Doing MOOCs Right

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.

Next – ACEing MOOCs

9 Responses to Doing MOOCs Right

  1. Marion Waite April 16, 2013 at 7:12 am #

    I am reading all of your blog posts with interest. I think you are reporting some very insightful observations. I get the impression that so far (forgive me if I have misinterpreted) that you are following xMOOCs. Am I correct? If so, do you have any plans to join any connectvist MOOCs. I think if you did, it would be very useful for the community.

    Thank you again for sharing your work.

    • tzigi April 26, 2013 at 6:07 am #

      You’re the first person I’ve encountered on the internet to actually recommend cMOOCs. Do they really give you anything? I love xMOOCs but I don’t trust cMOOCs because they do not seem to present any actual knowledge or information. Maybe you could enlighten me on your experience?

  2. Kevin Weatherwalks April 16, 2013 at 6:00 pm #

    I can attest to the taking on only as many courses as you can savor. This past winter I was “enrolled” in over 20 coursera courses but only worked on about 7 at a time and even then I shirked some of the reading in the classes that I thought were less important. I just saved the course materials for a rainy day. Mondays had me spending a good 2-3 hours just downloading and sorting all materials for the week. I was seeking to get a good grounding in computer science but it turns out that I really don’t like programming that much. So I found out how much I truly love math, physics and engineering.
    Now that I have narrowed my focus to math and physics, I can really dig into each class and give myself time to pause and think about what I am learning so I can assimilate it much much better than I had been. I’m really looking forward to what the summer of MOOCs has in store!

  3. Lee April 25, 2013 at 6:18 pm #


    Just started reading your blog. Very interesting. I’m doing the gamification course and also just about to start on the music improvisation. The courses only overlap by a couple of weeks.

    I agree with only taking on what you can reasonably do. I only have time on my morning and evening commute (2hrs each way, only 1hr suitable for studying) to watch the lectures. Have to do the on line quizzes when I’m not travelling and try to do the written assignments on a laptop.

    I tried doing two courses but time constrainst just didn’t allow for it. The downfall I had was not taking into consideration how much effort some of the written assignments were, you should definitely pre plan for these and make sure you know what is required for each as soon as you can.


  4. tzigi April 26, 2013 at 6:04 am #

    While most of your points are great, I cannot agree with the point “no multitasking”. I litterally can’t do one thing at a time. While I’m studying in real life, I can’t just seat through a lecture and listen. I have to draw or use my computer – that includes facebook and some other attention requiring sites. I’m also taking several MOOC and the precise same thing goes for them. If I try to focus on one thing, I instantly find myself drifting away. The only subjects I had problems with during my first year of BA studies (I’m currently finishing MA studies and planning to enroll to PhD studies later this year) were those where I could not draw (I had no laptop at that time so drawing was the only option).

  5. Adele April 26, 2013 at 6:18 am #

    I found this post, and the video on the topic, very interesting, and I know for myself the perils of overscheduling, as over the past couple of years I have had to come to terms with the fact that no, I cannot manage more than one course at a time. (The main issue being that MOOC exams, while not lining up with mine, as I’m in a different hemisphere and not yet in university, did seem to consistently hit at a time that the workload for school was heavy.)

    One request for the video: though I speak English as a first language, I speak (and am used to hearing people speak) with a very different accent to you, so found some phrases of your video difficult to comprehend (for example, ‘The University of MOOC’) because of this. This has been an ongoing issue for me with taking courses from the US, as though I thought I had a good handle on accents there (comes from the amount of American television we all watch, I guess) I was forced to unenroll from some courses because of it. It’d be a pity to have to stop watching your videos!

    Thanks for your work.

  6. uri81 April 26, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    Thanks for useful tips,
    I started online learning two month ago in the UN institutions. Tips given by author are easy and useful. Now I enrolled in Coursera courses and think my approach to studying will be more qualified.

  7. Back2basic May 12, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

    Dear Dr. Haber (= Dr. Wisdom):

    Your observation and advice are extremely accurate and precise. Although I carefully budget my plan and time according to my school schedule, my family’s duty, my own dear interest in certain subject, and most of all, my minimum knowledge and ability to handle 50% of material, all other unexpected causes (such as family-in-law’s , good friend’s, grown children’s … in needs of my help and attention) have interrupted my focus and have taken away my time for “degree of freedom”. In other words, age and responsibility for self and for loved ones have played the crucial effect on the “degree of freedom” more than I could fathom.

    Again, I 100%+ agree with your wisdom outlined in this blog regarding the strict rule in learning whether it is online or it is in traditional classroom. Respectfully yours, May King.


  1. Degree of Freedom One-Year Degree: The MOOC Experiment | - April 25, 2013

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