What’s it like to study a massively open online course?

My first day at high-school was awkward: I got lost travelling between classrooms, felt terrified of the teachers and I felt self-conscious, with that unique intensity of teenage awkwardness, in my sister’s oversized uniform that ‘left to room to grow’. The outfit I wore starting my online courses is immensely more comfortable and confoundingly even less stylish, but the sense of disorientation was familiar.

Studying online is just the same as studying at school or university

The first few days and weeks are about getting oriented. There’s a new geography of lectures delivered by video, quizzes that need to be completed each week and project work that needs to be planned for and completed. It’s worth taking the time to understand how each course is structured, the supporting material outside the lectures, and how the different pieces of assessment fit into the subject schedule. Of course, rather than going to the wrong building for a class, it has been just as frustrating to find I hadn’t noticed the links to the quizzes when I’m focussed on viewing all the lectures.

The content can be challenging to learn. If you’re taking studying something new, there are new concepts to grasp and complex material to absorb. But really, why would you study something you already know, right? This seems obvious as I write it, and yet, it’s easy to underestimate the size of the challenge. If I’m honest with myself, I expected it to be a comfortable walk in the park. This week, as I grapple with T-Distribution for small sample sizes, there are times when it feels like my brain wasn’t wired to make sense of the theorem. It’s helped to expect to be challenged.

Help is there for the asking.  The massive scale of these online courses, means there’s invaluable support and assistance available from the community teachers assistants, from more experienced peers and from clever people making bunnies and dragon videos to explain complex mathematical subjects. Asking for help in the subject discussion forum, has helped me over some tough hurdles in my understanding of the subjects I’m studying.

Studying online is so very different from studying at school or university

Peer reviews.  The massive scale of MOOCs means there are thousands of students from diverse backgrounds all working through the content alongside me. The scale of these subjects works because four peers are marking my assignments, and I’m marking another four peers, and these scores determine my grade. Peer reviews change how you write assignments so that it’s clear to the assessors how you’ve met the grading rubric. Now I’ve get my head around the logistics of grading, t’s changed how I write code and my assignments.

Special consideration isn’t an option. Let’s face it, shit happens. Computers fail (usually just before you save a project), health can take a dive, and life can get in the way of perfectly formed plans. While these online course offer amazing flexibility with repeating start dates that let me schedule around contracts and holidays, nevertheless, there is no special consideration: there is no way to ask for an extension on hard deadlines. This has been heartbreaking when I’m set on finishing by a certain date, but usually it’s just a minor delay before the subject is run again. No money lost and no drop to a university GPA, means disruption to my online study doesn’t carry the same penalties as study at university.

I’m motivated by a sense of achievement

I found it a valuable step to think about my motivation and intent. This is now my opportunity for gratuitous showing off … I’m inordinately proud of my progress so far, with distinctions giving me a warm fuzzy sense of achievement:

Coursera certificates of achievement

Have you tried an online subject? What was your experience?