Training my brain

Author: Siobhan Martin  

Last year I decided to reboot my brain.

I had just returned to Australia after 20 years abroad. I had three young children and a husband in tow and, due to our youngest - Mr Four - not starting school for another year, I was stuck at home.

I realised I needed to keep the old grey matter from going slushy, and had recently heard about MOOCs.

No, this was not a coffee club where everyone drank made-with-Milk, Ostentatious, Over-large Cappuccinos. But an acronym for Massive Open Online Courses.

MOOCs are online university courses ranging from business to computer science to poetry. There are hundreds of universities involved, including the Ivy League’s Harvard and Yale, Cambridge and Oxford in the UK, and Australia’s own Monash University and University of New South Wales.

MOOCs are delivered through providers, rather than the universities themselves. A few of these are run by the academic institutions, others are independent.

There are some free courses, while others have fees. These usually include the cost of a certificate of completion. However, the cost is significantly less than what you would pay if you were on campus. Certification does not necessarily count as credit toward further academic study.

Despite the fact you may not be able to use a MOOC to further your academic career, one of the major benefits, I think, is their dip-in, dip-out nature. So, think you might be interested in Dog Emotion and Cognition, or The Internet of Things? Well, you can sign up for seven days (or for the whole course—if it’s free), see if you like it, and drop out if you don’t.

 But there are other more definite benefits. A study by the Harvard Business Review found that some people had found MOOCs effective in helping them secure employment. A friend of mine says the study he has done through MOOCs has made him more effective at work.

MOOCs really took off in 2012, when they were considered by many to be the best thing for education since we did away with the blackboard and chalk (nails down the blackboard anyone?) But, as with anything, there were also those who claimed they dumbed down the process of learning. Be that as it may, for my purposes, they were perfect.

I logged on to the provider Coursera and signed up to Learning How To Learn, which had been recommended by a friend. She had found it a great way to get her brain ready for further study, having been away from the books since the chalk and blackboard days.

The course was free and, while you did have a time limit to complete it (four weeks), most of the information was presented in short video chunks, which made it easy to work through. It offered insights into how the brain learns, and scientific proof of what we can do to optimise our ability to learn. It also looked at memory techniques and how to use them, the science behind procrastination, and great tips on how to avoid it.

Multiple choice tests were set for the end of each week’s course work (and yes, I did feel nervous doing them!) but you can go back and have another go if you feel you could do better.

So, after finishing the course, did I then immerse myself in MOOCs for a better and brighter me? I’m afraid not. Life got in the way.

But if you’re serious about returning to study, or just dipping your toe in the academic waters, then pour yourself a made-with-Milk, Ostentatious, Over-large Cappuccino, and immerse yourself in MOOCs.


Siobhan Martin is a former London journalist living on the Central Coast.

She is a long-time foodie, and thanks to her super healthy husband, now has an interest in exercise.

The slings and arrows of life have taught her to be more mindful, and pace herself. In view of this, she tries to exercise five times a week, but sometimes stays in bed. She also attempts to feed her three children as healthily as possible, but occasionally reverts to chicken nuggets. 

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