Tag Archives: online

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: Why do I have to buy this textbook?

Textbooks – a major cost in university

text book stack: Why do I have to buy this textbook? Why do I have to buy this textbook?  At 50 dollars a book, roughly on the low end, and at 500 dollars on the high end, textbooks can be a major cost in university.  Let’s take a look at textbooks from three angles –  teacher, student, and the market.

Teachers perspective

From the professors perspective there are a number of reasons that a textbook is used with a class.  First and foremost, the textbook is complimentary/supplementary material as related to the course.  This means that ideas covered in lecture are also covered in the textbook in another voice, and by another voice, I mean that the authors of the textbook are teaching the material through writing, images, examples, and problems in a different way than the professor.  This is the most valuable aspect of a textbook, as supplementary information, but don’t think that the assigned textbook is the only voice to use to help your learn the course’s ideas.

There is this strange building(s) called the library that, likely, carries a number of textbooks in the related topic.  If you don’t like, are having trouble with, or can’t understand the assigned textbook, consult other textbooks to find the voice that speaks to you best and helps you learn the material.

Teachers might also use a textbook to help them organize how to present the material.  In some cases, your professor is not an expert in the field, and has some expertise, but not to the detail of teaching without a textbook.  In these cases, textbooks provide teachers with insight on one ways to organize the ideas and present them in a logical progression.  This includes problems and challenges associated with the material, which a textbook has carefully created, and likely, has worked out solutions.  Creating a problem related to the material is tricky.

Finally, teaching is time consuming.  Full disclosure: Textbook writers and publishers will incentivize professors by preparing materials including lectures, problems, exams, and quizzes so that the professor can save some of their time.

Student perspective

A textbook can be a major cost to your budget, but even required textbooks are not necessarily required.  You need to find out:

  1. How is the textbook used in this class?  Consult the syllabus and ask the teacher.  Is there open book exams and is this the only textbook you can use?  Are problems assigned from the textbook?
  2. Are there cheaper formats of the textbook – online, used, renting?  Depending on how the textbook is being used this can be fine, but beware that different textbook editions may change the problem numbering, references, and even include different material.
  3. Does the book make sense at my level of understanding?  If you can’t understand the book, check for others in the library.
  4. Does the book provide enough examples?   If it doesn’t do as above, and also look for problem and example books.
  5. Will the book be used in more than one class?  If it is, then the one-time cost can be thought of as lower as you divide the cost per class.
  6. Is this the textbook that everyone uses?  There are some textbooks that many universities use and professionals keep as a reference.  Check to see if the textbook is on all the professors shelves, or if someone working in the field has kept the book.  Normally, these textbooks will appear in your third and fourth year.
  7. How many copies and what lending out rules does the library have for the textbook?  Note that the textbook might be available in the library, but how long can you have it for?

Introductory textbooks in areas such as physics, calculus, english, philosophy, etc. are numerous and come in all shapes and sizes.  I found these books to be less useful, but again depending on question 1 you may or may not need to buy it.

One of the best methods to learn about textbooks is to make friends with people who are a year or two ahead of you and ask them what they thought about the textbook.  Peers provide valuable advice, but don’t take that advice as law.  More than one opinion and thinking for yourself is important in this decision, and the cheaper route is not always the best route.

Market perspective

This is the perspective I have the least understanding of since I’ve never been part of it.   As a student, I felt that many textbooks were a means to make money adding very little value to my courses.  On other occasions, the textbook taught me the course since the professor did such a poor job.

As a professor, the market is making someone money, and note, it is probably not your professor.  I would guess that a few publishers and bookstores are doing very well selling books.
Textbooks are part of university and college life.  Take some time to figure out if you need the book.

Credits: Photo by Logan Ingills; titled: just the ones i’m getting rid of