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After “Every Astronomy Book In Pakistan,” A 12 Year Old Turns To MOOCs

My love of education through the Internet started very early. I was only three years old when I started using an online site called Starfall, and I feel it would be unfair not to mention the interactive educational software I used even before going online for my education. One was Reader Rabbit from TLC (The Learning Company) and another was Jumpstart series from Knowledge Adventures.

Astronomy MOOC

Gerlos via Flickr

This awesome educational software was my first obsession with the computer. I remember sitting on the computer and crossing all the stages of the programs while learning a great amount. Education was so colorful and amazing that I never used to get tired or bored. It was even better than watching cartoons. Computers and education seemed necessary to me at that time, and I quickly finished all the programs. I learned that those interactive tools were so important in education. It opened another window which involves doing something while learning. It was certainly more interesting for me, at least.

Later when I started school I knew that school books are not enough for me. I go to a very good school in Pakistan — I will be in eighth grade next term — but my teachers have many students to work with and limited time, and they can’t cover every subject that interests me. For example, we have no astronomy club at my school, and astronomy has been a passion of mine since I was one year old and my father read a book about the planets to me. I think he let me buy every astronomy book in Pakistan.

My parents have always told me that knowledge is out there if you look for it. So, while my passion with reading books grew, my interest with online educational sites also grew, and finally when I was seven years old I found the famous Khan Academy. It looked like the ultimate answer to all my educational interests and it certainly quenched my thirst for getting education. I felt so blessed that I was learning something out of my school.

Khan Academy really helped clarify many hard concepts in math and science. It certainly offered me the outlet I was looking for. So what was missing? I did not know what was missing or lacking until one day I found an online Artificial Intelligence course from Stanford University. It was a very difficult new course which I decided to take along with my sister. We both were hardly 11 years old.

When I joined that course, I had no idea it will open a new set of opportunities for me in education. I did not know anything about artificial intelligence. I remember that I choose to do the course because I just loved the picture of a robotic figure on the homepage.

Now, about the missing or lacking part I was talking about, I found out to my amazement that the course had a forum where you can post your problems and have interesting debates with your course mates.

Artificial Intelligence was very tough, but I was so determined to complete it that I did not care what marks I got. The only thing I cared about was to complete it and get as much education as I could. My sister and I were the youngest to take that course. The course was really well taught. I was introduced for first time in my life to probability. Professor Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig were the instructors for the course, and they really taught in a great way.

I managed to complete that course and got a certificate as well. Even though I did not do so well, I made sure that I do not give up. It was a very exciting course for me, and I loved interacting with other students by going through the forums. That was the first course which was so “alive” for me in that sense. I could feel that I was interacting with real human beings, maybe in a different way, but it was more fun for me. I felt education was given new meaning. It was clearly revolutionizing education for me. New ways were introduced and new technologies were involved. I could more easily access education, and that was really amazing.

Not much later, I found an email from Udacity introducing many new exciting MOOCs. I loved the site and the many new courses which were introduced. So I quickly enrolled in the Physics (PH100) course. I must say I was totally impressed with the teacher Andy Brown. His light humorous style and sharp perky voice used to make me smile, not to mention his very interesting tours to different places really caught my attention. I loved the way he taught using real scenarios and real situations.The forum for the class was so active. Moderators and teachers, along with many students, were ever ready to answer your queries.

When I finished that physics MOOC with distinction (My sister and I were the youngest ever to complete it at the age of 11), I enrolled in the most famous course on Udacity, Introduction to Computer Science (CS101). This course was my first step in learning a programming language called Python. It was tough for me but I completed it with distinction.

Later on I even completed Introduction to statistics (ST101) with distinction. I choose it because of my interest in probability, which I developed in the AI course, and because it was taught by Professor Thrun. His way of teaching was excellent. Udacity offered “karma points” to the students in the forum, which really encouraged students to get more engaged. The more you help, the more karma points you get and your reputation goes up and you are even awarded with badges, which gave the student a sense of achievement.

Later I thought to explore new educational horizons, and I found Coursera. What attracted me to Coursera’s MOOCs was the different variety of subjects; it has evolved a lot ever since it was launched. In less than a year it had more than a million students enrolled in it. It didn’t only have science, but also art, computers, maths and most of the major subjects.

What interested me was an astronomy MOOC, which I had been seeking for a long time. It was taught by Professor Ronen Plesser from Duke University. The course was very well crafted with a very successful attempt to put the subject in a nutshell; it covered almost all the introductory topics related to the subject. It was really an intensive course, and even I, who had a great amount of knowledge about astronomy, found it very challenging.

This course opened my eyes. I even told Professor Plesser when I met him in the forums, “Before all I knew about astronomy was just general knowledge. This course taught me that it is maths and calculations. It is all about formulas and theories. I came to realize now that is what is real astronomy!” I meant actually that books only enhance your knowledge but getting taught by a professor and doing it practically is a different experience altogether.

After completing Astronomy with flying colors, I did not want to stop. It was like I was exposed to some kind of new world of education which is totally different, but it is more global, a class of a thousand or more taking the course and discussing things. I could reach the world using my very own computer while sitting in my home. So I immediately took other MOOCs — Introduction to Astrobiology, How Things Work, Pre-Calculus and Understanding Einstein: The Theory of Relativity.

I completed these courses successfully, and my journey still goes on, because it is a new realm of quality education. It will be seen in the future that MOOCs have made education possible even in those areas where the quality of education is not so good. It has really enabled many students from third-world countries to have a chance to look at other means of learning. Revolution has come, and it has come in the best form, which is providing education. Coursera, Udacity and Khan Academy have really brought the real change, and that is mixing technology with education. We are living in a more open and global world where education will be revolutionized, and MOOCs are actually a great step in that direction.


[Editor’s note: Muhammad’s sister Khadija’s essay “Education For All” appears here.]


Muhammad Shaheer Niazi (1 Posts)

I am 12 years old and from Pakistan. I have just been promoted to 8th grade. I love reading books and playing games on Xbox360. My hobbies are rock climbing and football. I love to collect coins. I have done many MOOCs from Astrobiology to Pre-Calculus, and I have completed Physics (PH100), Introduction to Statistics and Computer Science (CS101) on Udacity with distinction. I love to work hard and take my studies seriously.


  1. Muhammed, I am glad you have had such a wonderful experience with MOOCS. I am much older, in the US, and I am just as excited at the opportunity to explore new and different fields.

    I hope you and your sister will consider in enrolling in Couresra’s Modern and Contemporary Poetry course (ModPo for short), taught by U Penn Professor Al Filreis and a stellar group of TAs. It is exciting, dynamic, and interactive. It will stretch your mind and your horizons. I took the course last year, and will take it a second time around, where I hope to dig into the materials with a new depth. What is wonderful about ModPo is the interactive approach — no lectures at all, but lively seminar style discussions that model a dynamic approach to teaching.

    • Elizabeth Evans, Thank you so much for sharing that course. We will surely enroll in that course for a change. This is the beauty of MOOCS, it is not restricted to any age level. 🙂

  2. To learners (irrespective of age) options are aplenty in today’s world, thanks to MOOCs. All you need is the curiosity to know, passion and steadfastness to pursue. If we can take a leaf out of your spunk, we can update ourselves as well as learn about things that we never got a chance to learn at school/college or later.
    Well done, Muhammed Shaheer Niazi! You are an inspiration at age 12!!!

    • @Asha Perinchery ,just like my parents your words have encouraged me a lot. Thanks.