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Over 400 Ivy League courses are free online right now

With the coronavirus pandemic upending summer plans, now's the perfect time to learn something new.

  • Although states are reopening, coronavirus has already canceled many summer plans.
  • Ivy League universities and other course providers are offering online courses for free.
  • Free online courses cover a range of academic and personal-growth topics.

    • Even as states begin to reopen, the coronavirus pandemic has already derailed our traditional summer plans. Around the world, airplanes remain grounded. Festivals, performances, and destination spots will be closed or severely restricted. And though we've hoped the warmer season would suppress the virus, one study found that variations in heat and humidity had little to no effect on its transmission.

      Summer has been all but canceled, and as millions of parents are already aware, summer school is in session.

      That doesn't have to be a raw deal, though. As we spend more time at home, we can dive into hobbies we love or learn about subjects that prod our curiosity. To help, Ivy League universities are offering hundreds of free MOOCs.

      What's in a MOOC?

      Harvard and MIT founded edX, a massive open online course platform, in 2012.

      (Photo: Pixabay)

      MOOC is the unfortunate acronym of "massive open online course." I say unfortunate because there's no way to say it aloud without sounding like you're impersonating an old-timey mafioso ("This guy, what a mook!").

      Thankfully, the idea is better than the acronym. A MOOC is an online class that explores a specific subject, topic, or skill. Most are self-paced, while some parcel out material over the course of several weeks. Because they're online, they can be open to anyone and support hundreds of students the world over.

      That online nature also means teaching methods lean heavily on readings and lecture videos—though some incorporate assessment tools such as quizzes and class discussions. Discussions are with other students on a forum, and quiz grades really don't matter much. Even the most anxious of test-takers needn't fear a "See me after class…" scribbled next to their name.

      For instructors, teaching is typically a pre-recorded, hands-off affair. For students, it's self-motivated.

      MOOCs are provided on a variety of platforms. One of the most popular is edX, founded by Harvard and MIT, which has more than 20 million users. Other platforms include Udemy, Coursera, Udacity, Skillshare, and FutureLearn.

      When choosing a platform, know that some only produce classes guided by university professors or experts in their field, while others open their platform to anyone with a desire to teach.

      Education free of charge

      Granted, universities have been creating MOOCs for longer than novel coronavirus has been around. edX and Coursera were both introduced in 2012. But in light of the need induced by the pandemic, universities and course providers have stepped up their efforts to issue free, far-reaching education materials.

      Class Central, a listing for online courses, maintains a page dedicated to free courses issued in response to COVID-19. Continuously updated, it's a massive resource for those looking to upskill or increase their knowledge while shelter-in-place restrictions remain in effect.

      The website maintains a robust catalog of free online classes and the universities offering them, too. As of this writing, it lists more than 400 free online courses from Ivy League universities. Available subjects were as diverse as mythology, Linux basics, data science, religious literacy, Roman architecture, and the ethics of eating. The catalog is simply too expansive to do it justice here.

      Because these courses are from Ivy League schools, many are taught by instructors at the top of their field. For example, Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt teaches the currently available classes on "Othello" and "Hamlet." He's also the general editor to the "Norton Anthology of English Literature."

      But how free is free?

      Most MOOCs listed on Class Central are free to audit, but they do come with monetary upsells. Users can often earn certificates for completing courses, but the option is tucked behind a paywall. Some courses also limit access to certain materials and content unless unlocked with a credit card.

      Users also pay in other, less direct ways. In place of money, edX users pay their tuition in the form of data, the currency of the 21st century.

      The universities use data generated through student participation in research and to improve the quality of their educational endeavors. Collected data is free of personally identifiable information (PII); however, it's worth noting that edX retains the right to share aggregate data with other parties (again, without PII).

      Will coronavirus change education?

      Summers will return as we remember them, but many experts wonder whether education has been irreversibly changed by the pandemic.

      "The horrible loss and fallout of the pandemic are unmistakable, but for so many in education, this is a crisis that simply cannot be wasted. Historically, transformation comes primarily when there are forcing conditions— when the current model simply cannot be sustained," Craig Vezina, executive director of Z-17, wrote.

      As schools and parents scramble to teach children spread across towns, and university students increasingly receive their education through screens, online learning will continue to expand its share of educational systems. Whether online learning is better or worse than traditional education is a question with many nuances—one too complex to answer here. Either way, the barriers to online education will continue to become more permeable, allowing more people to access it.

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      A neural crêpe

      A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

      So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

      The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

      Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

      Image source: Sereno, et al.

      A complicated map

      Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

      That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

      It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

      This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

      Bigger and bigger

      The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

      "The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

      As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

      Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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