If the takeaways from this week’s look at time-related issues regarding MOOCs and other independent learning resources are:
(1) On average, most MOOC and similar independent courses have a lighter workload than their brick-and-mortar equivalents; but
(2) Independent learners have a higher level of responsibility to keep themselves on track than they would in a traditional school setting
Then we’ve got to take a look at the best ways to discipline ourselves to get the most of out of the phenomenal free learning resources organizations like Coursera, edX and Udacity are handing over to us at no cost to anything but our time.
Because I’m taking an unusually large number of courses as part of this Degree of Freedom Project, my exaggerated experience can provide the type of insights you get from looking at outsized phenomenon (which is why we used to dissect huge bullfrogs to learn amphibian anatomy vs. tiny newts).
I was originally going to also lump in the fact that I’ve got to juggle both coursework and the “job” of writing daily for this blog, as well as keeping up with other obligations related to this project. But the more I learn about my fellow students, the more I realize that many (if not most) people dedicating themselves to free online learning are fitting their self education into lives that also include full-time or part-time work or traditional schooling.
So with that as backdrop, how should you best organize the time you’ve got to get the most out of what online learning has to offer?
Well to start with, I cannot emphasize enough the need to fit your classes into some kind of formal schedule.
I suppose there are some people out there who can jump in and out of a class whenever they like, possibly skipping a few weeks here and there and then catching up in some sort of learning binge that crams 3-4 weeks of classes into a few days. But I suspect that most people who slip a week in a class schedule soon find themselves slipping another week, then another, finally falling so far behind that it becomes easier to simply drop the course (or switch over to just auditing lectures – if they can even find the time for that).
So presuming that most people are trying to proceed systematically through a course, the first step is to set up some sort of schedule that ensures a certain amount of time each day is dedicated to listening to lectures, reading or working on class assignments.
In my case, I’ve established a rule that while mornings are the time to write, give interviews or work on publicizing this site, afternoons are dedicated to classwork. And given that I’m generally juggling 6-7 classes at a time, this means that every afternoon must include going through all of the lectures associated with at least one class.
Weekends are generally set aside for doing as much of the reading as possible for the upcoming week. This upcoming weekend, for instance, I’m planning to get through four more books of the Iliad for my Greek Hero class, Emerson and Wittgenstein essays for Modernism and Post Modernism, and a brief biography of Albert Einstein for the Special Relativity class that begins next week.
Because course syllabi spell out in advance what assignments are associated with each class, I can also build the time needed to take quizzes or write papers into this schedule. With regard to quizzes, I make one exception to my morning/afternoon rule and set aside Wednesday mornings to do most of the week’s testing. Partly, this is due to the fact that my mind tends to be a bit sharper during AM vs. PM hours. But I also like to make it a point to not take quizzes right after listening to a set of lectures to ensure I’ve internalized material I have learned, rather than just get a high quiz score from remembering something I listened to twenty minutes previously.
Within this framework, there is plenty of flexibility to modify which class I’ll focus on for any particular day. For example, this week I pushed my Modernism class towards the end of the week since I knew I wouldn’t be able to complete the assigned reading (Woolf’s To the Lighthouse) before then. Next week, however, I’ll probably take this same class earlier in the week to make room for a longer set of lectures I expect from my upcoming Einstein class.
These details are just meant to give you a sense of how one person is organizing his time with a full course load, and anyone balancing a more realistic load of 1-3 classes at a time has more flexibility to make a schedule work with other life obligations.
But the key is to have a schedule that places a high priority on getting the most out of your classes (not just going through the motions). For the flexibility provided by MOOCs and other online courses represent both a benefit for the independent learner and a trap that needs to be avoided at all cost.
For being able to take a class whenever and wherever you like, also means you can always tell yourself “Whatever, I can always catch up later!” as you let this week’s work slip a day, and then another day and finally a full week and then forever.
So even if MOOCs are slightly less demanding than traditional college courses, they are still demanding (especially if you want to get the most out of them). Which means you need to treat them as much like traditional courses as possible in terms of setting aside a fixed amount of time each week to do the work as well as possible, and not treat them like your favorite TV program that you can always catch up on during summer reruns.