Catching Up

While the first six weeks of this blog were dedicated to subjects that each required a full week of entries to flesh out (an introduction to what this project is about, course components, course providers, time, testing, and credit), it’s now time to switch to a new mode where I’ll be talking about different subjects on different days.

I’m hoping to start including interviews with thought leaders from the world of MOOCs and other aspects of free learning sometime in the next few weeks, so stay tuned for this and other developments.

In the meantime, I wanted to keep a promise I made in this week’s Degree of Freedom weekly newsletter (which you can sign up for by punching your e-mail address into that box over on the right), and talk about the issue of falling behind (and catching up) when enrolled in a MOOC or other online class that offer the tempting but deceptive option of “learning anywhere at any time.”

“Anytime learning” means you can take your class on Monday, but if that doesn’t work out it can move it to Tuesday, Wednesday or even Friday.  But since slipping a day requires nothing but procrastination, slipping a week involves just more of the same.

The trouble is that once those weeks start to pile up, the amount of work needed to take a course to completion starts to become unmanageable.

On several occasions over the last few weeks, I’ve noted that the MOOC classes I’m enrolled in are probably less demanding time-wise that equivalent courses I remember from my brick-and-mortar college days.  But easier does not mean easy.  And even if a MOOC course requires just 4-5 hours to get everything done in a week (vs. 6-8 hours in a traditional class), missing a week means you’ve got 8-10 hours to make up the following week, missing two adds up to 12-15 hours, and so on.

And even if you can find the time to “cram” 3-4 weeks of classes into a single week, the quality of learning is likely to diminish if you’re not following the flow of a course that builds from week to week.  The best example of this comes from my original college days when a legendary crammer whose grade in a Spanish class depended entirely on a final exam (since he’d blown off much of the rest of the class all semester) complained that he had to learn the entire Spanish language in one night.

I suppose there are crammers out there who are following this pathway.  But more likely, someone who has let his or her work pile up will simply drop the class and join the majority of people who sign up for a MOOC class but never complete it.

Critics of the new learning methods make a big deal out of the low overall MOOC completion rates, but I’ve never been over-impressed either with the huge number associated with people who register for a MOOC or the tiny fraction associated with those registrants to do all of the work required to receive a grade or certificate.

For a lot of people sign up for classes simply because it’s free and easy to do so.  And of the people who sign up and start watching lectures, some are only interested in auditing (meaning watching lectures is all they’ll ever do), and some are simply “shopping around” to decide if the class is for them.

Of the fraction that have always intended to do all the work for a class, many of those who fail to get to the end explain that falling behind (and fear of never being able to catch up) was their primary reason for dropping the course.

As more people take MOOCs and talk about their experiences, word is getting out that these are real classes requiring a real commitment to listening closely to all the lectures, taking notes, doing all the reading and completing assignments to the best of their ability.  And all of these activities take time.

Having felt the panic of falling behind (with plans to spend extra time this week catching up), I sympathize with those who struggle to keep up with their course load in any educational situation.  But I would use this experience to urge anyone going down the route of self-propelled education to make their studies a major component of their weekly schedule, not something you fit in between other things you consider more important.

2 Responses to Catching Up

  1. Dan Companion April 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm #

    A time commitment to learning is probably one of the most underestimated part of an self-directed open educational opportunity. As an adult learner that has been enthralled by the MOOC movement, I was overjoyed and overwhelmed by the amount of content. As I started to get more formally organized, I realized I couldn’t attempt 4 full courses, it was simply too much.

    I would love to see a MOOC organizational interview application that helps you work through your educational needs; such as, a system that helps the learner identify prerequisites needed for a course and assist you with scheduling the time allocation needed to successfully understand the time commitment.

    Again, most institutions provide these services to their paying students but it is an important part of the overall process to getting started.

  2. Lee April 25, 2013 at 6:42 pm #


    I suggested to someone at work that people need to attempt, and drop out of, at least one or maybe two courses so they can see first hand how much effort is actually required. I reckoned I could do two simultaneously on my commute to work but after falling behind as I under estimated the time required for one of the written assignments (which to my surprise required interviewing several people over several hours) threw my schedule out so much that I just couldn’t complete it by the fast approaching deadline.


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