Lately I feel like I’m back in school again. Not that it’s a bad thing, it’s just surreal. This morning I got up early (well, early for me) and headed over to my old university so I could take part in a research programme the psychology department is conducting. Anyone who has ever been a cash-strapped university student is probably familiar with these trials: They run the gamut from sociological experiments to drug testing. Basically, you volunteer to become a human lab rat.
The one I’m taking part in is pretty benign: some students have developed a language-learning game and need testers. Basically I go, play on the computer for half-an-hour, learn Spanish, and get paid five bucks for each visit.
Afterwards I came home, ate lunch, and wrote up my Dracula essay for the Coursera class I’m taking part in. Coursera is website affiliated with various top level universities like Stanford, Duke, and Princeton. Different classes are set up differently, but in the one I’m taking (‘Fantasy and science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World’) the lectures are uploaded and can be watched whenever you want. You’re also expected to write a 270-320 word mini-essay each week. Your essay is evaluated by four of your peers, and you likewise evaluate four essays.
It’s a pretty smart module. Aside from recording the lectures, the prof doesn’t have to do any of the heavy lifting: the grading is all done within the student body. Almost all of the reading can be found for free online, another smart move.
I’m really grateful for the chance to take part in both the Coursera and the Spanish study, though I know I’m not the only one benefiting from this partnership. The Spanish study is done in conjunction with a private company who will use the information gathered to build a better product. Coursera is also trying to shape a product, an online-learning module, which they can in turn sell to universities. In both cases I am as much a beta-tester as I am a student.
Which is fine with me. Sure my work is going to help a private company make more money, but it’s also
going to help craft a better language learning-game or way to teach courses online, both things I can get behind. I’m not so naive to believe that anything free is really free, but in this case the cost doesn’t weigh on me as much as does with other ‘free’ things.