The Joy of MOOCS

June 14th, 2015

Column Randy Fitzgerald writes about the joy of learning.

People often ask me what I’ve been doing since I retired from college teaching three years ago.

Well, uh, actually, I’m spending a lot of  time in a college classroom.

This classroom, however, is not on a leafy campus. It’s in my study, and I’m not the professor; I’m a student.

I mentioned to readers in a column last summer that I had enrolled in several MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). MOOCs allow me or anyone in the world with an Internet connection to learn from some of the best universities and professors in the world – for free.


My passion is music – an interest I took up way later than most who were fortunate enough to study it or perform it or make a career of it. But it’s never too late, of course. So over this past year, at no expense to my wallet or my academic record, I enrolled in and/or dropped out of four wonderful classes from the Berklee College of Music and The University of Edinburgh.

It’s fun but not easy.

You have to watch lectures, do exercises and turn in assignments on deadline. There are online quizzes, and you have to critique your classmates’ work and have them critique yours. There’s a really good chat room in which you can discuss with fellow students from all over the world and at any hour of the day all things class-related. You also can stop, rewind or fast forward the lectures over and over.

The rewards are great in advancing your knowledge, from small details to a very broad understanding of concepts. My professor in the songwriting class was Pat Pattison, the author of four books on songwriting whose students include Grammy winners John Mayer and Gillian Welch. How could you not learn from someone like that?

From a class called Fundamentals of Music Theory at The University of Edinburgh, I now know what a “hemidemisemiquaver” is. Please don’t ask me to explain it, though. I decided to drop the class. It was way beyond me.

But someday maybe. I also dropped another class because early on I could see I just didn’t have the technological know-how to succeed in a class on music production.

But in two classes (Songwriting and Developing Your Musicianship) at the Berklee College of Music I received A’s, thank you very much, and came away with two original songs and the ability to build chords and to explain to all my friends what intervals are.

Strangely, none of them has yet asked  me to. But when someone does, I’m ready.


Since the start of MOOCs in 2011, the two most successful companies, EdX and Coursera, have enrolled millions in classes offered from great universities such as Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Johns Hopkins and the University of Virginia. You could take an algorithms class from Princeton or Stanford, Introduction to Finance from the University of Michigan, or even Medical Neuroscience from Duke.

If the dream of MOOCs is to democratize higher education in a time of overwhelming tuition and room-and-board charges and of staggering student loan debt, that’s an admirable but tough task. It may not be feasible on a for-free basis.

But if it is to make great schools and great professors available to the masses for free lifelong learning, it has succeeded admirably in my view.

Most MOOC questionnaires, in fact, ask students if their aim is to 1) earn a degree, 2) develop skills for the workplace or 3) follow their passion. I’m definitely in the third category. I’m not looking for another degree, and I’m retired from the full-time workplace. So passion it is. I can afford to take whatever I want, pretty much whenever I want.

And right now, The Music of the Rolling Stones, 1962-1974, at the University of Rochester, is looking pretty good.


Randy Fitzgerald was a longtime public relations director at the University of Richmond and columnist for The Richmond News Leader and later the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He then taught modern American literature at Virginia Union University until retiring in 2012. Contact him at 

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