Category Archives: Should

CollegeQandA asks: Should I be using MOOCs in conjunction with my typical college education?

Should you be doing MOOCs while you’re doing your normal courses?

If you haven’t heard of MOOCs (massive online open courses) then, briefly, they are, as the acronym says, big courses that you can do online.  There are a number of platforms that provide MOOCs such as Coursera, Udacity, edX, and Khan academy.  Universities sometimes are hosted on these platforms or offer their own MOOCs.  The topics covered in these MOOCs are vast and varied. There is a heavy focus on computer science because of the link between MOOCs and technology, but most fields have some course covering almost all the intro courses and some more advanced courses.  These courses can be offered for free, or if there is some sort of qualification, then you pay for the verified assessment and credential.

Highland CowThe bigger philosophy behind the MOOC is that modern technology allows some of the best teachers to provide instruction at a mass scale beyond the walls of traditional universities and college.  Early research has shown some successes, but other results that even though these courses have massive enrollment, the success rate can be much lower than typical classrooms (in the 5 to 20% range).  Even the successful students are already familiar with the material and self select.

So, are MOOCs going to be useful to you and your education?

It depends.

Let me, first, describe my MOOC experiences.  My first course was a google search course.  The time commitment was around 8 hours and I learned a few ideas to improve my search skills.  Next, I enrolled in one of the earlier Artificial Intelligence courses that I soon dropped out of, because I couldn’t spend the ten plus plus hours a week needed to complete the assignments.  I didn’t do any more online courses for a few years until recently in my research leave where I completed both Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects and Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential in the last two months (both courses are offered for free on Coursera).  Finally, I enrolled for a course on teaching, but dropped it shortly after enrolling because of the time commitment.

In all of this, my key take away is that time is a huge factor for me, and I need more then a passing interest to commit to a course.  I, personally, am not interested in the online peer community, and my lack of commitment to community (online) is a big loss in this form of education.  Also, the courses I tend to complete have shallow assessments, such as quizes, and I might argue that the skills that I’m learning from these courses are not that complex.  I, however, would highly recommend the two MOOCs listed above to everyone since they provide value regardless of what field you are studying in helping you manage time and learn.

So, should I?

In the bigger sense, I think MOOCs are great opportunities for you in non-semester time (the summer and breaks).  These courses require significant dedication, and unless you have a really light semester of traditional school work, I would stay away from them during your normal times.  The exceptions are:

  • Find a MOOC that parallels one of your traditional courses.  In this case, the MOOC is a potential secondary source of information to supplement your learning.  Personally, I’ve never had a chance to parallel a MOOC with a live course, but I suspect it would be a great opportunity.  If anyone has done this and wants to provide the rest of us with enlightenment, feel free to email me your thoughts and I’ll make a guest  post for the rest of us.
  • Doing a short course in the beginning of the semester when you have a little extra time.
  • Taking a meta-skill course such as Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master or Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential since these types of courses will help you develop skills to succeed in your current courses.

Credits: Photo titled: Highland Cow by Mike Davison


CollegeQandA asks: Should I be gaming the college system?

Should I be gaming the college system?

Gaming, in this sense, is pursuing an activity by satisfying requirements, but looking for and exploiting flaws in the rules of the system to easily and/or quickly achieve them outside the spirit of the system.  My definition does not make any mention that gaming a system is good or bad, and rule based systems are very difficult to make perfect and are almost all exploitable.

stacks of atari games

Gaming is fine depending on the goal

You have to have your own goals set to determine if gaming a system is a good or bad thing.  For example, in the tax system, if your goal is to maximize how much you and your family earn in a year, then any gaming rules that makes you pay less tax would be considered good.  Alternatively, if your goal is to help fund your societies infrastructure, then you should avoid loopholes and pay the tax that you believe your system requires.

What about education?

Again the goals you have are your guide.  Here are some examples of goals that suggest you should game the system and just get what you want:

  • I want a degree
  • I want to be called “Dr.”
  • I want letters beside my name
  • I want a 4.0 GPA
  • I want to say I’m an alumnus of school X
  • I want  degree Y so I can do activity Z

Here are some goals that suggest you should not worry about gaming the system, but instead learn the material and work hard:

  • I want to better understand how our world works
  • I want a career in field X
  • I want to develop my intellectual and cognitive abilities

Again, your goals are your goals, and I’m not here to judge there goodness or badness.  I’m, personally, biased to the later goals.  However, I think understanding the educational system and gaming it at certain times is a valid tactic.  For example, there are times in higher education where you are overwhelmed with work.  Tactically, selecting the highest priority/value work at those moments is a smart choice in my book.

Credits: photo titled: Games; by Axel Tregoning


CollegeQandA asks: Should I go to graduate school?

Who goes to graduate school?

Should I go to graduate school? This is an important question to consider as you complete your undergraduate and try to plan out your career. We will take a few perspectives on the whys and why nots.

Clock with 3 replaced by word career

Rarely just because

Many people who I’ve talked to about going to graduate school include the answer, “just because”.  I, probably, should be included in this camp, but my other reason for going to graduate school was that a professor a respected and listened to told me to go to graduate school.  I, obviously, had a great plan for my future.  The trick here is graduate school can:

  • Cost significant amounts of money
  • Costs more money in terms of lost opportunity cost
  • Takes time
  • Is not a guarantee of being completed successfully
  • Might not impact your life goals

The first piece to choosing to go or not to, is to have some sort of plan on where and what you want to do.

Let’s start with the Master’s degree

In most cases, a masters degree is a financial end career total earnings the best degree to get.  Still, that does not mean you should just do the degree.  Also, this is general advice on the Master’s degree and there are a tonnes of factors to consider depending on your individual case including current debt, area of study, job market, location in the world, school to attend, etc.

The masters degree is an opportunity to spend one to three years delving deeper into academics via courses, projects, and in some cases, a thesis.  This additional depth means that you will improve your ability to think and do, and people who can think and do better tend to get paid more if there is demand.

One other thing I noticed when I did my Master’s was that I got to tackle problems that I wouldn’t have gotten a chance to work on until 2-5 years into an industrial career.

Finally, I know many people who say they plan on doing their Master’s later.  This is possible, but in most cases getting paid and the prospect of doing a Master’s and being paid significantly less (if anything) is very tricky to do.

For the Ph.D. degree

In almost all cases, I think the main reason to pursue a Ph.D. degree is if you want to become a professor (or really think you want to become a professor).   I, highly, recommend you read The Professor is In before starting that degree to understand the nature of the faculty job world.  If you start with the basic idea that a Professor self-replicates by advising and creating Ph.D students, then you quickly see how a market with exponential growth doesn’t have positions for everyone in it and is competitive – Amazon.

If you have another reason to do a Ph.D, then as long as you see it as a means to get what you want then it is fine.  That is unless the reason is you want to be called Doctor; not worth the toil for such a title.

Credits: photo titled: Clock-career; by Flazingo Photos


CollegeQandA asks: Should I major in Engineering?

Should I major in Engineering?

Engineering BuildingShould I major in Engineering?  This is a specific question that I’m dealing with here, but one that I’m biased towards, and therefore, I have an opinion on.  The answer is yes.

I think engineering is a great major.  Student’s who complete this major have the capabilities to do and learn almost anything afterwards.  Getting the engineering degree, however, is a commitment that takes both significant time and effort.  In many ways, I feel like my undergraduate degree was harder than anything I have done and learned since (though improving my writing has been exceptionally hard).

What is Engineering?

This question should be asked and explored by every major where you replace engineering with your major.  In most cases, the answers are very broad since a major is a label for a vast area of human knowledge and exploration, but practitioners should be able to give you a sense of what a particular major is.

Broadly, engineering, which is sometimes called applied science, is solving problems (by designing a solution) with the use of techniques and knowledge from mathematics and science while constrained by financial and ethical realities.  The types of problems are broad coming from areas such as the health industry to the retail industry, but they have one common aspect.  These problems are our problems whether they be human desires or human challenges.

Most people living in the first world can look around the room they are in presently, and almost every item in that room has gone through stages of engineering problem solving to create the item cheaply, safely, efficiently, etc.  Look at the power outlet.  The screws, the face plate, the outlet, etc. were all designed by an engineer(s).

What do you study in an Engineering major?

Engineering is a broad category that is broken down into specializations such as mechanical, electrical, computer, and chemical engineering (to name a few).  Typically, these specializations are created when there is enough industrial and commercial demand that future engineers in those domains need a focused set of courses covering specific topics.  For example, there is not much difference between electrical and computer engineers, but because of the rise of the computer industry in the 80s and 90s we made the distinction.  However, engineers start all their majors dealing with common introductory topics such as calculus, algebra, probability, statistics, physics, chemistry, programming that apply to almost all engineering fields.

At most schools, the first two years of a major deal with these broad basics in mathematics, sciences, and communication (written and spoken).  In the second year, students will start learning about the basics of the domain they have chosen to major in and will start to see how some of the earlier learned basics are applied to some aspect of the domain.

The third and fourth years will cover more in depth topics as related to the field, but this is just a sample of what practicing engineers do, and even in a field such as electrical engineering a student will further specialize in an area such as communication, electronics, electromagnetics, photonics, power, etc.

The reality is an undergraduate engineering degree is a broad exposure to a field where that student is expected to apply science, math, and engineering design to solve problems.  This, typically, means that engineering has a doing portion where throughout their study, students will build artifacts and prototypes in the lab and in design courses.  However, there are so many careers that an engineer could take that even the senior courses are broad introductions to the specialities.

Why is it such a great major?

In my opinion, an engineering major pushes a person’s mind not only in how to design a working system that solves a problem, but solves that problem with an understanding/application of science and mathematics as tools.  In other words, the major will push your brain to grow in leaps and bounds each semester with challenging ideas that are both theoretical and practical.  At the the end of the degree, you are directly employable since you can build things to solve problems.  Still, you don’t have to be a practicing engineer since the skills learned can be applied to a vast range of problems and opportunities in all varieties of areas.  The degree is not to be taken lightly, but those of you who are committed and willing to work and learn hard will find the results very satisfying.

Credits: photo titled: engineering; by DaveBleasdale


CollegeQandA asks: Should the department of my major be highly ranked?

How good should your department be?

Should the department of my major be highly ranked?  Your department is a division within the university where your major (or minor) is housed and mostly administered.  In many cases, a department will determine the curriculum to earn a major, and will teach the classes in relation to that major.  For example, a physics undergraduate major will be part of the physics department.

Podium medals

What will rankings tell you?

First, what might be some good rankings to look at from a department perspective (as opposed to rankings for entire universities).   US news rankings is not a great source since the departments are ranked based on graduate ranking.  This means the main measurements are related to research output, and these metrics have little impact on undergraduate education.  LinkedIn’s career rankings is an interesting way to approach ranking your major since it measures departments in terms of career prospects of active alumni, and this would be the ranking system I might use.

Still, the limitation of rankings is that a few metrics are used to evaluate quality, and the relevance of those metrics are questionable depending on your case.  A better approach is to have an understanding of what majors are learning and where are they working afterwards (where LinkedIn works well).  Those two questions are more relevant to your individual case than perceived and measured metrics.

Another, it doesn’t matter, it’s up to you

From an undergraduate perspective, I feel that similar to choosing a college, how well ranked your department is has very little importance in your undergraduate degree.  However, if you know where you want to work (both job and location), then specific schools may serve specific markets.

Most state and provincial schools supply employees to local companies, and a few of their graduates will find their ways into top global corporations.  It is useful to look at your potential schools pipelines.  However, your first job is a first step that will lead to many other opportunities if you perform well.  Your undergraduate is an opportunity to learn and grow.  Any department at a good school will push you in this growth, and where you take yourself really depends on your efforts in learning and doing.

Credit: photo titled: Paola ESPINOSA y Tatiana ORTIZ, bronce, ¡Felicidades México!; by Marco Paköeningrat