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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

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