10 Illuminating Online Courses You Can Take in August

fizkes/iStock via Getty Images
fizkes/iStock via Getty Images

Back-to-school season isn't just for full-time students. August can be a great time to return to class for anyone with internet access and a hankering to learn something new. And in the age of online courses, your choices are no longer limited by classroom capacity, scheduling conflicts, or even tuition restrictions. Take a look below at the top 10 coolest course offerings for this month, from classes on mastering mindfulness to making macarons.

1. Hollywood: History, Industry, Art

Hollywood’s history is just as rich as its A-list actors. In this course presented by the University of Pennsylvania, you’ll learn about how the film industry evolved with technology and how it responded to American political crises throughout the 20th century. You’ll also study individual powerhouse studios like Paramount and Disney and legendary directors like George Lucas and Spike Lee.

Sign up on edX for free. The optional certificate costs $49.

2. Our Earth’s Future

If you’re not totally clear on what climate change means, and you feel like at this point it’s too late to ask, you’re not alone—and this course from the American Museum of Natural History is perfect for you. In it, you’ll hear from climatologists, anthropologists, Earth scientists, and others who will explain just how climate change affects us and our ways of life. By the end of the course, you’ll be able to summarize key principles, identify misconceptions, and be well-informed enough to partake in global and local discussions.

Sign up on Coursera for free. The optional certificate costs $49.

3. Photography Basics and Beyond: From Smartphone to DSLR Specialization

Learning how to snap a great photo is relevant to basically anybody with a smartphone and/or a social media account. That’s all you need for this course—a smartphone and an interest in understanding the fundamental principles of photography (though you can use an actual camera if you’d rather). Delve into composition, exposure, documentary elements, and more, and walk away after this class flaunting a final project of photographs you'll be eager to share on Instagram and beyond.

Sign up on Coursera for free with a seven-day trial. After that, access to the course is $49 per month.

4. Introduction to Classical Music

In this Yale course, you’ll learn about more than just the major players in classical music—you’ll also explore what music actually is, why it makes us feel such strong emotions, and how it’s made. You’ll waltz through an in-depth history of the evolution of classical music, which, of course, wasn’t always considered “classical.” By the end, you’ll have an extensive understanding of music that enriches your daily listening, be it Jonas Kaufmann or the Jonas Brothers.

Sign up on Coursera for free. The optional certificate costs $49.

5. De-Mystifying Mindfulness

In our fast-paced, uber-digital society, mindfulness has helped a lot of people stay grounded in the face of anxiety or stress, and it could probably help you, too. This free course will provide background on the psychology, philosophy, and politics of mindfulness, as well as teaching you the tools you need to harness its power to improve your own state of mind in a concrete, lasting way.

Sign up on Coursera for free. The optional certificate costs $30.

6. Miniature French Desserts: Macarons, Madeleines, and More

Even though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with bringing chocolate chip cookies to every bake sale and potluck dinner you attend for the rest of your life, at some point, you might want to steal the show with a melt-in-your-mouth macaron. In this course, former Le Cordon Bleu instructor Colette Christian will lead you through every intricate step of baking formidable French delicacies including macarons, madeleines, tartlets, and opera cakes.

Sign up on Bluprint for $40.

7. Natural Dog Nutrition and Well-Being

Pet obesity is a national issue, and it contributes to a whole horrible host of other health problems for our four-legged friends. Since dogs can’t learn the risks and make lifestyle changes on their own, it’s on us to help them. This course will teach you how to ensure that your beloved sidekick is getting all the nutrition they need to live a longer, happier life with you. Lesson highlights include: The Truth About Commercial Dog Food, Healthy Homemade Treats, Hidden Household Hazards, and Foods for Common Health Issues.

Sign up on Udemy for $38.

8. The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Cyber Security

Learning how cyber security professionals combat hacking attempts—and how hackers hack in the first place—is a great way not only to insulate yourself from hacks, but also to prevent yourself from living in fear that you might get hacked. This 4.5-star-rated course breaks down popular hacking attacks and forms of malware, and it also teaches you about protection technologies like antiviruses, firewalls, encryption, biometrics, authentication methods, and more.

Sign up on Udemy for $25.

9. The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture

Avengers: Endgame’s recent record-setting box office performance is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our cultural obsession with superheroes. The late Stan Lee hosts parts of this Smithsonian course in conjunction with other experts, tackling subjects like the inception of superheroes in 1938 and their World War II “Golden Age,” the near-shutdown of the comic book industry during the McCarthy Era, the genre’s ebb and flow over the decades, and so much more.

Sign up on edX for free. The optional certificate costs $50.

10. Hand Lettering for Beginners

Whether you’re hoping to become the go-to sign-maker for all future bridal and baby showers or just looking for a bona fide way to relieve stress, hand-lettering can be a rewarding and practical skill. In this course, instructor and designer Adam Vicarel will show you how to break down a complicated-looking finished piece into a set of simple steps, using materials you probably already have around your house.

Sign up on Bluprint for $40.

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5 Wild Facts About Mall Madness

Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The mall, home of fashion brands, bookstores, and anchor locations like Sears, was a must-visit location for Americans in the 1980s and 1990s—and especially for teenagers. Teens also played Mall Madness, a board game from Milton Bradley introduced in 1988 that tried to capture the excitement of soft pretzels and high-interest credit card shopping in one convenient tabletop game. Navigating a two-story shopping mall, the player who successfully spends all of their disposable income to acquire six items from the shopping list and return to the parking lot wins.

If you’re nostalgic for this simulated spending spree, you're in luck: Hasbro will be bringing Mall Madness back in fall 2020. Until then, check out some facts about the game’s origins.

1. Mall Madness was the subject of a little controversy.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Milton Bradley put a focus on the tween demographic. Their Dream Phone tasked young players with finding the boy of their dreams; Mall Madness, which began as an analog game but quickly added an electronic voice component, served to portray tweens as frenzied shoppers. As a result, the game drew some criticism upon release for its objective—to spend as much money as possible—and for ostensibly portraying the tweens playing as “bargain-crazy, credit-happy fashion plates,” according to Adweek. Milton Bradley public relations manager Mark Morris argued that the game taught players “how to judiciously spend their money.”

2. The original Mall Madness may not be the same one you remember.

The electronic version of Mall Madness remains the most well-known version of the game, but Milton Bradley introduced a miniature version in 1988 that was portable and took the form of an audio cassette. With the game board folded in the case, it looks like a music tape. Opened, the tri-fold board resembles the original without the three-dimensional plastic mall pieces. It was one of six games the company promoted in the cassette packaging that year.

3. Mall Madness was not the only shopping game on the market.

At the same time Mall Madness was gaining in popularity, consumers could choose from two other shopping-themed board games: Let’s Go Shopping from the Pressman Toy Corporation and Meet Me At the Mall from Tyco. Let’s Go Shopping tasks girls with completing a fashion outfit, while Meet Me At the Mall rewards the player who amasses the most items before the mall closes.

4. There was a Hannah Montana version of Mall Madness.

In the midst of Hannah Montana madness in 2008, Hasbro—which acquired Milton Bradley—released a Miley Cyrus-themed version of the game. Players control fictional Disney Channel singing sensation Hannah Montana as she shops for items. There was also A Littlest Pet Shop version of the game, with the tokens reimagined as animals.

5. Mall Madness is a collector’s item.

Because, for the moment, Hasbro no longer produces Mall Madness, a jolt of nostalgia will cost you a few dollars. The game, which originally sold for $30, can fetch $70 or more on eBay and other secondhand sites.

Why Do People Toss Beads During Mardi Gras?

Kameleon007/iStock via Getty Images
Kameleon007/iStock via Getty Images

Each year, more than 1 million people descend on New Orleans for Mardi Gras, an organized parade of debauchery and alcohol-induced torpor that may be the closest thing modern civilization has to the excesses of ancient Rome. Saturating the scene on Bourbon Street are plastic beads, handed or tossed to partygoers as a kind of currency. Some bare their breasts or offer booze in exchange for the tokens; others catch them in the air and wear the layers around their necks. Roughly 25 million pounds of beads are in circulation annually, making them as much a part of the Fat Tuesday celebration as sugary cocktails and King Cake.

Traditions and rituals can be hard to pin down, but Mardi Gras historians believe the idea of distributing trinkets began in the 1870s or 1880s, several hundred years after French settlers introduced the celebration to Louisiana in the 1600s. Party organizers—known locally as krewes—handed out baubles and other shiny objects to revelers to help commemorate the occasion. Some of them threw chocolate-covered almonds. They were joined by more mischievous attendees, who threw dirt or flour on people in an effort to stir up a little bit of trouble.

Why beads? Tiny tokens that represent wealth, health, and other prosperity have been a part of human history for centuries. In Egypt, tokens were handed out in the hopes they would guarantee a happy afterlife; the abacus, or bead-based system of accounting, used trinkets to perform calculations; pagan pre-winter rituals had people throwing grains into fields hoping to appease gods that would nourish their crops.

Humans, argues archaeologist Laurie Wilkie, display "bead lust," or a penchant for shiny objects. It's one possible reason why Mardi Gras attracts so many people with their arms in the air, elated to receive a gift of cheap plastic.

Photo of a well-dressed bulldog celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The early beads were made of glass before more efficient production methods overseas led to an influx of plastic beads in the 1960s. Unlike some of the more organic predecessors, these beads have come under criticism for being a source of health problems and pollution. Made from petroleum, they often harbor lead that seeps into the soil and rubs off on hands. (One estimate puts the lead deposit after a Mardi Gras celebration at 4000 pounds.) In 2017, New Orleans paid $7 million in clean-up costs to remove discarded beads from drain basins. In 2018, they installed gutter guards to prevent the necklaces from getting into the system in the first place. Meanwhile, scientists have been working to create an even more eco-friendly version of the beads—like a biodegradable version made from microalgae.

Environmental hazards aside, the beads of Mardi Gras have become as much a holiday staple as Christmas stockings or Thanksgiving turkeys. But the passion and desperate need for them is only temporary; in 2018, 46 tons of the beads were removed from just five blocks of the main parade route on Charles Street. And no bacchanal should leave that much bad juju behind.

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