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I found my Zen in an online class

My Online Learning Adventure

Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan

Nancy Dunham is a freelance writer living — and learning — in Alexandria, Va.

At the age of 57, I am going back to school, sort of.

My husband and his friends were so addicted to online courses, talking about them like young hipsters discuss fashion, that I decided to give a couple of them a try. Not for college credit or anything, just to better myself — without having to go anywhere or even change out of my sweatshirt.


As anyone who has dabbled in online education knows, you can find just about any topic through a simple search — from advanced calculus to wine appreciation — offered by myriad instructors. And such courses have been gaining in popularity. One example: The Great Courses, a provider of online courses for personal growth, reports it has gained 125,000 subscribers since 2015.

I started with the Great Courses and registered for a 24-part video lecture series on mindful meditation, with interactive exercises, taught by a mostly suit-jacketed Harvard professor of religious studies. Anyone can sign up for any of the courses; no transcript or test scores required. Course fees range from $15 to almost $800 (my course cost $60, on sale).

Why take courses on a computer? Isn't live instruction better? That's what I asked, too, when I heard people rave about online courses. It turns out, the Online Learning Consortium, an industry group, found in its latest survey that 71 percent of academic leaders rate online learning at least as effective as traditional face-to-face instruction.

I began to see the benefits of online learning after an experience last summer. I attended a seminar on meditation and yoga in Scottsdale, Ariz., followed by a series of classes in the Washington area, where I live. In both settings I was intimidated by the other students' abilities. That was especially true on the day I lost my balance in a downward-facing-dog yoga pose and crashed onto the mat, nearly toppling the young woman next to me. Perhaps I could find true "mindfulness" in isolation.

I chose to study meditation because, like many other people who have entered life's Act 2, I often find it difficult to hit the brakes. Through my 20s, 30s and 40s, I swore that I would relish the time when I had established a stable, happy marriage (check), a reasonably successful career (check) and a comfortable lifestyle (check). But I've been dismayed to find myself still working at full bore. I've discovered that our brains aren't wired to downshift so easily. We need to make an effort, such as through meditation, to live in the moment. From there, one learns to relax and release.

In the video series, the Great Courses instructor spoke with the warm, folksy optimism of Garrison Keillor and came across as the ideal mindfulness Sherpa. His voice and initial presentation — he likened his own life to a movie he couldn't enjoy due to the ongoing background commentary — sold me. But then, in a sad twist of online learning, I listened to his first presentation while sitting in my kitchen typing an email and talking to my husband as he sorted mail. How did faux Garrison know I would be distracted from the start? Clearly, he gets me.

Distraction is a major pitfall to online learning, so I secluded myself and went back over the first presentation — fully mindful this time. What I found was a dabbling of psychological research, complete with on-screen graphics, and an overview of how the "internal cacophony of the world around us" can be redirected through meditation into mindfulness.

But the Great Courses isn't the only place to find online instruction. After searching for suggestions from leading experts in yoga and mindfulness, I found a course offered by Wellmind Media with 10 bite-size lessons that were taught by an always-dressed-in-black duo from the U.K. Their 10-minute lessons — about a third as long as those in the Great Courses series — seemed more schedule-friendly and set me back only $38.

The U.K. pair introduced their program by jumping fully into the practice while taking a page from the self-help book I'm OK—You're OK. It's OK to feel stressed when practicing mindfulness. It's OK to take time to learn to be with the experience. It's OK to take time anchoring our awareness into our body.

This might have been CliffsNotes-style learning, but the short blocks of information fit better into my busiest days. Plus, the course's interactive element was engaging. For example, at the end of a session about mental body scans, a page popped up with a list of common distractions. I clicked on the button labeled "I feel pain or discomfort," and a bubble opened to suggest one remedy — concentrate on that pain and analyze the feeling.

That brief instruction was interesting even though it was too bare-bones, a "fun-size" candy bar when you want the big one. But overall I liked taking the course and completing the independent assignments between presentations, even when they put me in a few odd situations. I practiced one lesson while sitting in a lounge chair during a Mediterranean cruise, as the U.K. duo guided me on moving a grape around my lips, to fully experience its sensation. Thankfully, the pool deck was fairly deserted. Still, I felt silly. Suffice to say, in that session, mindfulness was in short supply.

Online courses — free or for a fee — are plentiful. Here are 5 of the top providers

The Great Courses

The site offers 500-plus courses. Most lectures are about 30 minutes, and courses range from six to 96 lectures (most in the 24-to-36 range). Courses can be purchased as online modules or on DVDs or CDs. Prices generally range from $15 to $230. There's also a subscription plan called the Great Courses Plus (thegreatcoursesplus.com), with access to multiple courses for $19.95 a month or $179.95 annually. Amazon Prime also offers a menu of Great Courses for $7.99 per month.

Big Think

Topics range from business and technology to health and entertainment. Instructors include such well-known experts as fitness guru Jillian Michaels and Bill Nye "the Science Guy." Every week there's a new 45- to 60-minute podcast on a different subject, plus articles and videos, all free. For a fee there's also Big Think Edge, for professional and business development.

Universal Class

History, DIY projects and cooking are some of the courses available. Students can earn continuing educational units, which certify professional development in some fields. Average time commitment is 10 to 20 hours, including class time, assignments and exams. Pricing ranges from $59 for one month of unlimited courses and certifications to $189 for a year of unlimited courses.

Yale University

Professors from this school offer an array of free courses, from the liberal arts to the sciences, on YouTube and at Open Yale Courses (oyc.yale.edu). Lectures are supplemented with syllabi, transcripts and other resources. Sorry, no Ivy League credit, though.

edX

Developed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, edX (edx.org) strives to make higher education available to more people. Time commitments range from about 45 minutes for a single lecture to two to three hours a week for up to 12 weeks. Most courses are free.

  • Try before you buy.
  • You can often preview courses before you enroll.
  • Make sure the instructor's style appeals to you, especially if you must pay for the course.
  • Understand the requirements.
  • Do you need to complete tasks before you move on to subsequent lessons? 
  • Is there a real-time element that requires you to join classes at set times? If a class doesn't work for your schedule, you won't succeed.
  • Commit your time. Even if your course doesn't require you to sign on at certain times, it's still wise to schedule the days and times you plan to take the courses. Otherwise it's too easy to let things lapse.
  • Don't take short cuts. I was multitasking when I first listened to the initial lesson of my Great Courses series. That was a mistake. If you don't engage, you won't learn.
  • Study and practice.
  • Unless you're going for a degree, no one will monitor your online course progress. But commit to fulfilling assignment requirements or you shortchange yourself.
  • One helpful aspect of online learning is that you can go back and review lectures and assignments when you need to understand the material better.

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