The Mind is a Beautiful, Hungry Beast

By Niki Lanter

Perhaps it was a serendipitous click upon a newsfeed link that led me to eleven months ago. The perpetual pupil living inside my head was immediately spellbound after watching a short course preview video on the site.

During the online registration, when asked about my goal for signing up at edX, I responded simply with this:

“The mind is a beautiful, hungry beast.
One must constantly feed it.”

The first course that piqued my curiosity began in March of 2013, and ran for twelve weeks. The time commitment required, the course page displayed, was from two hours a week “to a lifetime.” I convinced two colleagues to participate with me in Justice (ER22x), an introduction to ethical reasoning and political philosophy taught by professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University.

Justice Sandel Textbooks

My workmates and I agreed to meet every Wednesday at noon to reflect upon the different issues discussed in class. From the comfort and safety of a conference room—sometimes, over microwaved leftovers, or the occasional deli sandwich—we imagined how we would react to difficult situations, and anticipated how we'd handle certain moral dilemmas. It made for some very interesting, and sometimes very heated, lunch breaks.

Weeks and months after I have already earned my first honor code certificate from edX, I still ask friends and new associates the same difficult questions asked in my Justice class, and share with them some profound lessons learned through the pains and misfortunes of those I’ve met only in books.

Got the energy for more free learning?

When I learned that The University of Texas at Austin offered a course on energy technology and policy via edX called Energy 101 (UT101x), I immediately signed up. What better way, I thought, to enhance my knowledge of the industry in which I participate than to learn from an expert such as Dr. Michael E. Webber.

Energy Consumption Inequities

The 10-week program abound in precious nuggets of information about energy—its economics, environmental impacts, fuel types and sources, public policies, sectors, technologies, and trends. Not only were the lesson and quiz modules very informative, the visual interface and the interactive world maps were also highly engaging. In December of 2013, I earned a second certificate from edX for successfully completing this program.

Click here to read up on some Energy 101 press coverage.

Avid learner with autodidactic tendencies

In the advent of Windows 95, I learned how to use my first laptop by figuratively “diving into it.” I started playing around with the various programs and settings until something broke. My incessant tinkering rendered the system inoperable too many times. I repeatedly called the technical support hotline—quite frequently, in fact—that eventually I learned how to reformat the hard drive, manipulate registries, and install application programs on my own. A few years later, I would go to school to pursue a degree in computer information systems.

Over the years, I have been studying random things primarily to feed my own curiosity. A simple discovery, or unexpected illumination, can be quite marvelous and deeply satisfying. Although the learning process may sometimes be challenging and stressful, it can still be a positively stimulating experience.

I studied of my own volition because it gave me pleasure. Nobody made me take these courses. I enrolled in these classes because I thought they would be fun. Speaking of fun, you must check out Fundamentals of Neuroscience Part I: Electrical Properties of the Neuron (MCB80x.1). It is the first of a three-part course series taught by professor David Cox. I think you'll be quite impressed by the thoughtfully produced web interface, the course maps, dashboards, and interactive video lessons at I highly recommend this course, if you can spare the time and the brain power.

What if...

Several weeks into my first edX course in early 2013, I started twiddling with this grand idea: "Wouldn't it be wonderful," I pondered, "if I could earn a degree for all this time and effort?" A few timid peeks into Harvard University's Division of Continuing Education website later, I finally decided to register for a student account. It would still take several more months before I could summon up the courage to officially enroll in my first class at the Harvard Extension School.

It is now the first month of a brand new year, and the next chapter of my educational adventure will soon begin. When the 2014 Spring semester commences, I will be taking the first of three courses required for admission into Harvard University's degree program.

Wish me luck!

Originally published on 3 January 2014 via Google Sites for Harvard.