Advice for Fellow MOOC Maniacs

The number of people writing to say they’re planning to take on their own Degree-of-Freedom like project in the near future has grown from one a month to one a day.

The stories these folks tell are varied (I’ve heard from at least two older people telling me they were actively looking to become a MOOC addicts after changes at work, while one young writer is trying to cram as much learning as he can into a gap year before heading off to college), which demonstrates that MOOCs are one of those “stones-thrown-in-the-water” technologies where you never know where ripples will land.

At various points during this project I’ve offered advice on how to get the most from a MOOC class (and the kind folks at Coursera have also let me blog/vlog on the subject now and then).  But rather than make would-be MOOC-iacs hunt for these suggestions, here’s a distillation of what I’ve learned so far that might be of use to fellow learners planning to take one course or dozens:

(1)    Treat your MOOCs like genuine college courses in terms of watching all the lectures, doing all the reading and putting your all into assignments (especially open ended projects like essays).  Unfortunately, not all MOOCs provide truly challenging ways to demonstrate achievement, so when a decent assignment comes along you should use it as an occasion to put your learning to work.

(2)    Most people drop out (or stop-out) of classes because they fall behind a week or two and never recover.  So if you decide to take multiple courses, avoid a work pile-up by putting yourself on some kind of regular schedule (I currently have specific weekday hours set aside for lectures, and bunch up reading on the weekends, for example).

(3)    Take notes for all your classes (even the ones that provide handouts or slides).  Note taking is an activity that recruits both your brain and sense organs in the process of internalizing information vs. just passively letting information wash over (or pass through) you.

(4)    If your courses contain quizzes associated with a set of lectures, try to put a gap of at least 24 hours between watching the lectures and taking the quiz.  This will let the test determine if you’ve really internalized the material vs. just regurgitating information that’s not yet found its way into long term memory.

(5)    Try to find a group with whom you can share a class.  If you can recruit friends and neighbors to take a class together, bravo!  But even if you have to create a virtual group, learning is best done in a team (I’ll be writing a lot more on this subject next week).

(6)    Gather information about your class (submitted work, grades, course description, etc.) as soon as it ends.  You may think you’ll never need this stuff again after a course is completed, but having recently started a portfolio of my work I can attest to the fact that important information can be hard to track down after a class is over.

(7)    Don’t cheat!  (Nuff said.)

(8)    And finally, only take as many courses as you can both handle and savor.

That last suggestion must sound rich from someone cramming eight courses into every three months.  But my project has a set of goals separate from pure learning that require me to work at this pace (notably, I want to gain exposure to the widest variety of platforms, subjects, institutions and lecturers in the shortest amount of time in order to be able to talk intelligently about the broader topic of MOOCs and free learning now, not four years from now).

But if I were to do this again with education alone as the goal, I’d make sure to give each course enough time to build a community, participate in discussions, and do anything else that maximized what I put into (and thus got out of) a class.

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