how I’ve been approaching MOOCs

For a while there, I almost forgot I had a blog. At the start of the fall, I decided to sign up for a bunch of online courses: mostly Coursera-hosted, but also a couple on Udacity, and then in October I signed up for a class on edX and another class on Stanford’s open source platform, Class2Go. Did I really intend to “take” all of those courses at the same time?

Of course not, although I am committed to finishing the Udacity courses I’m in, as those relate most closely to some personal projects I’m working on (more on that another time). But even if I had wanted to finish all those courses, I signed up for so many that it would have been impossible. Mainly, I just wanted to explore.

Free online courses – I mean MOOCs, but it still sort of pains me to write “MOOC” – look for the most part like regular in-curriculum courses so it’s no surprise that the language we already have for talking about taking classes (“enroll”, “take”, “drop”, etc.) gets applied to MOOCs as well. But I don’t think simple add/drop language really captures how I’ve come to approach online courses over the past six months.

Jokes about being a “serial MOOC dropout” aside, I’ve come to believe that the fact that you aren’t obligated to finish these courses is actually one of the features that makes them valuable to a post-school learner like me. Obviously, you’re usually going to get more out of a course if you complete it than if you don’t. But traditionally, if you enroll in a course and then find you can’t finish it, you either drop it or you take a stiff penalty for doing poorly. Either way, once the course is done, that’s it. When I was in college, I used to attend a bunch of different courses during the first week or two of a term, collect syllabi, and then pare down my schedule to what I could manage. Pretty much all I got out of the courses I didn’t take were syllabi and reading lists.

Many MOOCs, however, allow you to download all or most of the course materials for your own personal use. It’s still not as good as taking an actual online or in-person course, but it’s more than getting just a syllabus and often more than what gets posted on university OpenCourseWare sites (which I nevertheless find quite useful). From this perspective, I think Tim Burke is right when he writes that “maybe MOOCs are an exciting new form of publication, not teaching” (although I’d push back a little and argue that publications can teach).

At the same time, if you want to try things out – at least while the class is still “live” – you usually can even if you don’t plan to finish the course. This may not work with courses that have peer assignments – I haven’t taken any of those – but the courses that make use of auto-grading open up the platform to everyone who signs up. You won’t get personalized attention, but sadly that’s the case with most MOOCs whether or not you finish them.

When I first signed up for an online course, I hadn’t really thought much about these affordances. I was still operating under the assumption that if you can’t take a course, you just drop it. As it happened, the first course I signed up for was a natural language processing course offered by Stanford last spring. There was a delay between the initial announcement and the actual course launch and by the time the class started I was so busy finishing up grad school that I had no time for it. So I “dropped” it and never even logged in to look at the materials.

I’d never do that now; instead, I’d have at least signed in to download the materials for future reference.

Looking back, I see that over the course of the summer and fall, without really intending to in any systematic way, I’ve developed the following approaches to MOOCs:

(Disclaimer: These are general, overlapping categories, and sometimes I move a course from one category to another. But I find it more helpful to frame things this way than to earnestly believe I’m going to finish every class I sign up for. Letting assignments go without thinking about them took a surprising amount of getting used to.)

Collection-building: this is pretty much an extreme form of treating a MOOC like a traditional publication. Sometimes, when I learn about an interesting book that will be available temporarily for free, I download it even though I know it could be a long time before I read it. Similarly, sometimes courses are offered on topics I want to learn more about, but which are not currently priorities for me. In those cases, I’ll sign up simply to gain access to the content.

If the course looks good,  and the platform allows downloading, I’ll save my own copy of the materials as they become available. This can take up a bunch of storage space, but there’s no guarantee that the course will be offered again or that the learning platform will continue to allow access after the course is over (or that the learning platform will even continue to exist). Saving the material locally means that I’ll at least be able to view the lectures and possibly do the readings – if they’re openly available, which they sometimes aren’t – when I’m ready for it. It’s sometimes even possible to save the exercises, though there won’t be anyone to grade them.

(I should note that this isn’t an exclusive category: I also save the materials for courses where I do more than just add to my MOOC collection.)

Exploration: this is probably the approach I use most frequently. Much like collection-building, I do this for courses where the topic isn’t really a priority, but I want to know more about it. But unlike with collection-building, I’ll do the first quizzes or assignments. Usually, this is because the course involves some tool or technique or method I just want to try out and the course gives me a controlled environment where I can do that. If a course just gets me to install and mess around with some tool (or language or whatever) I’ve been curious about, that by itself can make it worthwhile to have signed up.

Other times I sign up for courses that ask for prerequisites I don’t really have – many technical courses are like this – and I want to see just how much I have to learn if I’m going to try to complete a similar course “for real” in the future. You’d be surprised at how much you can learn while not finishing a course.

Auditing: this is more or less equivalent to auditing a regular course. Here my plan is simply to listen to the lectures and do some of the readings, but not to do the assignments. Or at least, if I write something about the course material, I’ll do that on my own, outside of class time and not necessarily in response to the class prompts. I tend to reserve auditing for fields where I already have a lot of experience doing the work – like history.

Taking: yes, I actually do take some courses in the traditional sense. This can be the most difficult category for me to determine ahead of time. Most of the courses I’ve seen at Coursera and edX have time limits and if your schedule doesn’t fit into that time frame it can be quite difficult to keep up. Often, a busy week or two in non-MOOC life can be enough to throw everything off.  As a result, my default approach is to explore and then I re-evaluate as the course progresses. It’s no coincidence that the courses I’m currently still “taking” are self-paced Udacity courses, which I know I’ll be able to finish eventually.

I’ve mostly limited my “real” course-taking to what I consider foundational courses, such as learning how to program, or courses that are directly related to personal projects I’d like to carry out, such as web development. After all, my goal in taking courses isn’t simply to be able to say I’ve taken courses: it’s to learn things that I can and will put into use.

MOOC-learning isn’t the only learning I’ve been doing lately. In fact, I’ve found myself turning back to regular books, including tech books. But as this post has already grown far longer than I intended, I’ll save the MOOC-to-book discussion for another day.

a MOOC disclaimer

From my “Statement of Accomplishment” – not a certificate – for the Coursera course in Human-Computer Interaction, taught by Scott Klemmer of Stanford:

Please note: This online offering of Human-Computer Interaction does not reflect the entire curriculum offered to students enrolled at Stanford University. This document does not affirm that you were enrolled as a Stanford student in any way; it does not confer a Stanford grade; it does not confer Stanford credit; it does not confer a Stanford degree or a certificate; and it does not verify the identity of the individual who took the course.

The statement seems reasonable given that I took the quiz track, which meant that the only work I “showed” were the answers to 19 multiple choice quiz questions. I’m actually a bit surprised I did well enough to reach the “accomplishment” threshold: there was a substantial penalty for quizzes submitted after the due dates and I started a few weeks late. My original intention was just to audit, and I did watch all of the lectures. I took the quizzes just because they were there. I can’t say I’m a fan of multiple-choice – especially the “choose the ‘best’ answer” style of multiple choice – but what I got out of the lectures outweighed my dislike of the quiz format.

All in all, I thought it was a good course, even if the way I approached it made it more like a videobook than an actual class. There was another track where you built and tested your own designs and reviewed others’ projects, but I was too late to participate in that. If anyone reading this is interested in taking the course when it’s offered again, I recommend trying that track out if you have the time.