My Story

I’ve had ME/CFS for 21 years. Mine was the flu-like onset type, complicated with severe vertigo that probably was an exacerbation of a mild concussion I had suffered years earlier.

CJ Brennan

Cognitive issues barred CJ from her educational goals early on, but improved health and the advent of free online courses has changed her life for the better.

After being diagnosed about a year later and struggling to find answers and a cure for a couple of more years, it dawned on me that this might be my life and I needed to try and make the best of it.

I tell you this because that attitude shift led me to make a list of things I wanted to do when I got well.  It was a great exercise and was a lot of fun to think about.  One of the things on that list was “go back to school”.  I had no idea what I wanted to study, but I did have a yearning for structured, higher education.

My cognitive symptoms, though, were particularly cruel because it was torture to read, knit, sketch, paint, sew, practice yoga; even meditation was tremendously uncomfortable. Talking on the phone was the worst. Many of the things I loved to do and finally had the time to do made me sick and dizzy.

Television, videos and radio kept me company.

Fast Forward 15 Years

Fast forward 15+ years later, I’m still sick,  and I’ve not managed many of the things on that list, but thanks to a new revolution in education, I’m now enrolled in a number of very fine institutions of learning, free of charge, that I can participate in even though I rarely leave the house and spend most of my time in bed.

(I have to mention here that my cognitive problems are vastly improved from the early years. I have what passes for good sleep for an ME/CFS patient. It’s my earnest belief that until you can get something that resembles good sleep, cognitive impairments, in particular memory problems, are going to be a problem.

Even if that’s the case, if you have enough wellness to navigate these course platforms and get a video started, at the very least you can occupy your mind with something interesting. )

Khan Academy – From Math Hater to ‘Absolute Value Equations Anyone?’ )

Almost a year ago exactly, I discovered Khan Academy. Sal Khan, the founder, had been asked to help his young cousin with her math homework and he began using Youtube videos, about 10 minutes in length and posting them on line.

The Birth of Stars

To his surprise, he later found out that other people had found and were using them, including Bill Gates’ kids. The Khan Academy received funding from the Gates Foundation to take this idea and launch it in a big way.

(Sal explaining the concept:

Sal Khan – Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education

Khan Academy has undergone major changes and improvements in the year since I discovered it. Although still heavily weighted toward mathematics, they also have a Computer Sciences section with amazing interactive tools and a section on Drawing and Animation.

The Science section includes Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Cosmology and Astronomy, Python Programming (anyone know what that is?), Healthcare and Medicine, MCAT, Discoveries and Projects.

Math includes 3rd-8th grade, Arithmetic and pre-Algebra, Algebra, Geometry, Triginometry and Pre-Calculus, Calculus, Probability and Statistics, Differential Equations, Linear Algebra, Applied Math, Recreational Math, Test Prep and Math Contests.

Less complete are Economics and Finance, and Humanities.  The American Civics module includes a very nice explanation of the US Electoral College, which finally de-mystified that whole thing for me.

The US Electoral College Explained (finally)

It’s a very sophisticated learning experience, complete with interactive problems to solve, points and awards for reaching certain levels and it is FUN.   For someone who always thought she hated math, this has been a revelation. (Go ahead and ask me to solve an absolute value equation!!)

These lessons are  tailor-made for CFS.  They’re free. You can do them at your own pace.  You can do as much as you can handle. There are no penalties for not finishing or only completing parts of the course.

They were short enough for my limited attention span and fun enough to keep me coming back again and again and again. It dawned on me fairly early on that I was actually learning. I was retaining information and building on it. Up until that point, after being ill for 21 years, I was pretty much convinced that my brain was hopeless in that regard.

I hardly ever turned the TV on after that.


The MOOC’s ( Massive Open Online Courses)

Harvard, MIT, Duke, etc…

online courses

Even storied educational institutions such as Harvard are getting into the online learning field

One night, Charlie Rose had a panel of guests on his show talking about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) being offered by big universities and how excited they were to have the opportunity to have classrooms 100,000s of students in size from all over the globe.  There are storied institutions of learning participating — MIT, Duke, Harvard – etc., and they are excited by the notion of reaching 10,000s of students on a global level.

These are classes you would find in any major university on a vast number of topics. They vary in requirements for passing. But they are all free and there is no penalty for not completing any or all of the requirements. Some are exactly the same course they teach at their respective institutions.

Coursera and EDX

After a little searching around I discovered Coursera  and Edx.org, and they have fundamentally changed my life with ME/CFS.

It’s a pretty daunting task to try and summarize all they have to offer. I highly recommend you visit and browse. Most have a short video describing the course, a syllabus, previous experience required, how many hours/week they estimate you will spend, etc. I can tell you that being in a class about terrorism with other students from the Middle East, Europe, Japan, etc. is an unbelievable experience.

At Coursera, in Computer Science, for instance, currently there are 4 open classes and 30 coming up over the next several months. One, Programming Handheld Systems for Android, sounds interesting.

At Edx, I’m taking one of my current favorites, “Central Challenges of National Security Strategy and the Press” as well as “Haute Cuisine” and the “Science of Soft Matter”.

I’m just finishing up “The Kennedy Half Century”, a fascinating look at the Kennedy presidency and asassination in addition to a look at how JFK influenced each suceeding president in the intervening 50 years.

The Kennedy Half Century

The professor, Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, also produced a one-hour documentary which is currently airing on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and a book by the same title.  He was able to get all audio recordings from the Dallas Police Dept. of November 22, 1963 released and they are all available as an app on i-Tunes.  Definitely added a new dimension to the history of that day.

Check out my Certificate for passing a course on Nuclear Science (!) here . 

  • Coming up…..some tips on navigating the courses when you’re less well and the results of my investigation into i-Tunes University.

The Music of the Beatles, anyone?


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