By February, I was overcommitted as usual. In addition to my five credits and the usual list of activities, I decided to take two courses over the Internet.
To most fully expand my horizons, I chose AllLearn, Yale’s online learning alliance with Stanford and Oxford universities. The assignment was to provide readers with an idea of what it’s like to take courses online with a bunch of alums.
Quo signo nata es?
I choose two courses: the four-week “Irrational Exuberance,” designed by Yale’s own economics professor Robert Shiller, and “Art of the Short Story,” a six-week course designed by Elizabeth Fallaize, a French professor at Oxford. The economics course is supposed to give me an ego boost, sorely needed after failing my macro final freshman year. “Art of the (French) Short Story” is supposed to be my gut class, given that I had read about half of the stories already.
The coolest thing about taking an online course for school-supply fanatics like me is when you get a box in the mail with your books and course packets. I arrive at good ol’ Yale Station one day to find Shiller’s book, “Irrational Exuberance;” “The Oxford Book of French Short Stories;” and a course packet titled “Making Sense of the Stock Market.” Cool.
That’s enough to get you excited right there, and so it’s time to move online. I head over to www.allearn.com and log in.
When you first start an AllLearn course, there’s always a get-to-know-you thread, equivalent to the first day of section when you get to waste a half an hour telling everyone your name, major and favorite amphibian.
Apparently, I am taking the economics course because “I am interested in the effects of the economic slowdown — and economics is an interest of mine.”
Meanwhile, a law professor, Gary,* writes the following: “I’m currently revising an article analyzing the policy implications of emotional investing for securities regulation.” Another one of my classmates casually mentions that she was an adviser to a well-known Eastern European president.
Slightly intimidated, I assume I have an advantage in the French short story course, which begins two weeks later, as I grew up in France and must have absorbed some literary wisdom by osmosis.
I get to the discussion section the very first day to find that my cute British TA, Alistair, has labeled the first thread “What’s your story? Please introduce yourself here!”
As for Alistair’s story, he teaches in Cambridge, is recently married, and is about to have a baby. He writes this in his introduction: “The Internet lends itself to the creation of fictious personae, but I assure you that all of the above is true! However, I will let you decide whether I haveÊgiven this information whilst hopping on one leg or not –“
But I actually develop a crush on Alistair when he creates a thread called “The best bar in town!” This is the virtual Auberge, named after his favorite bar in Paris, and he invites us to use it to “unwind.” These are the instructions we get:
“You could discuss the state of the theatre over a glass of champagne, talk philosophy over a short, sharp espresso, ferment revolution over a kir, or plan your holiday in Provence over a bottle of pastis. You could put the world to rights during a fabulous three-course meal, argue about the football over a cool, sharp pression, or even compose your astonishing new novel with the help of some absinthe. All I ask is that you provide your own beverages and food!”
The class is full of characters. My favorite is Ted from Athens, who always signs his posts as “Ted from Athens,” and who in his introduction manages to mention Hugo, Flaubert, Balzac, Bovary, Diderot and Henry James.
Ted’s location foreshadows a small problem this class faces from the beginning: with people in Japan, Hungary, France, Switzerland, Britain and the United States, having an online chat always inconveniences someone — usually me.
Alistair takes to announcing the chats with an e-mail that includes the times in seven different time zones. It doesn’t help that he takes off to Hungary halfway through the course.
Nescio quid dicas!
When I enter the chat room on March 22 (9 a.m. Eastern time) Alistair (in Hungary) and one student (somewhere in the Midwest) are clearly engrossed, because the student is surprised when I enter, exclaiming, “Oh my, we have company!”
She soon leaves (did I interrupt something?) and Alistair and I move to discussing Paris, French literature, Desnos (one of the subjects of his thesis), Alistair’s upcoming trip to a Hungarian Jewish wedding — basically anything to avoid mentioning that I don’t even know what the reading is. There’s a funny moment when I confuse (Samuel) Beckett and Anouih’s “Becket.”
OK, funny in a nerdy way. Why do I have to embarrass myself in front of the cute TA?
When he posts a copy of the chat — so other students can read it if they “missed class” — Alistair leaves the following description:
“In which we talk about everything — no really, everything — but the set texts.”
I should mention that AllLearn is especially targeted at alums, not at me. For instance, I found the following in the “Student Orientation” section that teaches you how to take classes:
“Gone are the days of pulling caffeine-fuelled all-nighters followed by hazy mornings running bleary-eyed across campus in order to make class on time. At this stage in your life, you’ve earned the right to study what you want, at your own pace.”
I figured the hardest thing for me in doing this online course thing would be trying to fit two more classes’ worth of reading into my Yale schedule. I guess I forgot that these classes are targeted at the alumni of Yale, Oxford and Stanford — not a bunch of idiots, if you know what I mean.
Which you do.
During my very first online chat, I am in the Morse library, trying hard to focus on the economic-theory-as-casual-conversation (“So Andrey, where are we today with the interpretation of P/Es for the major indices, and I’ll accept this year and save infinity for later”) when I get this IM from my suitemate:
K8theGr812: can i im you while you’re at class?
K8theGr812: heh he
First of all, P/Es? Like, gym or something? Maybe I should have done the reading. Second of all, I need to take advantage of wireless Ethernet during my history section.
With the barrage of messages to read, it takes a while before I get around to watching my first online lecture.
It turns out that these things are priceless. When Real Player first starts, I begin to think I may have downloaded some bad techno video — pulsating music playing in the background, smooth graphics flying around the screen.
Suddenly the music comes to a stop and the first section title comes up on the screen: “How do people THINK about investing?” And there’s Shiller, blue shirt, red tie, the whole works, sitting — it would seem — in his office over at 30 Hillhouse, surrounded by shelves full of books.
In his first lecture, Shiller explains why he wrote his book (accompanied by the section title “Why did you write your BOOK?”), why his book has remained popular, and why people should think independently when investing.
Later lectures address what is wrong about media reporting, whether markets can be efficient (I learn that the efficient market hypothesis is “overrated”) and that the public is still optimistic about a market rebound within the next 12 months. I distill this last lecture into one general conclusion: public opinion shows that the public is pretty stupid.
Hey, you gotta summarize, right?
Meanwhile, some of the discussions on the message boards are really interesting — particularly if by interesting you mean over my head.
I realize it’s not a good sign when you don’t understand the title of a thread (“Res tantum valet quantum vendi potest”), but it turns out Andrey is talking about Keynes, someone I had actually heard of.
First, I courageously write that I have decided that I agree with Keynes. Then I go on to discuss my well-formed “Coca-Cola theory” of stock valuation:
“I do not invest in Coke because I like Coke. I do not even invest in Coke if I think it’s a quality product — unless I think other people are thinking the same.”
Brilliant. Meanwhile, Sally, who worked for the Treasury Department and went to business school, takes the opportunity to discuss rational judgment vs. bounded rationality. I’ll provide you with a small excerpt:
“Bounded rationality defined as given the mind’s limitations, people use heuristics, or simple rules of thumb derived from experience, to exploit consistent information patterns in their environments.”
I felt more at home over at “Art of the Short Story” — after all, had I not BSed my way through at least 2.5 English courses? The stories are interesting and while there’s a little bit of jargon thrown around, it’s lyric phrases like “nested storytelling” and not “executive stock options,” which sounds like it would be money in the bank if I understood the concept.
And if I were an executive.
I guess that’s the idea of AllLearn — to allow you to explore subjects that you would have failed at an elite university. A comforting notion. But seriously, it’s quite an experience.
Nihil curo de ista tua stulta superstitione
It is certainly not quite the same as taking a traditional course. No face-to-face contact, no tests or quizzes or papers, no annoying kid in the back who smells bad. On the other hand, there are some similarities: the teacher’s pet who talks too much (no names, please), being able to doze off in lecture (and you can always rewind!) and the crazed realization that you have not done your homework.
Plus, AllLearn is a company. This means there are promotions! AllLearn Director of Academic Services Allison Formicola just recently told me that the company is currently having a two-for-one deal for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
“I had a father-daughter team take a course once,” Formicola said. “They took this course together and they would meet online and talk about things. I thought that was so cute.”
If you’re interested, I can hook you up with the alumni price. Take a class with pops over the summer. Don’t tell him about the discount, and use the extra cash for a trip to meet your online TA at “the best bar in town.”
And if you meet Ted from Athens, be sure to say hi for me. n
* Names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.