. But I couldn't see it again, and it occurred to me that the voracious ambition of humans is never sated by dreams coming true, because there is always the thought that everything might be done better and again.

Perhaps it doesn't mean as much out of context, but that really rang true to me. I have always been too easily derailed by nostalgia and what-ifs; it's easy to fall into thinking that life would be perfect if only x occurred. But really, when x occurs, all we end up doing is wishing it would happen slightly differently or would happen again or would keep happening forever. Yad aniccam tam dukkham -- what is impermanent is unsatisfactory. And everything is impermanent.

Reading log: Blackout/All Clear

My mother recently started a blog about books she's reading, and while I am not likely to write book reviews with that level of thoughtfulness, I thought I could use this heretofore underutilized blog to jot down notes on what I read.

My first books of the year were Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis. Both books are set in the same universe as one of my favorite books of all time, Doomsday Book -- which is to say, the world of c. 2060, in which Oxford grad students study history by making field trips using a time machine. While Doomsday Book is set mostly in the Middle Ages, Blackout/All Clear are set in World War II England.

I'd never though much about the Londoners who didn't evacuate during the Blitz. It's hard for me even to imagine the mindset that would allow you to wake up every morning and go in to work as a shopgirl on Oxford Street while every night your neighborhood is being bombed. Wouldn't you leave? Even if you didn't know anyone outside London or have a job lined up, wouldn't you try heading somewhere else and figure you might be homeless but at least you'd be alive? When I mentioned this to a friend he said, Staying in London wasn't brave; it was stupid. I hadn't actually suggested that it WAS brave; I don't have any idea what to consider it. I just think it's crazy that people are so adaptable we apparently get used to living in war zones.

The other notable thing about these books is that they're looooong. 1147 pages total. That's more than half the TOTAL number of pages I managed to read last year.* So I guess I'm off to a good start.

* At least, if the only books I read were the ones I read on my phone (i.e., The Remains of the Day; Will Grayson, Will Grayson; Hyperion; The Graveyard Book; Never Let Me Go; and Wicked). I may have read other ones on actual paper, but I don't remember.

[Former] Vatican Observatory director connects science, religion

Here's an interview I did for The Valley Catholic way back in March 2001. Father Coyne is now retired as head of the Vatican Observatory. I enjoyed this interview and found the part about what the church can learn from the Galileo controversy particularly interesting.

Vatican Observatory director connects science, religion
By Marjorie Carlson

Jesuit Father George V. Coyne is the director of the Vatican Observatory, and astronomical research institute with headquarters in the pope's summer residence at Castel Gandolofo and a second research institute in Tucson, Ariz. Father Coyne's work takes him frequently back and forth between the two.

"I also have time to do my own research," Father Coyne said. "I have a doctorate in astronomy, so I try to keep up my interest in the field, doing research into binary stars. And I teach at the University of Arizona; I've been on the faculty there since before I went to the Vatican Observatory."

What drew you into the field of astronomy?

[Marjorie's note: as I recall, his first answer to this question was a guffaw and an explanation that a young Jesuit's field of study is chosen by the order, not by himself.]

As a young Jesuit I had a professor of Greek who also had a master's degree in mathematics, and he interested me in the sciences in general. Even in high school I leaned towards being interested in the sciences, but it was only in my first years of studies as a Jesuit that I developed that interest more. So the Jesuit superiors eventually sent me to study astronomy.

What is your interest in the relationship between science and religion?

It's rather natural for a Jesuit who's been trained through the seminary in philosophy and theology and then who does a doctorate in the sciences to have some interest in how all of these fields relate to one another. That comes naturally to someone with our education.

But for me, I particularly took an interest when I became director of the Vatican Observatory. I became director the same year Pope John Paul II became pope. (In fact, I was appointed by his predecessor, who only lived for a month and whom I never met, but who appointed me through Jesuit superiors.)

From the very beginning of his papacy, Pope John Paul II wanted to establish a vital and interesting dialogue between the world of science and the church. Within a few years he established a commission to investigate the Galileo affair. That stimulated my personal interest as well as the interest of the observatory.

As early as 1987 we started a series of conferences among scholars (not a layman's dialogue, though it has its influence on the life of lay people) to bring together scholars in philosophy, theology, and a particular field of science, to discuss issues that overlapped.

We discussed matters such as the beginning of the universe as scientists see it and as it is known from Scripture and theology; evolution; the nature of the human person and the neurosciences.

We had a series of five conferences over the past ten years concerning those topics, and there are five volumes that have been published as a result, containing papers by all of the participants.

What has been your involvement in the Galileo controversies?

The pope appointed a commission in 1988 to study the Galileo affair. I served on the group discussing the scientific and epistemological issues surrounding the controversy. I'm not a historian of science, but I became interested in the Galileo affair through that.

I did some study and organized some discussion groups with scholars in the area, and also served on the commission. We published a series of papers on Galileo: Galileo and the proofs for the heliocentric (or sun-centered) system, and so on.

What are some lessons the church of today could learn from the Galileo affair?

The lesson to be learned from the Galileo case is that there will be no productive dialogue between science and religion if ignorance dominates either one side or the other -- or both.

I think the church should learn, from the Galileo case and from other circumstances, that listening is as important as speaking. That is, hearing what scientists are really doing is as important as the church speaking out on many issues.

The church of those days was ignorant both of Scripture and of science, frankly. Galileo wrote his famous letter to the Duchess Christina, which anticipated by 400 years the church's statements on the interpretation of sacred Scripture: that Scripture is not a science textbook and that -- as Galileo said -- Scripture teaches us not how the heavens go but how to go to heaven.

The church should also learn from those circumstances to let scientific research mature before making a declaration about it. To declare that the heliocentric system was heretical because it contradicted Scripture was jumping ahead of the game.

What the church should have done in those days was nothing! No one knew enough to say anything yet.

There were no proofs for a sun-centered solar system, but Galileo was a renowned international scholar and he had persuasive evidence. Why not let it go on until conclusive evidence is found?

To cut off mature research being done by responsible and renowned intellectuals is wrong. There's a lesson the church can always learn: don't speak out when you don't have to speak out, and if you're going to speak out, base your doctrinal and moral statements upon good science rather than poor science.

What about scientific issues, such as genetic research, where there are ethical implications to what the scientific community is doing?

Those are much more difficult situations and I thank the Lord I'm not in them! Whether the universe is 15 billion or 12 billion years old has, I think, no ethical implications. But molecular evolutionary biology -- genetics -- certainly does.

The only general statement I can make, since I'm not in that field, is that the church should have people who can advise it on the best scientific knowledge available, so that ethical conclusions are based upon good science.

For instance, I think it is poor science to say that there is a magical moment when the human being comes to be. The generation of a human being is a continuous process, from conception through now. (Hopefully I'm still growing as a human being)

The whole process is sacred and a gift of God, from the faith standpoint. But scientifically, it's continuity. There is no magical moment when God steps in and says, "Now we have a human being."

The theological doctrine of God directly creating the human soul has to be rethought. I'm not saying denied or thrown overboard, but rethought in terms of modern science.

The meaning of God directly creating a human soul -- when that happens, if it happens -- they're difficult questions, but my point is that to do it ignorant of the best that science has to say is bound to create immense difficulties for the church.

[We then talked for a bit about their visiting scholars program -- irrelevant now.]

Why is it important for the church to be so involved in scientific research?

The church isn't "so" involved! It's a very minor involvement -- there are ten Jesuits involved. The observatory is unique; there's no other specific research institute sponsored by the Vatican. It's a tradition that has been established from the time of the reform of the calendar in the 16th century.

Why should the church do it? It may seem strange to say, this but because it has done it. The church has set up a long tradition of quality contributions to science, and that continues, in my estimation, to be a quality contribution. The observatory produces a great deal, both in science and in the dialogue between science and religion.

It's low cost, and it allows the church to be seen as seriously interested in the sciences, just as the Vatican museum shows that the church is seriously interested in the arts.

The church can't do everything -- it's a church! Its primary objective is to preach God's love and God's word. To the extent that we can share in that mission as scientists, I think it's a good thing to do.