Intro to AstronomyWeek 1 of the Introduction to Astronomy course, offered by Duke University through Coursera, was a heady experience. After enrolling in and promptly ignoring an untold number of “MOOCs” (notice the quotes), I decided it was time to participate fully in one, both as a professional obligation and as a challenge to myself. The one that caught my eye was Introduction to Astronomy, a subject without even a tenuous connection to my profession. However, I have aways been fascinated by the subject and hoped that my personal engagement would motivate me to knuckle down: my job, 3 year old, and growing to-do list really make it impossible for me to spare the time for a luxury like a Coursera course. For the first week, I did all of the reading, watched the video lectures, downloaded Stellarium, a free version of the astronomy software being used for class, and, despite my ineptitude in anything but the basic math, completed all of the homework. Hours before the deadline at that!

Unfortunately,  during Weeks 2-8 I flatlined. I  got behind on the readings and lectures and the more behind I got, the less realistic it became that I could catch up. It was also getting harder and harder to use “Doing my Astronomy homework” as a legitimate excuse to my wife when there were important things to do around the house. I still received my regular class emails and invitations to join a weekly  Google Hangout with the professor, but I didn’t even open them. Now the course is over and the emails have stopped, but the course is still listed in my Coursera account, like a badge of shame.

A few observations from my short, weeklong burst of participation:


  • Both the course-designed and participant-organized social tools included in the course were for me a welcome chance to connect with other students,  as well as ask questions. Lots of questions.
  • Perhaps by design, the 9-week course happened to coincide with a number of celestial events that the provided some real-world application of the course content


  • This has been stated elsewhere and is fairly obvious, but it is worth repeating: this wasn’t really a MOOC.  
  • The professor was building the course each week, which meant I could only see the current week’s course material. I couldn’t look ahead to see if it was realistic for me to participate
  • The materials in the course were not open. The weekly PowerPoints and videos could be downloaded, but there was no permission given through Creative Commons licensing, for example, to reuse and remix them
  • If there remaining 8 weeks of the course were like the first, then Intro to Astronomy was pretty much a traditional, instructor-led, content-driven course, despite the huge enrollment. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But don’t mistake pushing the same old content to lots more people as being revolutionary.

I have another chance to improve my miserable MOOC completion record: I am currently registered (and already a week behind!) in the Coursera-hosted course E-learning and Digital Cultures, offered by the University of Edinburgh. It’s 5 weeks long, which may be 4 too many for me.