When Evelina Pecciarini, a passionate animal advocate from Tuscany, Italy, emailed me to share her enriching experiences with taking free online courses about animal rights, I wanted to know more. Throughout our ensuing email correspondences, it became clear that you needed to know about these, too. I was thrilled when Evelina agreed to write an OHH feature about massive open online courses (MOOCs) and to tell us about some very exciting upcoming opportunities that, something tells me, you will likely sign up for.
How to Be a Voice for Animals While Taking a Virtual University Class (For Free!)
by Evelina Pecciarini
Knowledge is power. Nothing new, I know, but still totally true. And especially true, I would add, for us vegans. We’re constantly challenged to be better informed than others: to reply to their “concerns”; to persuasively and factually defend the way we eat and live; to relentlessly advocate for veganism and animals; and, a bit, to strengthen and reaffirm our own commitment, too. There is also the added benefit that a stimulated brain stays healthy for life. (If you have any doubts about that, check out Dr. Neal Barnard’s last book, Power Foods for the Brain.)
Our Hen House has shown me how each of us can use our passion, our skills, and every tidbit of knowledge we can grasp onto to become a better advocate for veganism and for animals. But in order to implement that myself, I knew that I needed some serious, university-level education in the topics that will make the case for the animals. Fortunately, that kind of education is available to all of us; we simply need to seek it out.
I live in the heart of Tuscany, Italy – a perfect atmosphere for people who love to be immersed in nature. That said, the place I call home is a small town that’s not exactly pulsing with educational opportunities. So I’ve found the solution to my quest for knowledge in massive open online courses (MOOCs). These are virtual courses originating in universities all around the world and easily adaptable to any lifestyle. Did I mention that they are totally free?
Via the web, I have attended American, Israeli, and Australian universities. I watch the video lectures while sitting on the floor with my two dogs beside me asleep on their mats, enjoying their quiet company and basking in the fact that I can be there with them instead of away at (or traveling to and from) an in-person lecture.
When it was launched in 2012, I signed up to receive email updates from Coursera, an education company founded by two professors at Stanford University that partners with universities and organizations all over the world to offer courses online. This past summer, as I was ruminating about my wish to learn more in order to enhance my animal activism, the subject line of a Coursera newsletter caught my attention. It announced a forthcoming course in “Sustainability of Food Systems.” I instantly enrolled, and soon completed my first in what would become several MOOCs.
With MOOCs, everyone can decide her or his own level of commitment. The courses are designed so that they can be enjoyed at different levels of depth, depending on the student’s background, interest, involvement, and availability. How you schedule your course work is up to you; you can either download the lectures for later, or keep up with the assignments calendar.
At Coursera, all the courses – which are tailored versions of actual university classes – are free. Reading materials can be downloaded. Textbooks are recommended, but not mandatory. In fact, so far, my entire financial outlay has been $15 for a book that I wanted to buy anyway. It’s also possible to get a verified certificate for a few dozen dollars, which may be particularly useful for people who work in a related sector (or plan to).
While the information in the courses themselves can be invaluable to animal activists, we can also practice our activism in the discussion forums. Participating in these forums enhances the educational experience by transforming it into an actual form of advocacy. And activists have a built-in advantage: people are there to learn, and they are more likely to have an open mind and be receptive to our message (just as we should be to theirs). When the topic of the course and the ensuing discussion are somehow related to the vegan cause, we can help push that message forward even more by encouraging our peers to think, and emboldening them to connect the dots about animal rights.
In the MOOC forums, sometimes you find the same share of criticism, hostility, and ignorance that you find in “real life,” but there’s also the flip side: I’ve taken five courses since August, and four of them (the exception being “Global Sports Business” – I love soccer!) had threads in the forum that were started by people who were actually looking for other “veg*ans” among the participants. To my surprise, many people responded and discussed topics related to both veganism and the course – and talked about how to advocate for veganism as, for example, a way to improve the sustainability of food or to fight climate change. It was especially heartwarming to see many vegans taking a course on “New Models of Business in Society. ” The impact of vegan entrepreneurs, and vegan consumers, is growing every day.
If MOOCs appeal to you, which I hope they do, and you’re planning to add some kind of education to your New Year’s resolutions list, there are several courses at Coursera beginning in the first few months of 2014 that may be of interest. These courses could allow us to look at veganism from a new perspective, to hone the skills that make us better advocates, to add more tools to our activist tool kit, and to take advantage of opportunities to practice our advocacy in the forums.
Perhaps the most interesting and challenging forthcoming course is “Moralities of Everyday Life.” It sounds like the ideal class for anyone who cares about animals:
How can we explain kindness and cruelty? Where does our sense of right and wrong come from? Why do people so often disagree about moral issues? This course explores the psychological foundations of our moral lives.
Another promising course is “How to Change the World,” which will explore the question, “How can we use the things we share in common to address some of the most challenging problems facing the world?”
Of broader interest, but surely with many connections to veganism, is “Globalization and You.”
Thinking, discussing, using arguments to practice our communication skills and hone our messaging – these are all areas in which vegans could stand to constantly improve! Here is a course that can help us do just that: “Think Again: How to Reason and Argue.” This course promises to teach you how to understand and assess arguments by other people, and how to construct effective arguments of your own. If you need even more help in honing your argument skills, consider either “Critical Thinking in Global Challenges” or “Reason and Persuasion: Thinking Through Three Dialogues By Plato” (a common ancestor to all vegans!).
Finally, another, more specific, course that presents interesting possibilities for those who want to change the world for animals is “Gamification,” which is about how to apply digital game design techniques to non-game problems. It made me think of the virtual gestation crate and the incredible work of Mark Middleton of Animal Visuals. I’m not a video game player myself – which sometimes makes me feel as though I’ve missed some major facet of life – but I can nonetheless grasp the potential of their effective use for changemaking. In fact, video games were an integral theme in the novel that made me become a vegan, PopCo by Scarlett Thomas.
These highlighted MOOCs are just a few examples of what are really endless possibilities for virtual learning. The fact is, most topics are indeed related to our cause, either explicitly or implicitly, in one way or another.
If you know of any other interesting course – or any MOOC platform – please share in the comments!
Evelina Pecciarini, a proud vegan of four and a half years, lives in Tuscany, Italy. She is a longtime writer for national and local media, focusing mainly on local football (“soccer” for Americans). Evelina shares her life with her darling companion animals – Diana and Lola – and can’t think of better company to be in (though a really good book is a close second). One of Evelina’s favorite places on earth is Ippoasi, a sanctuary for farmed animals near Pisa. There, at her home away from home, Evelina is in love with Gorgo, the cuddliest pig.