MOOCing for fun (and profit?)

Last year I read an in­ter­est­ing blog post that taught me the name for some­thing I’d been hear­ing more and more about for a while: MOOCs (“Massive Open Online Courses”). You know, they’re those on­line class­es that you can take, of­fered by uni­ver­si­ties like StanfordHarvard and oth­ers — plus a host of pri­vate com­pa­nies — typ­i­cal­ly for free and with­out cred­it. Oh, and across an ab­solute met­ric fuck­ton of topics.

Yesterday, set­ting aside any traces of an um-yeah-I-already-finished-college-thank-you at­ti­tude, I spent some time pok­ing around MOOC List — an ex­ten­sive ag­gre­ga­tor of avail­able class­es — and found some­thing that caught my eye: Intro to the Design of Everyday Things, taught by Don Norman, au­thor of that book you may have seen on my din­ing room ta­ble, wait­ing pa­tient­ly to be read, for a lit­tle while now. (Okay, Amazon says it’s been over two years.)

So I’m tak­ing Don’s class now, and while I’m not sure if I’ve had my eyes opened to any tru­ly new con­cepts yet, I’ve picked up a cou­ple of terms: “af­for­dance” and “sig­ni­fi­er.” And to fin­ish off Lesson 1, I’m cur­rent­ly on the look­out for a sig­ni­fi­er to pho­to­graph, cri­tique and improve.

So, why Intro to the Design of Everyday Things? I can ac­tu­al­ly share the an­swer I post­ed to the class forum:

I’m tak­ing this class be­cause, as a copy­writer whose opin­ions on the fin­ished prod­uct tend to ex­tend a bit be­yond my spe­cif­ic area of ex­per­tise, I’d like a more sol­id ground­ing in these oth­er areas.

Basically, soon I’ll be telling you why I’m right about even more things, us­ing all the right terms. Look out.

Not everyone’s a critic

As a kid, I hat­ed “crit­i­cal think­ing” questions.

I didn’t know what the term even meant, but what I did know was that about a third of the ques­tions at the end of each chap­ter in my school text­books were “crit­i­cal think­ing” ques­tions. I’d read the as­signed text — well, usu­al­ly — but skim­ming the chap­ter for key words would mag­i­cal­ly re­veal the an­swers… at least for all the nor­mal questions.

In what year did Napolean what­ev­er? I knew the hack for that: scan the text for numbers.

My goal was to get my work done as quick­ly as pos­si­ble, be­cause the draw of TV time at home, and “free time” in class was strong. Critical think­ing was an an­noy­ing road­block to very im­por­tant leisure. I just want­ed to get done.

As an adult, I take my time when I work — I just try not to com­plete­ly Douglas Adams my dead­lines, if you catch my drift. Quality is im­por­tant (al­though it’s on­ly job two), and if I fin­ish some­thing ear­ly, odds are it could use some more thought, an­oth­er look to­mor­row with fresh eyes, or some­thing like that.

There re­al­ly is no prize for fin­ish­ing first.

I re­al­ize now that the crit­i­cal think­ing ques­tions were the on­ly ones that ever re­al­ly mat­tered. Teachers prob­a­bly told us that, but it didn’t mean any­thing at the time. And when I look around to­day, I get the sense that to a lot of my peers, it still doesn’t.