Procrastination – MOOCs and Timing

During a month which requires juggling 6-7 classes, I seem to be doing the same thing I did last time the timing of courses reached this level of concentration: blowing off my Udacity class.

Previously, it was Udacity’s Intro to Statistics that I stretched out for weeks and months until I finally made it a priority to complete it successfully.  This time, it’s their new Psychology class where I’ve been stuck in Lesson 12 for three weeks.

The problem with obvious potential explanations of this repeat phenomenon (that their classes are too hard or not any good) is that neither is true.  In fact, I quite liked their Stats course (which was reviewed here), and their Psych course is actually doing one of the best jobs I’ve seen so far of creatively mixing up the learning experience (by including field trips, interviews and even skits to liven things).  And while these courses come much closer to covering the scope of what you’d get in a full-semester class at a traditional university, the material is not any more difficult than other classes I’ve taken in scientific and non-scientific subjects.

Now it may be at the length of my Psych course (which includes 16 lessons, each of which requires a couple of hours to complete) is causing stress.  And by a strange coincidence, the subject of that Lesson 12 I mentioned being stuck on earlier is stress and its impact on the brain and physiology.

The most recently completed part of that lesson includes a rundown of methods for reducing stress that can be broken into two major categories: Problem-Focused Coping (which involves trying to find a solution to whatever “stresser” is causing you agita), and Emotion-Focused Coping (which can include a range of activities for controlling your emotional reaction to a stressful situation, rather than trying to solve the problem underlying that stress).

Taking a step back from my current situation, the stresser seems to be not Udacity’s Psych class at all but the fact that I am juggling too many time-consuming activities (which includes not just classes but writing daily blog entries and other work associated with the overall Degree of Freedom project).  And the problem-focused coping strategy I seem to have accidentally settled on is taking classes that do not have weekly deadlines (including Psych and my self-curated class on Pragmatic philosophy) and spreading them out so that a 6-7 class per week schedule actually seems more like 4-5.

Another technique the course taught about is the emotional coping strategy of disclosure which involves talking or writing about a stressful situation in order to bring emotions to the surface.  And I suppose the piece you’re reading falls into this category.

So even if I seem to be inching my way through Udacity Psych more slowly than I would like, apparently the subject matter is sinking in enough to allow me to use it to explain my own behavior.

Putting aside this post-modern analysis for a moment, there is a broader takeaway to this discovery with regard to the difference in behavior triggered by synchronous vs. asynchronous learning.

If you read through this piece, you’ll understand my somewhat eccentric use of these terms (synchronous being applied to classes on a fixed calendar, asynchronous to classes that allow you to start and finish anytime you like and work at your own speed).  In this case, it has been my asynchronous classes (including Udacity, Udemy and Saylor courses, as well as my own self-study projects) that have been the easiest to skip on weeks where the demands of synchronous classes have taken precedent.

Now your takeaway from this discussion is not that one form of MOOC timing is superior or inferior to the other.   In fact, if the only class I was taking was Psych, I’d probably be thrilled to have the chance to blow through the whole thing in 3-4 weeks, rather than wait for new lessons to be published on a weekly basis over multiple months.

But the choice of whether to place a course on a fixed calendar vs. making it on-demand seems to create different dynamics.  Which is something every MOOC maker (and MOOC taker) should consider as they decide how they want to teach or learn a specific subject.


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