Every time my son grabs for my phone or laptop I say to him, “that’s not a toy honey, it’s a tool”. It’s my go-to phrase around technology because it’s a good reminder for me too. He’s barely a toddler, yet I’m already preparing for the day he gets his own “device”. And I don’t want to deny him the experience. Our household revolves around technology and I want to create a healthy rapport with it and find a boundary that’s consistent for everyone in our family. To me, evaluating the purpose of all that screen time is a key factor in the decision.

It’s sad to read the abundance of articles claiming the internet is making us dumb and depressed. It’s true that constant connectivity can be over-stimulating if you don’t set any boundaries, but I personally feel that my quality of life has been hugely improved by the internet’s myriad offerings. I believe the solution to our distraction is in our own brains. In contrast to TV which truly is passive, the internet is waiting for us to direct it. And if done with a bit of imagination, it can become a gateway to an immense amount of information, leading to new ideas and creativity.

Most of us have benefited from the convenience of the Internet through apps like Skype, Google search, maps, online shopping, etc. But now the internet is radicalizing education on a global level via the massive open online course, or MOOC. This spring I was turned on to an amazing website called Coursera which is a pioneer in the MOOC revolution. Reputable universities from all around the globe are now offering their courses online for free.  The courses are taught via video lectures, and structured into weekly units with assignments and quizzes, and supported by forums filled with thousands of engaged learners from around the globe. There is no credit offered (although some courses now offer a completion certificate for a small fee), but if all you’re looking for is information, it’s an incredible resource.

Why are MOOCs so revolutionary? Blogs and video tutorials have abounded for more than a decade, right? Well, as my husband says, you only get one chance to learn something for the first time. As much as possible, you want that experience to be high quality, and before MOOCs came along the quality of information on the internet was inconsistent at best. Now, the quality, the instruction, and the structure is everything you would expect from a university level course. So now anyone who wants to pursue higher education but can’t justify the time or expense in going back to school has the opportunity, right from their own computer.

I’m obviously a big fan. This year alone I’ve already learned the four tenets of Greek rhetoric, the archetypes of fantasy and science fiction, and the intricacies of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas. I’ve revisited songwriting techniques, the history of Western classical music, and the foundations of audio engineering. And now I’m taking a jazz improvisation course through Berklee taught by master vibraphonist Gary Burton. It’s ah-ma-zing! I don’t always have the time to do every assignment or quiz, but even watching or listening to the video lectures while sewing, walking the baby, folding laundry, etc. leaves me with new perceptions of the world.

Of course these resources are only half the equation when it comes to learning. The other half is the blood, sweat, and tears to work yourself through the information. Angela Lee Duckworth refers to it as “grit” in her TED talk on the key to success. There is no doubt that we all need to find our own way to motivate and discipline ourselves to work through new information. And the more I study online, the more I realize it’s a process of being patient and kind to yourself as you figure out how you truly learn best. In some ways it’s even better than university. There’s no competition, nothing to prove. Nothing between you and the knowledge you seek. Perhaps this is also where creating boundaries around the educational vs. entertainment aspects of the Internet come into play. Taking a break to surf Facebook for a while can be a nice change after all that learning!

But once you get bored, the knowledge is waiting there, beckoning like a seducer. Have you heard about the Mexican teacher who applied a similar concept to his classroom? When he realized the standard curriculum was boring his students to death, he radicalized his approach by allowing them unlimited internet access and challenging them to research and write about subjects they loved. What happened? He discovered he had a class full of geniuses. Self-regulating ones too. They were far too engaged in their work to be trolling Facebook for hours or checking email every 5 minutes. And even if they were, it didn’t matter anymore, because they were by and large communicating with people connected to their work, so it made sense.

There’s no reason to limit this mentality to children. We can apply the same principles to ourselves. And thankfully, more and more evidence is rolling in to support the potential the Internet has to help us learn, grow, and develop. Perhaps the web is really just a mirror for our own behaviours, like any other relationship in our lives. In my experience, if you can put the blinders on to all the distracting trash vying for your attention, and unleash your inner “grit”, you can harness the immense power of the internet to expand your mind, your skills, and your life. And what could be a more positive example to our children on using technology than that?

Interested in reading more about MOOCs? Check out this link for more information.