MOOCs: Are they useful?

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are becoming increasingly popular. Here, I draw from personal experience to explore whether taking a MOOC is worth it. I’ve done three STEM-related MOOCs (you can find them on Coursera: Data-Driven Astronomy, The Science of the Solar System, and Introduction to Mathematical Thinking.)

Overall, I think MOOCs can be quite enjoyable if you’re interested in the subject; I really did complete every assignment and quiz and spent a lot of time understanding the information. The quality of MOOCs is definitely going to vary- I must’ve enrolled in seven or eight, out of which I completed three- and a lot of motivation actually comes from how good the lecturer and your peer group is. One thing I learnt was it’s important to enroll in MOOCs that are suited to your level of knowledge and skill, lest you feel disheartened.

Next, make sure you have time on your hands. I really struggled with the first MOOC I did, because I didn’t have a set schedule to stick to. Though Coursera (and probably sites like EdX) do provide weekly schedules, you’ll have to commit to setting a chunk of time aside for these courses.

There are a few questions you should probably ask yourself before you enroll:

  1. How is this information, knowledge, or skill going to help me in my (future) career?
  2. Am I interested enough in this subject to self-monitor and complete the course?
  3. Do I have enough time to be able to meet all the requirements to pass?

For example, I wouldn’t recommend enrolling in a MOOC if you’re learning for the pleasure of learning. That can be done just as well in an unstructured environment. In my opinion, MOOCs are useful if you’ve identified a specific skill or domain of knowledge that you would like to gain competence in. The sense of direction is very important when it comes to completing the course. As mentioned earlier, a peer group can help with the motivation aspect.

Another thing I noticed was that while I was engaged during the course, I didn’t really look back at my notes after I’d finished it. That could be due to the fact that my work doesn’t currently involve that knowledge, but if you want to retain what you’ve learnt I would suggest revising from time to time, or at least reminding yourself of the course’s contents.

Finally, my views are obviously limited, due to the narrow selection of courses I’ve completed. It would be interesting to hear others’ feedback on MOOCs they’ve participated in. Also, I’m unsure of how much weight a certificate from an online course will carry with a potential employer. Sure, it may indicate determination and commitment, but there may also be people who guess their way through the course. The main disadvantage of MOOCs is that they do not involve face to face interaction and comprehensive evaluation, though some are improving on that end.

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