Some of the observations I’ve made over the last few weeks with regard to many free classes I’ve been taking being easier to complete than equivalent classes I remember from college needs to be tempered by a couple of critical points.
First, not all open classes are equivalent in terms of their mission or required level of commitment. One of the most popular computer sciences courses offered by MITx, for example, is designed to be just as demanding as any classroom-delivered MIT course (requiring students to work on challenging assignments for as much as 30-40 hours per week).
In contrast, the profs who created my Property and Liability and Einstein classes clearly have a passion to expose as many students as possible to an important subset of the material they might teach in a semester-long class. As such, these classes demand 3-4 hours of commitment per week for their 6-8 week runs.
Most of the other courses I’m taking fall between these polls, which makes them equivalent to semester-long traditional courses for those students who choose to maximize their own learning while enrolled in those classes.
In this context, maximized learning derives from an understanding that those of us taking free classes are responsible for using the resources provided to us by a Coursera, edX, Udacity or other source to push ourselves in order to ensure learning has been achieved.
I provide a few examples of what these challenges might look like in this week’s newsletter, but the general recommendations I’ve been making to others committed to self-propelled learning include:
- Dedicate sufficient time to video lectures to ensure this material has been absorbed and understood. This means that for every hour of lecture, students should set aside two hours to give themselves enough time to stop and start lectures in order to take notes, rewind if they need to listen to a key point again, or pause to look up something the prof is talking about that needs clarification.
- Ensure that you’re applying the same quality listening to online lectures as you would to a professor lecturing to you live (with you sitting in the front row). This means NO MULTITASKING (e-mail off, Facebook and Twitter shut down, and any other distraction eliminated). In short, treat these like classroom actual lectures vs. background music.
- Do all of the assigned reading (and read every word closely, quietly and patiently – no skimming and no skipping, even if every word of reading isn’t required to finish homework, pass quizzes or complete other assignments)
- And speaking of assignments, do what you can to increase how challenging they are (rather than just do the minimum). For instance, if a peer-graded essay assignment gives you a choice about what to write about, write about the subject you know least about, giving you the opportunity to learn more about that topic in the context of completing a work product you will be submitting for grading. (Again, see this week’s newsletter for some examples.)
- Commit a certain amount of time to interact with others who are taking the same course, either via online class forums or (if possible) smaller subgroups (either live or virtual) you’ve created or joined to help mimic the give-and-take of traditional college classroom discussions or post-class bull sessions.
An uber-recommendation deriving from the advice above is to only take as many courses as you can savor.
This last bit of advice obviously falls into the “Do as I say, not as I do” category, given I’m juggling an unnaturally large course load as part of this Degree of Freedom project. But this project has other missions (including exposing myself to as many learning sources as possible in order to inform analysis on this blog and elsewhere). And even with my current schedule, the only thing I feel has been given short shrift from the list above has been the amount of time I’ve been able to commit to interaction with fellow students (a subject I’ll plunge into on another day).
For now, however, I’d like to pose the question that if you have done everything to maximize your own learning within one of these free classes, what should you get for your trouble?
The joy of learning might be a good enough answer for many people, but this blog began when I realized that much of the attention MOOCs were getting centered on the question of whether you should receive something more concrete (such as actual college credit) if you get through such a course successfully from beginning to end.
And it’s to this subject of credit that I’d like to turn to for the rest of the week.