Sunday, August 1, 2010

Learning stuff online

The web is a great resource when it comes to learning stuff. Google has become my default reference library for everything from DIY projects to black holes. But as much as I like the immediacy of information that the web provides, the lack of coherent presentation and the ease with which one enquiry can lead to another is not always conducive to in-depth learning. One of my defining traits as a person is that I find everything interesting. The web’s very structure panders to my tendency to follow every thread to its next logical point. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time on Wikipedia going from one article to the next (starting with Pluto and ending with spaghetti) will know what I mean.
One strategy I’ve developed over the years to make sure my focus stays in one place long enough to learn something is to take a course.  I’ve taken a number of courses (university and otherwise) in a number of subjects and I will continue to do so.  A course brings me the structure I would otherwise lack.  Scheduled class time and assignments deadlines ensure that I will put in the work, do the reading and show up to learn…  otherwise I could easily get interested in something else (or, worse, spend my time writing poetry).  I find that the time requirements for a single course are usually manageable and allow me plenty of free time to explore other interests as they arise.
This summer I’m taking my first online course. It’s a course in electro-acoustic composition from Simon-Frasier University.  Here is the first composition I produced for this course:
Sans jamais, ni demain
It’s more of a study than a full-out creative outburst…  but I still like it.  I made used of my previously mentioned loop-making technique to create this song using only vocal sound source.
This online learning experience has been very positive so far. In fact, I’m thinking of taking more online courses in the future.
One concern I have is getting my money’s worth. The web is notorious for education scams luring suckers to spend good money on digitized copies of public domain books. Although I think I’m a rather sophisticated web reader and I wouldn’t fall for most of the scams out there, I’m sure there are sophisticated thieves devising sophisticated scams. In the words of an old friend who has since disappeared: just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you.
Another issue is finding courses.  It’s easy enough to find courses on topics that already interest me.  For instant, I was able to find the following music courses without too much trouble:
Music for the Media
Sound Design for the Electronic Musician
Sound Design
All expensive, but certainly interesting.  The web page for the second one features an endorsement apparently from the professor of my current course. 
But, what about all the stuff out there that might interest me, even though I don’t currently know that it does/might/will?  What am I missing out on?  How do I discover more online courses on topics I’m not even looking for?  Do I have to read through every university website?  Maybe.  I can also use Einztein.
Einztein (http://einztein.com/) is a directory of freely available course materials from universities worldwide.  Browsing through Einztein, I’ve created a shortlist of 27 courses that I’d like to take on subjects as varied as Astronomy (outside the solar system), Navigation, Calculus, Information, News writing, Filmmaking, Photography, contemporary arts, jazz composition, typography, ear training, screenwriting and more (including furniture making).
What materials you get vary from course to course and from university to university.  Sometimes, you get only a syllabus, a reading list and assignments.  Sometimes, you get video of every lecture.  You never know what you're going to get.  It’s like a box of chocolates.  For the mind.
The course I’m most excited about is one on Douglas Hofstadter’s Gõdel, Escher, Bach from MIT.  I can’t wait to read that wonderful book once again with the aid of someone who’s put considerably more time than I’ll ever have learning the concepts it presents.  Good times.