Giving Coursera a try

As I mentioned in my recent people who rock the industry interview, I think that subject area knowledge is one of the most important trends we’ll see in translation in the next few years. To read a thorough explanation of how subject area knowledge relates to what we do, check out Kevin Hendzel’s fantastic blog post on the topic.

Translating involves three main knowledge areas: the source language, the target language and the subject matter. I think that the translation industry has evolved from emphasizing knowledge of the source language (when the conventional wisdom was that anyone who knew another language could be a translator), to emphasizing the target language (when we realized that you also had to be a really good writer in your target language) to realizing that subject area knowledge matters a lot as well. Some translators, who started out as financial analysts or microbiologists or patent attorneys are all set when it comes to subject area knowledge. For the rest of us, it’s time to think about deepening our knowledge of the areas in which we translate.

I do a lot of international development translation. The blessing and the curse of this work is that it covers a huge range of subject areas; on any given day I might be translating about how to grow organic sesame plants with less water, how to keep vaccines cold in areas without electricity, or how to convince semi-nomadic populations to purchase land titles. So there’s a lot to learn, and that’s part of what I love about this specialization.

A lot of what I translate falls into the general topic of public health, so I was interested to find a Principles of Public Health course offered by Coursera, an online learning platform started by two Stanford professors. At the moment Coursera’s classes are free, although the company is not a non-profit. The classes are non-credit, although for many of them (including the one I’m taking), you receive a certification of completion if you earn a certain score on all of the online quizzes associated with the class.

Principles of Public Health started yesterday, with–get this–15,000 students. Hence the neologism MOOC, for “massive open online course.” As such, it’s a given that there’s no individual interaction or feedback from the professor. But so far it’s really interesting. The class consists mostly of video lectures, recorded during the in-person version of the course that the professor (Dr. Zuzana Bic) teaches at UC Irvine. This adds some interest to the video lectures, since instead of a “talking head”-style presentation, you get to hear the discussions that happened during the live class. Also, Dr. Bic is a really engaging lecturer who clearly loves her job, so that livens things up as well. The video lectures are broken down into modules of about 10 minutes, and at some point during each video, the presentation pauses and you answer a question to make sure that you’re paying attention. The class also has multiple online discussion boards, and each week there’s a quiz, for which you get two attempts. I haven’t taken the first week’s quiz yet, but I’ll report back after I do.

After watching the first half of the first week’s video lectures, my impression of this class is extremely positive. It’s obviously for an educated audience, but you don’t need a science degree to understand it. Also, it relates very well to the kind of translations that I do: focusing on how to prevent or reduce the occurrence of diseases within a community as a whole, rather than how to cure a specific person of a specific disease. It’s also the first self-paced online course I’ve taken, and I think that if you have the discipline to work on your own schedule, it’s a very pleasant flexible option.

Of course the catch is that Coursera is a for-profit company and the classes likely won’t be free forever. In fact, they’ve already started rolling out fee-based classes, at approximately $90 each. Even at that price, I think that Coursera and similar MOOC outlets provide a nice medium between studying something on your own and enrolling in a much more expensive course through a brick and mortar university. Has anyone else tried them? Oh, and–Coursera offers classes in *one* language besides English–French! The Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne professors offer some classes in English, but also teach two computer science classes in French.

21 Responses to “Giving Coursera a try”
  1. Diana Coada January 29, 2013
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