May 10, 2017

“I am now in three dimensions!” - My short (and not very succsessful) trip into Algebra

I do have as much practical experiences with MOOCs as I have with the breeding of scallops – close to none. Being forced (but yet generally interested) to attend one made me think that this might be the moment to, in a safe environment, face my perhaps biggest fear – mathematical equations. After kindly asking YouTube to suggest to me some videos about “Algebra MOOC”, I ended up in the “MIT 18.06 LinearAlgebra” course, that was uploaded by the Massachusetts Institue of Technology (MIT) eight years ago, with the MIT being one of the first institutions to adopt the idea of MOOCs on a large scale. Of their videos, that together accumulated over 100 Mio. views, it is the second most watched.

What my teacher, Mr. Strang, looked like.

The professor in that somewhat grainy video whom I challenged to teach me something that I actively refused to learn for many years in school was a really nice, maybe about 60 year old guy named Gilbert Strang. Right when he started talking, you would know that he was not really the most outgoing, dynamic, gushing and enthusiastic person ever, but that he loved what he was doing. I quickly thought that, apart from “quality knowledge” that is being passed on, it is the “perfect” teacher who would make the “perfect” MOOC just that. This goes also well with J. Daniel, who in is 2012 paper stated that the “real revolution” of MOOCs might be to remind institutions of their obligation to focus on quality teaching, rather than on other efforts like research. And even though he only blinked with his left eye, Mr. Strang did a very decent job.

However, and awkwardly, after a few seconds a quite crucial thing striked me. Namely, that asking the teacher something was fairly difficult – nobody exept myself heard my querying "uhmmm, wait... what!?" Admittedly, I could have played the same moment just another x=12 times until I finally (maybe) would have understood him. So asking the teacher was in a way easier than in school/university, because even repeating the same thing 371 times would not annoy him, but on the other hand it was more difficult, because I would have been annoyed at some point, when he would use the exact same words over and over again. But to be honest, I guess somebody who would have really wanted to learn something about algebra and not about MOOCs would have understood after a few repeats why this wrinkly man in his loose-fitting pants was so enthusiastic about drawing exactly this points and this line in his coordinate systems. As for my personal adventure time with algebra, I think it was when he casually informed me about him now being "in three dimensions" that I finally shut down and began to write this.

What I thought I would do - but did not.

But despite everything, I genuinely enjoyed it, even though it is late in the evening and I could definitely think of some other things to watch right now. Except from an unpromisingly attempt to understand how programming works, I have never before attended any form of MOOC, which is actually a pity because I believe that MOOCs do have the potential to really make people learn something when they do bring along a certain amount of self-motivation. Plus, after all, it was a nice reminder that my mathematical skills (x) probably equal that of a goat (g), and that studying something like STS, where I can be sitting here and joking but not crying about exactly that might have been one of my smarter ideas.


  1. Wow, you really made me chuckle inside while reading this piece, especially since some of your jokingly posed remarks reminded me of my own position towards algebra and its inherent "fun".
    Could you see yourself overcoming your "fear"/"deep respect" for algebra with the help of MOOCs as the one you've referenced?
    Plus, I'd be genuinely interested to hear how you'd assess the concept of MOOCs in a more general way, apart from the experience of facing your biggest fear.
    Thanks very much for this entertaining piece!

    1. Nice to hear that you liked it somehow and that I am not alone with my aversion against numbers! :)

      And yes, I think if I would actually spend a lot of time on it I think I could overcome at least a part of my"fear" of numbers with the help of MOOCs.
      Plus, on a general level I think it is exactly that why I like the idea of MOOCs. If people do really want to learn something and a MOOC is enabling them to - who am I to critisize any of that? :)

  2. Hahahaha... nice post, my fellow seminar participant. :) It might not apply to your specific case, as the video is already six years old and it might be that this professor is not teaching at the MIT anymore. However, I was wondering if it was possible to e.g. send an email to the course facilitator in order to get answers to particular questions. Did you check out the description of the video on Youtube? There might be a remark on how to get in tough with the lecturer.

    1. Hey,

      I need to answer quick and dirty because my teacher forces me to talk to persons in real life: No, I did not found any possibility to contact them in order to ask specific questions.

      Thanks for your comment! :)

  3. I had a lot of fun reading your post, thanks! However, coming back to the call for more "focus on quality in teaching" in higher education, I wonder if this course would really sustainably help to overcome your fear of numbers. I doubt that - without interaction and credit - you would stick with the course over a whole semester...would you?