Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Judging What Is Real: Part II

A continuation, if I may.

It is interesting that while I was mulling around the contents of yesterday's post in my head, something happened that made me want to extend the topic of what constitutes as real.

This weekend I started my first Coursera course, and I was incredibly excited. It's given by Caltech, and is about Drugs and the Brain. I need a good refresher course in neuroscience, as I haven't even looked at it since my first year in college (when I was not a good student at all, thanks depression!), as I only did a very specific neurobiology course in my last year. It's all stuff that can be useful to me in my career and PhD, so I signed up, took my little notebook out and almost nostalgically started taking notes while watching one of the mini lectures during my lunch break. A colleague of mine saw me at in, right in the middle of copying down and trying to make sure I understood a physics equation (something I haven't studied since my second year in high school, so I really needed a refresher there), when she asked me astonishedly: you're taking notes?! For a coursera course??!! 

I replied well... yes! Of course I am! how else am I going to learn enough and pass the exam! To which she replied but.... it's all fake! What are you doing that for?!

Here I was befuddled and quite a bit miffed. Never mind that she knows exactly what coursera is, what it's about and at least said that she thought was absolutely brilliant. Never mind that she knows full well that these courses are offered by some of the most prestigious universtities in the world. And yes, this specific course is relatively brief and might not earn us an unofficial certificate of completion, but what about all of this makes the course "fake"?

What is so "fake" about knowledge?

Is it because the course is not one that carries university credit, and therefore cannot be used towards getting an official degree from Caltech? But then does that make any class that someone audits "fake"?

Is it because it is not a course that is directly improving my career chances? But does that make her own pursuit of her second degree in archaeology, despite being a biologist, "fake"?

What is so fake about learning?

It really comes down to what your priorities are, when it comes to deciding what you think is "real" and "fake". She obviously gives far more importance to officiality, and what others will officially recognize as something that you have done. I understand that coursera is new and relatively open in structure, there has been no standardization of course structure or examination, there is no way of comparing how strict or lax the grading method is, and therefore as of now is not as "offical" as it could be. Nevertheless, it is still education, it is still knowledge and it is still something I want to learn. I may not get an unofficial certificate of completion, but the knowledge that I gain from this course could really help me explore other avenues of research, or make me be able to hold my own in an interview in which knowledge of these things is required. To me, that makes this course very real indeed.

Officiality is, in my opinion, extremely limited. There are diploma mills out there that have not yet been discovered, where you can buy a degree without putting in a day's work. Less obivous are universities (and some high schools) which are exceedlingly expensive but also pathetically easy, which require next to no work to complete so long as there is a healthy influx of cash. Some may officially recognize certificates from these institutions, but to me they are the real "fakes" here. 

Where do your priorities lie when it comes to deciding what is real, and what is fake?


  1. Hi, long time no visit, just enjoyed catching up with your thoughts...and this particular post inspired a quick re-reading of Huxley's The Doors of Perception...good stuff, anyone with similar experiences/experimentation in their past can hopefully appreciate it equally...oh, and happy belated birthday!

    1. MC! Going through my old posts I was reading you comments. I miss you as a commenter :)