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MOOCs From a Worker’s Perspective

This is a post by Alberto Julián, a BestCerts user. Originally published here.

I thought it could be interesting to share some points about my ongoing MOOC experience, mainly from the point of view of a full-time worker. Allow me to briefly introduce myself: I hold a degree in Telecommunications Engineering, as well as an MBA; I have developed my career in several computer science fields, and from technical to mid-management positions.

Having worked for over twenty years, I began to feel as though my knowledge about many interesting things — social media, big data analytics, neuro-whatever, bio-whatever — was fading out, so I decided it was time for reinvention. However, I was reluctant to repeat the stressful, although globally-positive, MBA experience of a one-year Master’s program, which required a daily dedication of several hours that frequently collided with a full-time job and a husband/father role. So, what could I do?

Then I heard about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), and it turned out that a specific one appealed to me: CS188.1x Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, from edX-BerkeleyX, nicely taught by Dan Klein and Pieter Abbeel. It was maybe the most intense MOOC I have enrolled in so far, and definitely among the most interesting ones.

Artificial Intelligence | UC BerkeleyX on edX | Course About Video

Therefore, in 2012 I fell in love with online training via MOOCs. My main objective at the beginning was learning about interesting subjects from some top-notch universities, like MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, or Stanford. I also wanted to live the experience of collaborative learning, though I did not have a clear strategy. However, after the first MOOC I started to plan ahead.

Since then, step by step and week by week, I have successfully completed more than ten MOOCs. As a result I have learned a couple of things about machine learning, data science, artificial intelligence, digital signal processing, genetics, neuroscience, bio-imaging, and so on.

Based on how I have performed in the MOOCs throughout the years, I have some recommendations for full-time workers who are considering entering the MOOC world.

Plan ahead by scheduling MOOCs several months in advance

You can browse several consortium catalogs, or alternatively perform multiconsortia searches through MOOC aggregators such as BestCerts, and so you can look ahead: MOOC dates are frequently provided several months, or even a whole year, before the MOOC’s start date. When you have long gaps of free time, try to combine with self-paced courses or eventually consider indulging in a course to simply enjoy yourself.

[Editorial addition: BestCerts is also the home of MOOC Tracker, which is a centralized place for you to track MOOCs from all MOOC providers. It also provides regular reminders and notifcations about courses you’re interested in. Give it a try!]

Refine effort estimation by checking total course effort beforehand

Most consortia provide an estimate of how many hours a week you should dedicate to a course, and how many weeks or months it lasts. Until you get an idea about how you perform in MOOCs, I would not recommend enrolling in courses that require dedicating more than 6–7 hours per week; for instance, there is a Medical Neuroscience course from Duke University that has an effort estimation of 16–20 hours per week — fairly difficult to combine with a full-time job.

Try to enroll in just one course at a time, or a maximum of two, especially at the beginning

Be kind with yourself: you don’t need to add another stress source. Being too ambitious may affect not only your performance in MOOCs but also the main facets of your life — job, family, and so on.

Spare between one and two hours almost every day, including weekends occasionally, if possible

I personally find just one hour’s worth of dedication is not enough to concentrate. In my case, I arrive to my workplace two hours earlier than I used to and dedicate those hours to MOOCs; although, if possible, I try to use my resting hours on MOOCs as well. If you want to perform well then you will have to schedule, more or less, twice the official course effort estimation, which by recalling the previous recommendation gives a maximum workload of 12-14 hours per week. This makes a dedication of two hours per day, 6–7 days a week.

Like many other activities — playing an instrument, practicing a sport — once you develop the habit of dedicating time to MOOCs almost every day, it eventually becomes part of your routine. It is hard sometimes, especially if you have kids.

I will tackle other aspects of MOOCs in following posts, such as fixed-date vs. self-paced courses, MOOC specializations, and my vision on the future of MOOCs.