Archive for the 'education' Category


Newest course: Philosophy and the Sciences


A few weeks ago I finished my most recent Coursera class, Philosophy and the Sciences.

It was an interesting look at the intersection between the “meta-investigation” of philosophy and “hard” science in two areas. From the course description they were:

  • Philosophy of cosmology, where we’ll consider questions about the origin and evolution of our universe, the nature of dark energy and dark matter and the role of anthropic reasoning in the explanation of our universe
  • Philosophy of neurosciences, where we’ll consider the nature of human cognition and the relation between mind, machines, and the environment.

I liked the first cosmological section most, and enjoyed the paper we were required to write.


Coursera – The American South: Its Stories, Music, and Art

I love the blues. It would be the single musical form I’d pick if I could listen to only one for the rest of my life. It gave rise to rock ‘n’ roll, and is amongst the most human of art forms, I think.


But I thought it would be interesting to learn more about the art forms from the area that gave birth to the blues. So I just completed a six-week Coursera course called The American South: Its Stories, Music, and Art.

It was really enjoyable, and a lot more leisurely than some of the maths or programming courses I’ve done. Here’s the syllabus:

  • Week One: Introduction to the American South – Reflecting on geography, the diaspora, the mythic and the global South as ways to approach the contested memory of the region
  • Week Two: Oral Traditions – Considering the content and form of the stories, toasts, dozens, auctions and religious sermons and what they reveal about Southern Culture
  • Week Three: Southern Artists – Understanding the distinction between folk art traditions and the high art of the academy with examples of basket-weaving, quilt-making, sculpture, painting, and photography
  • Week Four: Southern Writers – Examining the lives and works of great Southern writers and looking at how specific stories, music, and art are referenced and provide structure for literary forms such as the novel and the short story
  • Week Five: Roots Music – Exploring southern music and its roots in work chants, fife and drum, and one-strand on the wall musics
  • Week Six: The Blues – Focusing on this distinctive form of music, so intimately defined by sense of place, class, race, and tradition

The lecturer was Dr. William Ferris of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and he was a really pleasant and interesting instructor. I’d recommend this course for anyone interested in the American South’s culture.


Another Coursera course: Foundations of Business Strategy


I can’t get enough of the free online education at Coursera. Each class I take continues to be more challenging than I expect.

I’ve just completed Foundations of Business Strategy, a 6-week class taught by Professor Michael Lenox at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. To get a passing grade we had to complete weekly quizzes, write a short strategy recommendation paper for a company of our choosing, and participate in the online student forums. It showed me that analysing a business strategy can be a lot more quantitative than I believed.

It’s the first course I’ve taken that can be directly useful at work rather than a class I’ve taken just for my own interest.


I’m volunteering for secular ethics instruction in primary schools

ethicsI didn’t go to school here in Australia, but I’m starting to learn more about it.

Public schools here in New South Wales provide, in an example of separation of church and state, only secular instruction. However I’ve learned that they are also required to make time and facilities available each week for Special Religious Education (SRE). This isn’t comparative religious studies, it’s actual religious instruction – not by a teacher, but by a person authorised to teach the articles of faith of that religion, like a priest or an imam.

Most schools call this “Scripture class”. Across the state the majority of SRE classes are Christian, though in cities like Sydney there’s enough multiculturalism that there are plenty of Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, and other classes.

If a parent doesn’t want their child to attend any SRE class in their school they can opt their child out. In that case they attend “Non-scripture”, sometimes called “colouring-in” because they’re often discouraged from doing extra work that would put them – during school hours – at an advantage to those who are in SRE.

A few years ago some people decided there should be another option for those kids that weren’t in SRE; that they could be taught secular, philosophical ethics in school, without the need for a religious framework. That program is now being offered at a growing number of NSW schools, and it’s called Primary Ethics. It teaches primary-age kids how to think about ethical questions like: is it ever right to lie? How can you tell when someone’s really your friend? Why do we eat some animals and not others?

I thought this was a great idea. If schools are compelled to allow for religious instruction then I think it’s only fair that a non-religious option for learning ethics should also be made available.

I’m not in the classrooms teaching it, but I am the volunteer Ethics Coordinator for a primary school here on Sydney’s northern beaches. That means I’ll ensure the ethics teachers have completed their training before they go in front of any classes, and I’ll work with the school to ensure we have enough classes and rooms to meet the demand of parents who want their kids in Ethics.

I’m looking forward to getting involved in the community, and learning more about this state’s educational system.


New Coursera course: International Human Rights Law

I’ve registered to take another free Coursera online course, but decided against something technical or mathematical this time (mainly because I won’t have as much time to do weekly assignments). So this week I begin International Human Rights Law: Prospects and Challenges from Duke University.

This course introduces the international and domestic laws, institutions, and legal and political theories that protect basic liberties of all human beings.  The course provides an overview of the internal law of human rights and the principal mechanisms and strategies for holding governments accountable for violating those rights.



I’m taking a Coursera course


Coursera is a year-old American internet company that gets world-class university professors to run free, massive online courses that anyone can sign up for. They’re the largest online provider of free courses now, with tens of thousands of people signing up for courses. You can learn more about Coursera here.

I signed up for an 8-week course in Data Analysis which started this week. I did this for my own interest and because it’s good for me to challenge myself once in a while.

I’ve found the experience really interesting and engaging. The professor’s videos are extensive but focused. You can stop and start them whenever you like, and there are HTML and PDF versions of the course notes to download. This course has an online quiz every week, and will have a couple of full-on assignments that get graded. There are too many participants to interact directly with the prof, but there are extensive online discussion forums where we students can communicate with each other.

The first week was actually quite challenging, much harder than I thought it would be. Luckily the quiz wasn’t timed. I was able to get a good score on it so I feel I absorbed the info (I have some background in statistics and programming which helps a lot). While I wouldn’t be taking this if I was worried about employers recognising the Coursera qualification – most do not – I’m very glad that I enrolled. I’m really going to learn something.


Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide

Last year I took a short philosophy course called Philosophy For Change. I enjoyed it a great deal; it was the first treatment of philosophy I’d encountered which framed it in a practical light. This isn’t so surprising, perhaps, when you consider that philosophical exercises were once considered to be very practical tools for figuring out how one should live one’s life.

The lecturer for that course – Tim Rayner – has now published a book on the exercises he teaches. It’s called Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide. If the content of my previous posts about the course interests you, or you’re wonder how something we normally perceive as very abstract might be a useful tool for dealing with change, take a look.


Philosophy for change: the next three classes

I’ve completed six of the eight classes in my Philosophy For Change evening course. I summarised the first three here.

Class 4 was about Nietzsche and empowerment. Nietzsche said that empowerment is about one’s capacity for life, action and experience; the more you think, feel, do and be the more fulfilled a life you’ll lead (and this is how we avoid being gripped by nihilism). Nietzsche’s lessons can therefore be seen as:

  1. When confronted with change, ask, “How can I draw on my own strengths to make this an opportunity?”
  2. To maximise our chances at doing 1. we need to cultivate a diverse range of personal powers, not just focus on one set.

The practical exercise in this class was based on Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal return: first recall some good things that have happened to you, then think whether you’d still find those things good if they happened to you over and over for eternity. If you don’t want them to happen forever then maybe they’re not the very best experiences.

Class 5 was about friendship and empowerment. It used ideas from Spinoza : that everything is either empowered or disempowered through interactions with other things, and that you can tell when the interaction is empowering by how the thing is affected (i.e., if you’re always grumpy after talking to a person, then they are not an empowering interaction for you). It went on to postulate that in your interactions with other people you discover new things – new capabilities – in yourself. The more diverse your social contacts, the more you find out and develop about yourself, and the more competent you’ll be at handling change. The exercise made you consider social groups that made you uncomfortable, but then reflect on what strengths those social groups have, and whether they’re strengths you’d also like to have.

Class 6 got into political philosophy, and concepts of leadership and social change. Another Spinozan idea: that leadership is bottom-up, and comes from the consensus and goodwill of the multitude. The class discussed whether communication tools like the internet are making this more possible than ever: Wikipedia, Linux, flickr, Twitter, YouTube, and WikiLeaks were given as examples. The exercise had the class break into groups, identify diverse strengths we thought we each had, and then brainstorm a new idea that used all those strengths in a collaborative way.

It’s starting to get a little preachy. I really liked class 5, though, about how important it is not to stick with just one social context of people.


Philosophy for Change: the course so far

I’m taking an eight-class night course at the University of Sydney called Philosophy For Change. I’ve been to three of the classes so far.

I took the class because I’m interested in philosophy, and because I was intrigued by the course outline’s description of a very practical course. It’s meant to give you tools – philosophical tools, of course – for dealing with change. The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers used to “live” their beliefs, after all: to them, philosophy was a very practical exercise. And who couldn’t use a little change management skill?

As a result, each class contains a practical exercise. In the first class we used the example of Marcus Aurelius who would talk himself out of missing the comforts of home by reducing those comforts to their strict, physical bases.

In the second class we developed the idea of existential courage, and the now-common (though seldom practiced) notion of living each day as if it were your last. I like Kierkegaard’s idea that life compels you to decide how you’re going to live; I dislike Sartre’s ideas of people’s ontological difference from things. But I did like our exercise of actually identifying the things we’d regret not doing if we were told we had 24 hours to live.

In the third class we looked at the Stoics’ emphasis on self-control. I totally buy the ideal that all you can control is your judgment, and don’t get worked up about stuff you can’t control. Our exercise was to identify some of these things. I also like the Stoics because I’m a complete compatibilist. But I think the ancient Stoic view of the universe as a reasoning entity is pointless.

Like all short courses it’s a very quick run through each idea; we really don’t get much time to test out each concept. But having the practical exercise each class really grounds everything. It’s pretty effective for a course that’s meant to be able to help you approach change in your life.


Taking another philosophy course

When I was in London I felt the need to challenge my brain in some ways that were very different from how it was challenged in my day-to-day work.

I decided then to do some evening continuing education courses at the University of London. I took one short course in the psychology of advertising, but I took several in philosophy, eventually earning a certificate in the latter topic.

I really enjoyed those classes. Writing papers on Spinoza after wrangling with telecom customers all day made for a very refreshing change each week.

My brain could use exactly that sort of break again now. Also, some friends reminded me this week that I’d discussed doing this some time ago but had not yet done anything about it.

So yesterday I signed up for an 8-week night class in Philosophy for Change at the University of Sydney. It starts in August, and I’m very excited about it now.

There are one or two other phil courses they have that look good, too. After those I might move on to some other topic. But I’ll dust off my Heidegger first and see how I go.