A funny thing happened as I attempted to turn from a fanatic to a leisurely learner.

My original thought was that once I was done taking eight courses every three months as part of last year’s Degree of Freedom project, I would still continue to take a couple of courses at leisure, with time now freed up to throw myself fully into each one (including participating actively in discussion – one area of MOOCs I never had enough time to do during my One Year BA).

But as January turned to February and now to March, I realized that without the framework of a faux-degree program, I’ve basically turned into an auditor on the MOOCs I’ve been continuing or signed up for.  Deadlines for assignments, which I had carefully mapped on each week’s calendar in 2013, became dates I tried to keep in my head, but quickly forgot about.  And thus, post “degree,” I’ve become one of those statistics of someone who signs up for a class but doesn’t earn a certificate.

At first, I thought this loss of learning momentum might just be a continuation of some of the burnout I was experiencing towards the end of last year, with commitment to course work hindered by a schedule filling up with other activities, such as getting another draft of my MOOC book to MIT Press, speaking gigs (some of which involved travel), and family obligations (including vacation).  Yet an even more hectic schedule didn’t keep me from keeping track of far more courses and getting all my work done last year.

Reflecting on my own behavior, I realized I’d become an example of a lesson that was stressed in nearly every piece of writing I did over the last fourteen months; one that pointed out the need to treat MOOCs with the same level of seriousness one would treat a college course at a residential college or university.

This was the key lesson I learned after enrolling in my first MOOC, where I treated the first half like a podcast (earning mediocre grades in the process), then switching gears to treat it like a real course (which led to much higher grades during the second half of the course).   With that lesson always in the back of my mind, I made sure that every course I took as part of my One Year BA was on a strict schedule, that I was taking notes during lectures, carving out reading hours, and setting aside specific and sufficient time to complete assignments to the best of my ability.

Without that framework in place, I seem to have slipped back into passive learning mode, one where I listen to lectures when I can but am not motivated to do all the work necessary to earn a certificate.

Now it needs to be stressed that I’m still learning things from the MOOCs I’m enrolled in (and thus shouldn’t be considered a generic drop out), and have even started another lecture course (quite an interesting one on reason and faith) that I listen to during my many regular kid pickups and drop-offs.  And as the haze from last year fades, I’m recalling how this has been my default learning mode for years, during which educational podcasts, books on tape and iTunes U lectures were my companions on daily commutes.

But absent a formal (albeit self-imposed) structure, this passive modality has replaced the far more active learning mode I forced myself into for all of 2013.  And thus I’ve become my own example of the importance of taking MOOCs seriously and treating them just as one would a course one paid thousands to take (and would be embarrassed to fail) if one wants to get the most out of what free learning has to offer.

8 Responses to Slacking

  1. Paul Morris March 6, 2014 at 10:15 pm #

    Interesting, I seem to be in something of a mid-winter trough myself. Although I’m still studying I don’t have my former enthusiasm and sometimes find it a bit of a slog to get the assessments completed on time. There are some exceptions, the Coursera Clinical Neurology course is quite tough going but I’m finding it very engaging and my various Saylor courses continue to tick along at their own eccentric rates (sometimes crashing through a mass of work in a few days, other times spending weeks on extra readings).

    I’ve just reached the anniversary of my first MOOC and looking at my (virtual) certificate folder I can see I have completed exactly sixty courses. Clearly I’ve learned a fair amount over those courses but I really feel that it has been (almost) all about breadth rather than depth. All ‘Introductions’ and ‘Principles’ and too few that moved beyond that level. Perhaps that, combined with the miserable weather, explains my current ennui.

    The one exception to this pattern are the Saylor courses. Although I know you found the experience less than ideal, I find that the existence of a structured progression and a range of more advanced courses provides an increasing level of challenge that I find quite stimulating.

    • Dave of that ilk March 8, 2014 at 8:32 am #

      Interesting comment Paul and I agree. I’ve completed 20 courses. As you point it’s breadth but not depth. Although my plan now is to do every Physics or Astronomy course on Coursera, with a view to taking on similar. Purses on othe platforms. Made some headway, so I’ll carry on with that plan…

  2. Tim Mauri March 11, 2014 at 12:19 pm #

    I am a runner. That is, I like to run, and I’ve completed a few marathons and half-marathons. I find that I run my best when I am actively training for a race. If I’m just running for the sake of running, I find that I don’t run as far, as fast, or as often as I do when I am preparing for a marathon or a half-marathon. This seems to be the phenomenon you are experiencing, Jonathan. When you were “training” for your 4-year degree equivalent, you were highly motivated and were able to stick to a schedule. Now that you’re done and you’re no longer working toward something, you’re learning more casually. There can be only one cure: Now that you’ve earned your BA, you’ll need to pursue a MOOC PhD over the next 12 months. Ready, set, go!

    • DegreeofFreedom March 11, 2014 at 1:17 pm #


      Actually, my fourteen-year-old through my next project should be the One-Day-PhD 😉

      And, in case anyone’s interested, Tim is going to be my guest on the next Degree of Freedom podcast, coming out on Friday.

  3. Elizabeth March 11, 2014 at 7:16 pm #

    I had the exact same reaction. I kept a pretty tight schedule last year, but since the new year I just haven’t been able to focus on any of the things I signed up for.

    I guess I needed a break and need to scale back a bit. We’ll see!

    • David March 14, 2014 at 5:52 am #

      Take a month off, that’s what I’ve done the last two winters. I got to the point both times that I really had to.

  4. David March 14, 2014 at 5:51 am #

    I was burned out in December both this year and last year. Finished both years on a hard/tim consuming course. MOOC’s burn you out. Came back to it in late January, but still felt a but burned out. I have a feeling I’m going to be like that again in the summer. I plan to do about 8-10 MOOC’s between now and then, we’ll see how that goes.

    • David March 14, 2014 at 5:53 am #

      ps. I can spell, but my android apparently cannot and likes to change my words. Pity you can’t edit things here once submitted.

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