MOOCing around

This post is long overdue but I have barely had a day off in weeks (or possibly months). It is mid afternoon now, I have been at the library this morning and done my fair share of writing and editing, and now I am home with my feet up – with some time for myself to spare. I wanted to write about our new-found love for learning thanks to MOOCs, and then focus a bit on the experience of being engaged in one on-going one (rather than creepily reading but never posting).

MOOC stands for Massively Open Online Course, and these days you can find a MOOC on pretty much anything: from writing style to programming, business skills to Spanish grammar. For hungry learners like myself and my wife, the invention of MOOCs is one of the best things to have ever happened since sliced bread. Whilst a Mongrel PhD (and hence having limited time for anything and everything), I love to read about pretty much anything that appears interesting. The latest book I’ve read is Freakonomics, and next in my list is Gut – and I won a Waterstones gift card at an event the other day, so I am confident that I will be reading about my stomach soon! And I am a Catalan and Russian literature scholar, so the fields could not be more far apart. Having the chance to do a MOOC in something right up my alley is definitely a joyous feeling.

In the last couple of weeks, following a MOOC has been a great way to enjoy rainy afternoons, and since winter is coming to Glasgow, I foresee more opportunities to work on this very soon. My wife is very interested in maths, so she has been doing some work with a pre-university algebra course. I have been working with two very different topics: The Science of Everyday Thinking, and How to Survive Your PhD. The latter is an obvious choice as it is run by The Thesis Whisperer and her elves, and I am pretty much a fan of her work. The former is perhaps a bit of an odd choice, but I am actually really enjoying it, and it has made me think a lot about some things I had assumed as a given, it’s challenging me to find some alternatives to a few ingrained yet ineffective practices, and of course, it has me longing for more books to read. My precious time, in tatters when thinking about all the books I want to read.

One of the great things about this course is that it is mainly about thinking: about how the mind works, and how we think we are in control of some things that we really have no control of (like some choices), and how our mind is capable of tricking us into certain perceptions. The challenge comes with accepting these inaccuracies, and trying harder to engage with our thinking selves – the ‘slow thinking’ that Dan Kahneman talks about in his book Thinking Fast and Slow (which is also in my wishlist). That stuff really fascinates me, so it comes at no surprise that I am really enjoying it.

The other course I am involved in, How to Survive Your PhD, really is a different matter altogether. The sense of community that it is creating is absolutely fantastic. There are many ways to get involved, and social media really makes it feel as it thousands of PhDs are talking in one big room, and all issues are shared and dealt with, and everyone feels free to tell their story. The latest content is on Confidence, and it mainly deals with the all too common Imposter Syndrome. I feel I know my fair share of that since I am self-funded and a part-timer, which already means I was not trusted from the very beginning that my research topic was going to be a valid contribution to my institution and/or the British funding body that did not fund me. No biggie. On the brighter side, I have received two very prestigious awards by the most important Catalan cultural body there is, so I trust my research is relevant and to the right standard to the right people. But it takes a big toll at times to deal with the fear that you’re not quite as good as everybody else. Then another issue I tend to have is overconfidence, to compensate for the bad thoughts that sometimes populate my mind, and I tend to forget that there should be a balance, and nothing is black or white. With time, anything is manageable. After three years of research and another two to come, I believe Resilience is already my second name.

To sum up, I am loving the MOOC experience, and I encourage everybody to give it a try. The least expected course might actually really engage your senses. As for my feelings towards How to Survive Your PhD, it is great to see that I am not the only Mongrel PhD out there. And we kick ass!