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Dorothy and Ana
Photo by Heather Fraser

Dorothy Willis - Learning by Degree

Heather Fraser —

When Dorothy Willis, a lay preacher from Riverton, Southland, retired following 28 years as a school secretary, she decided to enrol in an online learning forum. Her e-learning journey started with an ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ course provided by The University of Edinburgh and delivered by Coursera, an American-based learning provider that partners with universities and organisations globally to provide a vast range of courses online.

Fast forward eight years and Dorothy has completed numerous courses and is now mentoring and engaging with e-learners around the world who share her enthusiasm for learning, attending lectures delivered by the world’s best educators, from the comfort of their own home.

Dorothy says, “Coursera offers flexible, affordable, job relevant online learning for individuals and organisations. Their learning platform involves more than 200 of the world’s top universities and educators. Currently there are at least 64 million learners connected to the Coursera community.”

The subject options are enormous. Interest based, short term studies are usually four to six weeks long. Education is delivered via pre-recorded video lectures, reading activities, assignments, tasks and forum discussions. Beyond the basic course content, learners are offered links to additional reading resources, questionnaires and workshops. Individuals can ‘learn’ at a pace and level that suits, although certification requires the completion of a certain level of course requirements.

Dorothy says the flexibility regarding course commitment is appealing, along with the range and affordability of the learning opportunities on offer. “If you wish you can simply enjoy the lectures. I encourage anyone to get online and do some study. The choices are endless, you can opt in and opt out and participation costs are minimal. For many courses there is no cost to participate, unless you require certification.”

As a result of her success in completing a range of courses, in 2017 Dorothy was invited to train as a mentor for courses offered by the philosophy and psychology department of The University of Edinburgh. Working in collaboration with UK-based tutors, she provides administrative support for learners and monitors content for online forums. The ‘Theory of Intellectual Humility’ course she is involved with considers theory, science and practice and currently has more than 25,000 enrolments internationally. “I monitor the forum discussions daily and the weekly graded work. I watch for obvious gaps in understanding concepts and low marks in weekly requirements. I am also involved in ‘Beta Testing’ where I view a new course being developed and offer comment before it goes live.”

In addition to her monitoring role, Dorothy maintains an interest in participating in courses, typically spending five to ten hours each week watching lectures, reading and answering quizzes. Courses she has completed include:

  • Introduction to Philosophy (The University of Edinburgh)
  • Science & Religion (3) (The University of Edinburgh)
  • Intellectual Humility (3) Theory, Science, Practice (The University of Edinburgh)
  • Know Thyself (2) (The University of Edinburgh)
  • The Bible's Prehistory, Purpose and Political Future (Emory University, Atlanta)
  • How to Change the World (Wesleyan University, Connecticut)
  • Song writing (Berklee College of Music, Boston)
  • Moralities of Everyday Life (Yale University, Connecticut)

“Over the years I have watched Coursera develop and offer Bachelors and Masters Degrees in many subjects. It is amazing that this level of education can be completed by distance learning. The software is easy to use and the options seem to be endless. Universities are continually bringing new options on-stream. I urge anyone to visit www.coursera.org and find a course that interests them. Location means nothing.”

In addition to supporting the concept that age is no barrier to learning, at 73 years old this mentally active and busy accredited lay preacher has not let a physical disability prevent her from achieving success. Dorothy, an amputee who suffers Complex Regional Pain Syndrome as a result of a failed surgery, has been wheelchair bound for the past 22 years. She and husband Ernest, also a lay preacher, have been active in the church scene for many years. Each month they prepare a Christian Kids Pack available to, and widely used throughout Aotearoa by children unable to attend church.