Why I love MOOCs

Back in high school and college, I would wonder why choosing one subject meant not choosing others. If I pick Physics, it meant I couldn’t study History or Psychology. I would think of the students abroad who, when you ask what they study, say something like Astrophysics and Greek, or Music and Political Science.
Yes, I hear you. “If you are motivated enough, you will learn it yourself.” True, but where does one start? Yes, Google is our best friend and we have evolved to find our way through a labyrinth of links – reading and learning, picking and dropping things along the way. There is a rush to these unique journeys. My “link journey” in learning something could be different from yours. I might have started with “how tall was Napolean” and ended up in quotes by Louis XVI.
But if you are looking for focus and structure, a Massively Open Online Course is a good bet. Thousands of other students doing the course, completely free, and great resources from some of the top universities in the world. It is almost too good to be true.
When I first found out about this, I went crazy signing up for courses from Songwriting to Psychology to E-learning. After the initial insanity had passed, I took a deep breath and looked at the time needed to do all these courses. They lasted from 5 weeks to 2 months or more. To get the most of each course, I needed to pick wisely and drop some courses. And so it started.
When I couldn’t catch up on all the lectures, I took my time to finish each one by paying attention. This meant giving up on the certification from the university as the course was long gone while I was still listening to some lectures. When I did complete the course, I was quite proud of myself.
 I am not always able to complete all the assignments, or get very involved in the discussion forums, but I did find the resources priceless in opening my mind. And that is what learning should do, right?

The girl with the brown crayon

The girl with the brown crayon – how children use stories to shape their lives

The girl with the brown crayon

I picked up this unassuming book merely for the intriguing tagline – ‘how children use stories to shape their lives’. Stories did always fascinate us, when we were kids, and of course even now. I wondered what this girl with the brown crayon did…so I flipped to the first page, and read about a little five year old girl who fell in love with a character in a book…Frederick the mouse. This friendship of hers with a character from a book starts off a journey of learning that nobody had quite expected.

The beauty of this book is that it’s the true story of what happened in a preschool classroom.The day Mrs. Paley brought out Frederick to read aloud to her little students, a discussion begins. A discussion that goes on beyond the classroom, beyond the boundaries of age, colour and  curriculum.

Leo Lionni is the creator of the said character. It all starts when Mrs. Paley decides to read through most of Leo Lionni’s books over a period of a year, the year which is to be her last year as a preschool teacher. The children go back and forth between the stories, and discuss them as if these characters are partakers in these sessions. This mouse is like that fish, they say…or our friend Walter reminds us of this character.

Bright-eyed Reeny is the girl with the brown crayon, making statements of philosophical depth that leave Mrs. Paley pleasantly surprised…there are times when she can’t wait what Reeny will say when she reads out a new book. Does Reeny identify with the story? Does she think the story could have ended some other way? For Reeny has a way of reviewing these stories with sensitivity and brilliance. There are times she will even empathise with the author and explain to the class why he might have led the characters one way and not the other.

The journey brings in many travellers along the way…storytellers who bring in new opportunities for children to continue this string of reflections. A mother comes in and talks about her childhood, a grandmother talks about Harriet Tubman and slavery. An Indian teacher narrates the special powers of the monkey prince, Hanuman.

And the rewardees are many. Teachers who have learnt from children, the lessons of life. Children who have opened their eyes to themselves and their friends.

How is this episode any different from what would take place in any other preschool classroom?

For one, the teacher experimenting with books from the same author, thus building a premise for the children to reflect on the author’s intent, as well as find the freedom to imagine alternatives, and most of all, relate to them and befriend the characters that bounce off the books into their very lives.

A touching account of what can happen when one digs into the heart of a simple story.