Free Online Courses at RRPL: Or, Aristotle Returns with a Vengeance

I wanted to take some time this evening and talk about one of our educational databases at RRPL, called Universal Class.  I have the sneaking suspicion that many people do not know what I mean by educational databases, or for that matter that RRPL offers these educational databases for free, and that through them one can take literally thousands of online classes that cost no money, many of which are of high quality.  In future posts, I hope to talk about Lynda, (now call Linkedin Learning), which has quite an extensive series of courses revolving around technology, and Mango, for learning foreign languages, but today I want to talk about Universal Class.

So, what is Universal Class?  Why would anyone want to use it?  How does one access it?

Let’s start with the last question – how does one access it?  It’s easy – go to our website, which is  You will see a menu on the left, which I have circled in blue below; and, near the middle of the menu, there is a link called “Research Resources.”  Go ahead and click on that link.

website with research resources underlined

This will take you to the screen below, with two ways of reaching Universal Class – through the “U” in the menu for searching alphabetically, or in the “Featured Databases” section, which the big arrow is pointing to:

Universal on webpage

From here you will be taken to the Universal Class website, where you can create an account with your RPPL library card number.  (If for some reason this doesn’t work, feel free to give us a call – 440 330 7610, and dial 3 for adult reference.)

Okay, so we covered how to reach Universal Class.  Now let’s answer the first question: what is Universal Class?

Universal Class is essentially a collection of online classes.  Online classes (sorry if this is obvious) are courses you can take on the internet, where you can learn at your own pace, based on your schedule.  Online education is, to put it mildly, an intensely booming industry, and is by now a completely permanent feature of our educational landscape.  One cool example of online education are “MOOCS,” which stand for “Massive Online Classes.”  These particular online classes allow for unlimited participation and are free with an internet connection.

Universal Class costs money, BUT with an RRPL card you can access it for free, and then take upwards of 500 classes on topics ranging from Accounting to Personal Development to Poetry to Business to Buddhism to office skills to social work to pet and animal care to health and wellness.  Here are the courses on Universal Class, from Accounting to Psychology:Course Catalog, A-P.PNG

And here are the courses from Real Estate to Writing Skills:Course Catalog, R-Z

So hopefully through this post I have whetted your appetite for online courses and, more specifically, Universal Class.  But we have to answer the last question – why would anyone want to use it?  I guess there are obvious, sort of circular and banal answers – well, you can learn something, you can “enrich your life,” you can professionally develop, you can personally develop.  But what do these phrases even mean? Why would we actually want to learn something new?

I’ve been thinking about learning lately, because it occurred to me recently that much of the writing I do for myself and for work – writing emails, writing blog posts, writing on social media, writing essays, writing poems, etc. – are all instantiations, in many ways, of practices I learned to value when I was still in high school and then college, when I was learning about the importance of “writing for different audiences.”  Writing for different audiences is as at least as old as Aristotle, when he wrote about the rhetorical triangle, my old buddy, as seen below:

Image result for aristotle rhetorical triangle

When we write, as was emphasized in school, we always need to think about ethos (how we establish our credibility), logos (the actual language we use), and pathos (how we move our audience).  Maybe this sounds cold-blooded – do people actually think about these things?  Why can’t they just, I don’t know, tap into their emotions, their unconscious, and pour forth brilliance?  But the reality is that good writers always think about these things, and good readers do, too, whether we’re talking reading/writing fiction, poetry, non-fiction, emails, flyers, social media posts, whatever.  If I write for an academic audience, my actual language is different than if I were writing a blog post.  If I write a blog post on Medium, say, my language is probably a bit different than if I were writing a blog post on “Read It and Weep.” Poems use language in different ways than prose.  In many ways, we are essentially talking about “code switching,” a term you find in the contexts of race and linguistics, but in this case just meaning that, based on who we are talking or writing to, we actually change how speak and write to meet the needs of our audience.  Sometimes, it should be said, we might not think in some ways of an audience at all – here is a great more academic essay on just that:

But we often do think of an audience, and this changes how we communicate.

How is this related to using Universal Class?  Here’s how: when I started learning about the importance of writing for different audiences, using the rhetorical triangle as a kind of guide, I don’t know how serious I took this rhetoric business.  I suppose it made sense in a cursory way, and I”m sure I nodded and agreed with what was said.  But I have come to realize that learning about these things – essentially allowing those ideas to gradually germinate and percolate – has actually profoundly influenced my life, in many different contexts and many different ways.  I use what I have learned about rhetoric pretty much every single day of my life, at work and not at work.  In some ways, it is a disciplinary lens or framework through which I see the world, or at least many parts of the world.  In other words, learning something new changed my life, and made it more interesting and meaningful, though at the time, when I was learning it, I didn’t think it would do so, and would probably have laughed if you had told me so, as a visitor from the future.

There’s a famous Russian literary critic named Mikahil Bakhtin, who is sometimes hard to understand, but he wrote quite beautifully and convincingly about how even our most mundane, everyday actions, encounters, experiences, are in many ways quite radically creative.  I think he is right.  But, if he is right, then we don’t really know what effect learning something new can have on our life, because even the most mundane new skill is powerful and creative.  Maybe we say, “screw it, I’m going to take this class on business, or ethics, or poetry, on Universal.”  And we do it, and we learn something, and then later we apply this to ourselves, others, the world.  Who can then really say what effect this has actually had on our or others’ lives? On our own characters?  In other words, if we use what we have learned to master something, or hone something, or improve something, I’m not sure we can really calibrate or calculate its benefit, its ripple effect, inside and outside.  And if it does have a ripple effect, then this is proof, evidence, that we can grow or change as human beings.  Why?  Because this effect means that something has changed, in us or in others, no matter how small or how large.  I sometimes think that we can improve our characters and our lives through a very small willingness, even something like learning a new word, a new skill, a new concept, a new idea.  I don’t know if it’s the word or skill or concept or idea itself that changes us, so much as just that willingness, that orientation, that stance, undergirding our action.  But this small willingness, at least in my experience, has effects that I think are really beyond our ability to comprehend. Taking an online course is by no means the only way to learn something new.  But they are free, they can be quite fun and interesting, and you really never know where the things you learn will take you.




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