Making the most of MOOCs

It was 2012 and I was excited to learn that Coursera was launching. I was an applied researcher in natural language processing and text analytics, and thought I'd do a refresher of my machine learning basics. So I signed up for (and completed!) the 1st batch of courses, the one by Andrew Ng


What's the word for optimistically signing up for courses and never making any progress?

(If there isn't,  then I hope someone in some part of Germany is working on it as we speak).

The next few years were marked by acute 'signupitis'. I registered for MOOCs on biology, maths, CS, language, arts: anything that was a yawning gap in my knowledge portfolio during 20 years of formal education. I didn't make it past week 1 in any of them.

This year, I finally 'broke through'. Five years after my 1st Coursera sign-up, I've completed 3 courses so far this year. Since I see an increasing number of people taking up (or feeling compelled to take up) MOOCs, here are some observations in making sure you stay 'on course'.

Side Note: My online courses of 2017 have so far been about 'Learning to Learn', 'Understanding the Brain', and 'Grit'.

  • KNOW WHY Why are you taking up a course? Is it mere curiosity? Looking to bring insights into action? To make a role or career switch? Clearly understanding your motivation (we call it 'The Call' phase) will help you pick the right kind of course, stay motivated, and also expend the right amount of energy. For instance, I knew I had many gaps in the way I learnt a new subject. It also has direct application in my work. So I wanted to learn about research about "learning", and bring it to immediate action. In contrast, I was just curious about Neuroanatomy, so I didn't push myself too hard on the course material. When I didn't do well on the tests, I was fine with those results (though the old 'what rank did you get' mentality dies hard). I didn't 'purchase' these courses since I was not looking for 'certificate' proof of my completion.
  • FIND A 'GO TO' SLOT  Your current default routines and habits will need to change to accommodate a MOOC. Expect them to be as welcoming as a pack of sardines huddled together in a one room tenement. Before you begin a course, find a reliable time slot and space that you can always 'go to' for working on your course. Don't make the mistake of trying to wing it and do it when you have five minutes to spare. In my case, Saturday mornings at home were my 'go to' spot. A few weeks later, I began accompanying my child to a music class each week. Now, I had an hour per week to spare while waiting for the class to end. Using a mix of Coursera's mobile app, subtitled lectures, and headphones, I turned it into my 'Go To' slot.
  • AIM FOR AN OUTLET If, like me, you take up some courses just out of curiosity, it's very easy to go through the motions. If you don't consolidate your learning, it'll evaporate soon. Find at least one thing to do with your newly minted knowledge. Both me and a colleague have given talks on courses we'd taken to the rest of the Choose To Thinq team (here's mine).  I'm planning to set a quiz based on what I learned about the brain. A friend of mine taught children about biology based on a course he took. 
  • A LEARNING ZONE SHOULD BE A DISCOMFORT ZONE Only picking courses you will excel at? A MOOC is a great way to push your limits. It's a psychologically 'safe' space: your failures are between you and the MOOC platform (which is kind enough to let you retake exams and give feedback, unlike your 8th standard maths teacher). In my neurobiology course, I was encountering biology after 20 years and the terminology not clear. Result: I failed to clear a single post-module quiz on the first attempt. It dented my confidence for a while, but it gave my 'growth mindset muscle' a chance to develop. In contrast, I breezed through the more sedate 'Learning to Learn' course. Make your MOOC portfolio diverse and encourage safe discomfort!
  • BE NICE TO YOURSELF If you are not used to MOOCing yet, expect a few bumps. The rate of course completion is usually low (still looking for that word, Herr Wort). Getting through a MOOC involves a mix of self-discipline, time management, motivation, and environment. So don't be too hard on yourself. Reward yourself when you stick to the plan. Tell people around you that you are taking a course. Enlist their help in keeping distractions at bay. Begin with an easy, short course (I'd recommend the 4-week Learning to Learn on Coursera) to get used to MOOCs.

Have you been MOOCing? How has that been going? Any hacks or habits you'd like to share?

battle scars from a course that i found tough

battle scars from a course that i found tough

My 3 courses so far:

  1. Learning to Learn on Coursera. Easy, short course. Not too much rigour though. Must do if you are a product of a conventional academic education (i.e. prone to rote learning and exam-orientedness). Apparently, the most popular course on Coursera.  Here are my course notes.

  2. Understanding the Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life (again Coursera). 10 week (gulp!) course on the anatomy and function of various parts of the brain.  At times I felt like dropping out, but held on.

  3. Building Grit (a paid course on Udemy). A short (you can do this in about 2-4 hours) introduction to the idea of 'Grit' by Angela Duckworth, the person who came up with the concept.