Fun with MOOCs!

For the uninitiated, MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course (not to be confused with Mouk, a globe-trotting cartoon bear). Over the last several years, educators have been trying to figure out how to leverage the internet pedagogically, with varying levels of success. Some have developed online simulations for various specialties; others have created hybrid or flipped courses involving a combination of in-class and online learning. MOOCs offer completely online, free, open access learning, often with students numbering in the thousands across multiple countries.

MOOCs have a Canadian connection, having been developed by George Siemens at Athabasca University in conjunction with Stephen Downes of the National Research Council for a University of Manitoba course on connective knowledge in 2008. According to Downes, MOOCs fall into two categories: those that essentially follow a traditional course hierarchy with video lectures from one or more experts (sort of a digital correspondence course); and those that encourage greater peer connectivity via message boards, blog posts, or even virtual reality using a platform like Second Life. This second, more connected and creative option, is the one preferred by Downes, and it clearly supports Henry Jenkins’s theories of participatory media culture, in which users co-create online.  (Not sure if Henry and I are related, but we clearly share numerous interests.)

Lots of MOOCs exist. I’ve only played around on a couple of them, but as a dedicated life-long learner, I’m loving them! They’re open access (to anyone privileged enough to have access to a computer and the internet) and usually free (unless you want a piece of paper upon completion). So far, I’ve completed five courses through Coursera and FutureLearn, all created by different universities. I started with a medical humanities course from the University of Cape Town, moved on to a fascinating course on medieval magic from the University of Barcelona, simultaneously tackled two courses on forensic science (one from the University of Dundee and the other from Nanyang Technological University), and finally got around to filling the psychology gap in my education with a course from the University of Toronto.

Each course has taken a slightly different approach. While all have included short video lectures, usually from five to twenty minutes, some have included mini-check-in quizzes, while others demand longer tests; all have required a little bit of writing, along with the need to peer-evaluate written assignments by other students. Most have included links to other fascinating online resources. The level of required engagement with other students has varied from regular to none. Often, I can adjust my level of engagement to my available time. Some courses have been organized thematically week-to-week, while others have used more of a narrative arc. Right now, I’m working on an amazing course on ancient Rome that includes a virtual reality model students can explore.

Not sure what I’ll tackle once this course is done, but I’m sure it’ll be new and exciting! Hope you’ll join me. In the words of Odd Squad’s Dr. O, “What’s next!”

©Catherine Jenkins 2017 all rights reserved

My Less-tech Experiment

I’ve been doing this (very informal) social experiment for the last six months. My cell phone died—again—except this time I couldn’t find a replacement battery. So I decided to go without for a while, just to see what that was like. Overall, it’s been very liberating. I feel lighter. I still have a landline (old school, I know), as well as e-mail and limited social media, so it’s not like I’ve vapourized completely. It’s just that for some periods each day, I’m less readily available. Given that I’m teaching some part of most days, I can’t have my cell phone on anyway.

I hate the sound of it ringing, and I hate vibrate mode even more, so most of the time I’ve carried a phone, it’s been completely muted. I check it when I think of it, and that’s been a much better way for me to relate to a cell phone. In the last six months, there’ve only been three times when having a cell phone would’ve been convenient. I’ve also noticed, however, that some of my friends, especially some of my younger friends, are less inclined to get in touch now that they can’t text me. Texting has clearly superseded phone conversation, although verbal communication is often more efficient. I find tech services in Canada outrageously priced for the use I get out of them, so I’ve also enjoyed the savings.

This less-tech experiment also caused me to ponder my relationship with cell phones, as well as when and why that relationship started. After about three months without, I remembered that I got my first cell phone when my Dad was dying. I was freelancing and often out of reach of my home phone, but I knew that at some point I’d get a call and that I’d need to get somewhere. A cell phone made a lot of sense for the kind of urgency I was experiencing. I kept it through my Mum’s similar fate. And then I had it, so I kept it. But now I’ve realized that because my introduction to cell phones was surrounded by anxiety and hypervigilance, these emotions have impacted my relationship with this technology.

I think it’s good to have taken a break, and to have figured out why I have tended to relate cell phones with anxiety. I have some travel coming up, and it’s now assumed that everybody travels with a phone, in part so airlines can inform you of delays, you can change or make last-minute bookings, and so you can show e-Tickets. (I once saw a woman arrive late at her boarding gate suddenly discover that she didn’t have her e-Ticket because she’d left her phone at security. I wouldn’t have pegged her as someone who could run that fast, but she made it, thanks to a short flight delay.) So I’m beginning to move in the direction of reinstating my cell phone, but with a shifted awareness that will hopefully make my new experience a little less stressful.

©Catherine Jenkins 2017 all rights reserved


Reading is a mythic symbolic act in which squiggles are assigned to letters to create words and sentences and paragraphs and meaning. It really is a form of magic. And like many things in this life, it’s possible to overdo it.

Although I could read fine, I didn’t become an engaged reader until my teens, mostly because I was bored with the books I was offered. In grade 8, I discovered S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, and never looked back. I devoured books by Erle Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie, Ursula LeGuin, Lloyd Alexander, Johnathan Wydham, and H.G. Wells, before moving onto Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Robbins. By university, I was engaging with Philip K. Dick, Mary Shelley, Douglas Adams, Samuel R. Delaney, Delacorta, Italo Calvino, and The Tao Te Ching.

My MA focussed on hard boiled American fiction, mostly from the late 1920s to the 1950s. I was quietly in love with Raymond Chandler, while appreciating Dashiel Hammett’s edge, discovering David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Leo Malet, and others along the way. I read, re-read, and analyzed thousands of pages of fiction and criticism and philosophy over a six-year period. (Is that a record for a Master’s thesis?) Once the dust had cleared, I made the unsettling discovery that I couldn’t read any more. When I picked up even a magazine article, an anxious nausea welled up making me stop. This lasted about a year-and-a half. And then I got into Umberto Eco, James Joyce, H. Rider Haggard, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, Kate Atkinson, Michael Cunningham, and Bruce Wagner.

When I started my PhD, I was unsure and concerned about what the renewed academic work would do to my reading (or writing). Because the research wasn’t literary, I wasn’t required to read fiction, and I think that helped. I did, of course, read reams of academic work, realizing that now I actually read this type of writing much faster than when entering a fictional world I want to savour.

Once the PhD was done, I started reading things with lots of pictures; National Geographic, Eyewitness Travel Guides, and comics (which have opened up a new research area for me). I started catching up on about ten years of missed TV and movies, thanks to the Toronto Public Library’s vast collection of DVDs (old school, but free!). One of the (many) series I discovered was Wire in the Blood, in which a forensic psychologist and a DI unravel and track down serial killers (you may be noticing a recurrent theme by now). Intrigued by the complex plotting, I discovered that the series was based on books by Val McDermid, so now I’m working through them. So thanks to picture books and DVDs, I’m reading books without pictures again, and looking forward to future discoveries.

©Catherine Jenkins 2017 all rights reserved

“Time, time, time…

See what’s become of me” (Simon & Garfunkel 1966). The things one remembers, the things one forgets, in the quick-quick-slow foxtrot of life. Wondering at 30, when the brain feels too full already, how memory can still be possible at 50, but somehow at 50 managing it with ease. And wondering at the selectivity of memories that pop up over and over, when others are forgotten—like the last time I felt truly affronted at being treated like a child. In the hallway of a Spanish hotel, my Dad quickly responding to my choking on a hardboiled sweet going down the wrong way by bodily upending me. The indignity! I was, after all, eight years old, and well past the stage of being picked up by a parent, this stance perhaps embellished by my being surrounded by adults; my parents and older siblings, then about 13 and 15, so adults to an eight-years-old’s mind. This fall, I’ve been reflecting on time quite a bit, and thinking about other writers’ reflections on time too.

I came to Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics only in the last few years, although they were published in Italian in 1964-65, and English in 1968. Each of this series of twelve stories begins with a scientific fact, or at least something understood to be scientific fact in the mid-1960s. Narrated by Qfwfq, a reincarnated Being who morphs from shape to shape, retaining memories from the inception, the stories follow the development of the Universe from the beginning of Time. Although each conscious form is true to its own nature, the stories offer very human reflections on love, complicated relationships, evolution, extinction, the search for signs, writing, and the urge for immortality.

I read physicist Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams when it was published in 1992. Told as a dream diary of the young Albert Einstein as he works out the theory of relativity, each of the thirty brief chapters explores a unique conception of time, and its impact on day-to-day life and being. Similarly to Calvino’s work, Lightman brings scientific concepts into his imagined time conceptions, although some may be pushed beyond their known limits. If time stood still, for instance, parents would forever hold fast to their children; if time were circular, we would be fated to return to our successes and failures ad infinitum.

Most recently, I enjoyed psychiatrist Francois Lelord’s Hector and the Search for Lost Time (2012, translated from the French, Hector et le temp, 2006). I stumbled onto the Hector series after watching Simon Pegg as Hector in the 2014 film, Hector and the Search for Happiness, based on Lelord’s Le voyage d’Hector ou la recherché du bonheur (2002). Hector’s examination of time takes him on an adventurous trek across continents, as did his previous searches for Happiness and Love. While Calvino and Lightman based their imaginative explorations, however loosely, on scientific constructs, Lelord focusses on lived and cultural perceptions of time. Lelord counters our current cultural anxieties about pressured time, our sensed lack of time, with alternative cultural constructs of time that encourage an expansion of our perceptions of time, allowing us to take a breath.

At this time of year, when Father Christmas “Did gyre and gimble in the wabe” (or some such, with apologies to Lewis Carroll, 1872), as we ring in the New Year (at least on the Gregorian calendar, 1582), and “settle our brains for a long winter’s nap” (thank you Clement Clarke Moore, 1822), this is a time of reflection, when memories stir. Tonight, I hope you’ll join me in reflecting on the past, as we move into a bright new future. 2017. Bring it on!

Nearly Midnight

©Catherine Jenkins this last day of 2016 all rights reserved

Creative and Academic Writing: Animals of Different Stripes

I’m a writer and have been for decades. Over that time, I’ve written poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, non-fiction, a thesis, a dissertation, academic articles, book reviews, reports, case studies, etc. etc. I can switch gears as required, fulfilling the demands of each style and format, but I’m always aware that different types of writing impact me differently, have different working demands, and different after-tastes.

I started in poetry, and am closing in on finishing a new collection. For me, poetry was and always will be the purest, most visceral form of the drug. This is the writing that starts from pure inspiration; it’s a tickle in the back of my brain and I have to hold my breath and gently pull the thread for it to spill out on the page. This is writing that wakes me at three in the morning, that likes me to carry a notebook (the kind with pages, not electronic).  This is the form that brings me the biggest buzz, that unmasks me utterly, that leaves me feeling vulnerable and weak in the knees. But also fiercely able to stand by my words, and to take on the world. This is my tiger form (my Chinese year, by the way).

amazing-tiger-wallpaperIncreasingly, my fiction has a comic edge; I have one book nearly complete and another about a third written. I get in the flow and giddily write pages and pages, slowing only to research often really obscure facts, like what was the world population during Alexander the Great’s reign? This sort of minutiae fascinates me, but when I come up for air, when my critical brain kicks back in, it can seem somewhat ridiculous to be asking such questions and putting in hours to get answers. This is, it would seem, the way my mind works. I’m the curious sort. I get a huge kick from writing fiction, creating self-contained worlds, but somehow making them real by connecting them to reality. This is my young tapir form (kind of goofy, but cute).


In creative non-fiction, I have one book in process; it’s about my Dad’s death. Whenever I try working on it, I end up weeping full-bodied sobs. I set it aside for years at a time, in the hope that one day I’ll be able to finish it. Because it’s so raw, it’s impossible for me to get any critical distance, to tell whether it’ll be as powerful for a reader as it is for me. At some point, I’ll have to show it to an editor or six who will be able to tell me. Regardless, it is a book I will need to resolve for my own sake. Striped, yes, but more somber and regal, more endangered, like an okapi; or horned, like a bongo or a kudu.okapi






The academic and business writing fall into a similar category in terms of process. This is just work. Purely rational. Although I get very excited about ideas, it’s still somehow seen as inappropriate to express this through academic writing. The odd time when inspiration strikes, when I get into the flow, and become more creative in my word use, some other academic comes along and tells me to knock it off. I am hopeful, that as I gain my professional stripes in the academic world, I’ll be able to get away with more. But this style of writing, using only intellectual process and not creative, is purely black and white. Not that that’s a bad thing, but I don’t get quite the same invigoration from it as I do from the creative work. It takes a lot of time and energy, and doesn’t give as much back. The satisfaction derived is purely intellectual, not emotional.


When I started my PhD, I felt very schizoid, with my creative side effectively amputated, focussing purely on the academic. As I’ve progressed, I’ve begun to see these two halves reunite. I’m learning how the creative and the intellectual can coalesce quite nicely, how I can write academically appeasing work that also fulfills the creative urge, how I can bring a creative spark to my academic writing. I also think that academic rigour brings a greater depth and richness to the creative work, as well as a necessary sense of discipline. Between the creative and academic work, I have a lot of exciting ideas on the go. Now I just have to create the time to write them all!

Catherine Jenkins 2016 all rights reserved

All images public domain