MOOCs and Independent Learners – 2

When this project began year ago, there were over 400 MOOC courses to choose from and today that number is closer to 600.  And if you add to that the number of other means of obtaining free college-level learning (such as curated courses from or lecture-based classes from iTunes U and elsewhere), we are inching our way towards that point when anyone interested in studying something can find a decent free course on the subject.

Now to put those numbers into perspective, today’s free learning catalog still doesn’t compare to the thousands of courses you would find in the catalog of a reasonably sized state university, and the quality, rigor and approach between these many free learning options varies considerably.  But just as quantity has been increasing over this last year, so has quality with MOOCs at the forefront of creating new standards for production levels and creativity that all online learning will be compared to from now on.

With MOOC-mania cooling somewhat, I expect the rate of course creation will level off.  And there is always the chance that the MOOC makers will hit a financial wall that will prevent them from continuing to grow their offerings.  But given that we are not likely to see a slowdown in the overall growth of free learning resources, it might be best to turn our attention not towards how to create more MOOCs but how to create more people read to take advantage of them.

As both boosters and critics have noted, MOOCs and other forms of free learning are not for everyone.  Throwing high-school kids (and even most college kids) in front of a computer where even the best teachers in the world are lecturing and hoping they will learn as well as they would in a smaller, interactive classroom was never likely to work, except for certain outliers (such as Battushig Myanganbayar, the 15 year old from Mongolia who anchored his successful application to MIT on his stunning performance in an edX engineering course).

But while some might see students like Battushig as unique cases, I suspect that he is simply someone who has a certain set of skills in abundance, the same skills that define the thousands of independent learners driven entirely by internal motivation to successfully complete MOOC courses .

If just a handful of people were driving themselves to learn with little to no external reward, then perhaps the independent learner could be seen as a freak of nature.  But the tens of thousands of people flocking to and completing challenging college-level massive courses represent a sample size large enough to determine what skills and attributes make up the independent learner.  And once we determine what this skill set includes, perhaps we will discover that they are just one more set of things to be taught, studies and learned.

I’ve focused on the notion of the autodidact before (and even proposed some ways such a construct could be measured).  But I think it’s safe to propose a few starting characteristics that likely make up an individual most likely to succeed as an independent learner.

First, all the general skills needed to be a good student are needed to be an independent one.  So diligence, organization, the ability to focus, active listening and reading skills are required by all learners, as is integrity when approaching things like testing, papers and other assignments (both the integrity to do the work honestly, and the integrity to put your all into every assignment, even if you could get the same grade cutting some corners).

An extra level of focus is likely required for the independent learner, given that they will be studying in an environment where nothing prevents them from filling their screens with endless distractions when they should be giving lecture videos (and associated note taking) their undivided attention.  And given what the Internet might be doing to our brains vis-à-vis reading, I suspect that students still capable of giving a book their undivided attention for hours on end are good candidates to be independent learners.

Independent learners also require an extra level of academic integrity, given the unsupervised nature of the work usually required to pass an online course.  The fact that most MOOCs are easier than their classroom counterparts also puts a special burden on independent learners trying to get the most out of every assignment.  For instance, writing a peer-graded paper that will get you to a passing score in a MOOC is not that difficult.  Which is why an independent learner should treat each paper they write as if they were going to hand it in directly to the professor for personal grading.

I would add a couple of special characteristics to the independent learner list, such as curiosity and a comfort level with imperfection (given that most free courses are works in progress).  The drive to create community (by participating actively in forum discussions or putting the effort into finding study partners for a course) is also likely to play an important role in the life of an independent learner.  Given my course load, community is one of the areas I let slack this year, but even small forays into existing online communities and the few one-on-one sessions I had with classmates showed me how much you can get out of building your own human interaction into an online learning experience.

If someone ever gets around to doing a formal study on who succeeds in these independent learning environments, I suspect some surprising characteristics would show up on the list.  For instance, I noticed over the course of this year that some of my drive was based on insecurity, specifically the feeling that I’ve never learned enough or done enough to warrant claiming success in a course (which motivates me to do more, including putting my studies to work in places like this blog).

Perhaps the abilities and attributes that go into being an independent learner are ones people are born with, or learn at the earliest of ages.  But given the huge diversity in age, experience, income level and demographics that make up the graduating class of most MOOCs, I strongly suspect that independent learning represents just one more subject that can be taught.

Some thoughts on how to do that (as well as some closing remarks) tomorrow.


2 Responses to MOOCs and Independent Learners – 2

  1. dave February 6, 2014 at 8:00 am #

    I came across your site because of my ChinaX Course. You have written some wonderful relevant articles. thankyou!
    I’m 60, retired and living in China for year 2. I’m teaching English and Spanish and I am not a teacher. I was looking online for some resources to help me teach and came across EdX.WOW never knew this type of opportunity was available. Free, flexible and at some fine Universities. I immediately signed up for 4 courses! ChinaX,Harvard,,English/ Berkley, Music Business/Berkley. My Chinese Architecture.starts later this month.
    I love it.
    Studying online has really validated for me that going on a hunch or two, to try and figure things out is ok. To Work outside of organizational structures but still respect them is key.Be able to get involved anywhere,anytime without previous knowledge,skill or experience. Know what you need, commitment, don’t give up! honesty, integrity. Throw in a few organization. time mgmt skills and your observations voila… independent learner! If students cant learn the way you teach, then teach the way they learn. Thanks again Great Site (I have to get back to my course as I got distracted by your article Ha! but I know this will come in handy some time sooner or later)



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