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Never-Ending Learning

Never-Ending Learning
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BY MARY JANE HORTON

By mid-life most of us have put our college days behind us. Sure, we may take a local continuing education class here and there – and the quality of those classes will certainly depend on where you live and what kinds of classes you can access.

But now the paradigm has changed. In a big way. Coursera, www.coursera.org/, a company developed by two computer science professors from Stanford, partners with 35 colleges and universities from eight different countries to offer classes online – for free. It is a bold, new innovation in education: so far, according to the Coursera website, over a 1.5 million students from 96 countries have taken classes. And the company has only been up and running since April, 2012.

Just last month Coursera doubled its roster of colleges and universities offering classes.  Now these include: Brown University, Columbia University, Emory University, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Stanford, Penn State, and Wesleyan. So, sitting in the privacy or your own home, you can take a class from a world-renowned expert in one of many fields. Classes, or

MOOC’s as they are called, massive open online courses, are offered in disciplines including: biology and life science, many different aspect of computer science, education, food and nutrition, literature, math, medicine, music, film and much more. A combination of video lectures, real-time presentations, and self-guided readings and activities are how the classes are taught, making it perfect for people with busy, unpredictable schedules. Basically you can “tune into” your class as you would tune into a television show or read a class. And, for people who may have too much time on their hands, some of the classes become instant community.

I have found that community – an overwhelming large and welcoming community in the poetry class I have been taking – Modern and Contemporary Poetry, or Modpo as it is affectionately called.  This community includes over 30,000 people from all over the world, and a Facebook group with over 3,000 people. It includes Dick Durbin, the Senate Majority Whip, who has voiced his dissatisfaction with higher education today. And it is engaging, really engaging.

Al Filreis, a Kelly Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, is a true rock star of poetry. Most of the class is taught by him and five teaching assistants sitting around a table and talking about poems. Well, not just talking about poems. Parsing them out word by word and getting to crux of them. What did the writer mean? What was the context of the poem in society of the time? So interesting. Here is one example,  “Red Wheelbarrow,” by William Carlos Williams:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

It seems incomprehensible on first read, but with Al and the TAs talking about it, it starts to make sense. It is known as a “perfect poem,” they say, and talk about a simple scene of beauty – the juxtaposition of the red of the wheelbarrow with the white of the chickens – being a joy forever. They talk about the simplicity of this quiet, domestic moment that Williams describes. Perhaps it is nostalgic for him, maybe harkening back at a simpler time. And the phrase “so much depends upon,” is fraught with meaning and perhaps it is metapoetic (a word I learned in this class that means poetry that talks about poetry) and means the content of the poem depends on the form. There are no right answers, just interpretations. No matter how difficult the material is – and Gertrude Stein for instance is difficult – Al and the TAs can make sense it is. With humor and grace.

And that’s not all. At the end of the last live broadcast, Al – who amazingly posts quite a bit on the Facebook page and knows what is happening with the students – gave a shout out to one lone woman in South Africa. He explained that she wrote to him saying that she has poor energy and mobility because she has fibromyalgia, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. And her medications make her fuzzy. “She has to study at her own pace and she can with us,” he said. “And she writes that the opportunity to learn poetry in this rich environment is exactly what she needed… She began the class totally terrified of everyone and everything and the first two weeks were overwhelming.” But now, she is having fun. And – as Al related – that is a big thing for her. And at the close, he and all of the TAs applauded her, actually applauded, her “and everyone else who is far flung and for other reasons unable to learn poetry.”  And it was at that moment that I realized I am part of a cultural phenomenon so profound that it will surely change – or add to – the landscape of higher education, maybe even society as a whole, forever.

Mary Jane Horton has been a writer/editor for 30 years. She has written for such magazines as Runner’s World, Fodor’s Guides, Time, Ms., Shape, Prevention, Living Fit, Woman’s Day special interest publications, to name a few, and worked as an editor for Fit Pregnancy magazine. Most recently she was editor in chief of Plum magazine, a health and lifestyle magazine for women over 35.

 

 

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Mary Jane Horton
Mary Jane Horton has been a writer/editor for 30 years. She has written
 for such magazines as Runner’s World, Fodor’s Guides, Time, Ms., Shape, Prevention, Living Fit, Woman’s Day special interest publications, to name a few, and worked as an editor for Fit Pregnancy magazine. Most recently she was editor in chief of Plum magazine, a health and lifestyle magazine for women over 35. She can be found at maryjanehorton.com.