After His Son Co-Founded Coursera, He Became Its Earliest Student and Completed 146 Courses

Note: In light of many of us receiving our SkillsFuture credits by 1 Oct 2020 (and for some 31 Dec 2020), the following account is part two of RICE’s Extreme Upskilling series, where we speak with an individual who has gone above and beyond the norm in what we now refer to as ‘skills upgrading’.  You can read part one here . This account has been lightly edited for clarity.
My name is Ronald Paul Ng and I’m 74 this year.
As a child, I grew up in a middle-class family in Hong Kong and found my passions in reading and music. As far as I can recall, I was always at the bottom of my class in primary school. Then I took an interest in playing the violin and the viola and somehow, leapt to the top of my class.
While still a student, I was asked to join the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. I remember seeing the professionals getting paid to attend rehearsals and concerts while I, being just a student, was only paid for the concerts (not the rehearsals).
From then on, I was spurred to learn the violin and viola even more. Over time, I fell in love with it. My appreciation for music grew. While one aspect of it is learning the techniques to master a musical instrument, the other aspect is fitting in with an orchestra. The meta-lesson here is harmony, which is your ability to listen to other musicians and collaborate with them.
This also helped me excel in class, sometimes without even much studying! To this day, I believe music and its collaborative nature opened up certain channels in my brain, allowing me to understand concepts, both inside and outside of the classroom.
At first, I didn’t think much of it. But little by little, I would continuously learn and take up more courses over the years. Today, I’ve completed 146 courses and am still going!
If you ask me why I did it, I don’t have a straight answer. Maybe it’s the same way I perceive my music and being part of an orchestra. I did it simply for the love of doing it.
After graduating from Hong Kong University and having become a specialist, I came to Singapore in 1984, aged 38, to start my private practice as a doctor. Yet, while doing so, I also volunteered with the SAF as a medic.
At first, I went through the Military Medical Course with other volunteer nurses and doctors, and became a captain. After a few years, I was sent to attend an Advance Medical Officer Course. When the OC of a company could not attend ICT, I was appointed acting OC and soon after, the actual OC.
There was once, when the men were being taught how to set up IV drips in camp, I let them set up on me, knowing they might fail. After that, they would be willing to do it to each other for practice.
The Silver Lining of Taking An Unexpected Course
In case you’re wondering, no, taking online courses is not my day job. But I’m glad to admit that my interest in lifelong learning has taken me places, from the SAF to my current workplace, and the digital space.
I currently work (still working at 74!) as a specialist in haematology, or blood-related diseases, at the Icon Haematology Centre in Singapore. I am also a Principal Mediator with the Singapore Mediation Centre and Volunteer Court Mediator with the State Court.
Because he’d been out of his home country for more than 3 months, his blood test didn’t show any evidence of that. However, recalling my online course, I learned that it’s possible to measure the level of mercury in our hair. When hair first starts to grow, the blood level of mercury (if traces of it exist), would be present in its tip.
So I approached NTU, where I took the Forensic Medicine course, and spoke with the professor.
He asked for a strand of my patient’s hair. Lo and behold, the tip of the man’s hair had high concentrations of mercury, which proved my patient’s testimony—and justified my taking the online course!
This is one example where I believe it is good to know about other disciplines and having cross-domain knowledge. You never know their true value until they hit you.
A specialist in a particular field of knowledge is someone who knows more and more about something, but in the end, knows everything about nothing.
Establishing Routines But Looking Beyond the Science
Over the years, while taking my online courses, I’ve learned to develop a routine. I make notes on my tablet or on Evernote. I make a conscious decision to schedule my online lectures and do my assignments across different days of the week.
After days of ICT in the field, with no facilities for washing and days of army rations, returning to base after field training and taking that first cold shower from a hose felt heavenly. That first plate of Hokkien mee at the hawker centre—better tasting than any food in a Michelin-starred restaurant. These life lessons taught me that we need very little in life to make us happy, provided we have that frame of mind to enjoy whatever we have.
Being trained and involved in mediation has also made me realise that my practice in medicine is more than just scientific knowledge to help the sick. It is an art, especially when dealing with people and communicating different aspects of their well-being to them.
Similarly, most of us have this idea that learning is simply to learn a skill in order to “upgrade” and earn more money.
The joy of learning helps keep the mind sharp and allows us to appreciate the beauty of the subject matter. When I did a course on Einstein’s Special Relativity, I was in awe of the wonders of the universe and how they are structured.
For lack of a better phrase, it blew my mind.
Personally, we need to look at our children and learn like them. Children are always asking why this, why that, and wondering how things work. We need to remain mentally young and have the same sense of wonderment.
Lifelong learning is not just a matter of learning something useful. It is a way to keep our minds young, just like how picking up that violin years ago, has brought me to where I am today.
Listed by Course Name / Discipline / University / Year and Month of Completion / Online Course Platform, and sorted from earliest to latest date.
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