MOOC Brigade: With Free Online Classes, Guilt Is Part of the Bargain

One of TIME's personal-finance writers on the trouble with trying to get something for nothing

  • Share
  • Read Later
Dimitri Vervitsiotis / Getty Images

I don’t know how to fix a car, or read sheet music, and now I’m beginning to think I won’t be able to think like a mathematician either. As Devlin continues on and busts out terms like “function,” “injectivity,” “differentiality,” and “epsilon-delta definitions,” I come to the conclusion that there is in math in this math course. How could I have been so foolish? This was a trick—a mathematician’s trick, practiced only by those who understand mathematical thinking. All I can think of is calling it quits.

But these thoughts occur to me just a few hours after I delivered a lecture myself to my two sons, who had been pleading with me that they wanted off of the swim team because “It’s too hard.” “That’s not a good reason to give up,” I told them, in my best, wisest caring-but-stern Dad voice. “If you quit every time something is difficult, you’re not going to do much in life—and you’ll miss out on all sorts of things.”

I try to follow my own words even as Devlin starts doing math on a piece of paper in view of the camera and demonstrates how to prove there are infinitely many prime numbers. As he utters the phrase “If p is a prime of the form 4n+1, then p is a sum of two squares,” I figure 5,000 students just dropped out. Maybe 10,000.

Nonetheless, I press on and make it to the end of the first lecture. Devlin encourages us to participate in online forums and study groups. At the forums, amid subject lines like “Anybody from the Balkans?,” I feel reassured that I’m not the only one who is lost. I feel myself bonding with an artist from Tokyo, who admits feeling “very frustrated and stupid” because he can only follow maybe 10 percent of the math. “Can I get anything out of this course?” he wonders (as do I). “My math skills may be lacking.”

I press on to the first assignment. It involves rewriting statements so that they are without a hint of ambivalence or double meanings—so that they are perfectly precise, like mathematical thinking and equations must be. Writing is what I do, and I plow through with a confidence that makes me uneasy. I finally think I know what I’m doing, and for some reason that leaves me even more confused. MOOC mania, indeed.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. Next