What is a MOOC?

A MOOC, or massive open online course, is defined by Wikipedia as “an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web[1]”.

MOOCs first appeared in 2008, when two professors from Canada offered a virtual college course online at no cost. In 2012, Coursera, one of the biggest MOOC platforms, began offering an expanded slate of courses. Hence, this concept is relatively new, with Udacity, Coursera, and EdX together providing courses to more than 15 million people[2]. Even a cursory look at social media shows the explosive growth of MOOCs.

The main benefits for taking a MOOC are:

  • It’s Free – most MOOCs are free of charge. However, you can join a certification track, which can cost you anywhere from $25 to $100.
  • Flexibility – You don’t have to be seated in a classroom; you can pick a time best suitable for you.
  • Accessible – Whenever you have time and access to the Internet, you can use your laptop or smartphone to get access to the class.
  • No Admission Requirements – Prestige universities are selective in their admittance; before MOOCs, it was difficult to get the opportunity to take classes at those universities.

In this post, we’ll discuss what MOOCs are, why you should care as a tech person or consultant and how to keep yourself motivated to complete a class.

What’s In It For Tech People?

  1. Acquire a new skill

Now is a good time for tech people. Technology is evolving faster than ever, with local community colleges and/or universities struggling to catch up. The good news is you can learn from the best and brightest through MOOCs.

Besides tech skills, communication skills are critical. I would use myself as an example: Last year I joined a tech conference. Someone in that conference talked about practicing public speaking by joining a Toastmasters program. I had been to Toastmasters once before and felt it was too far away from my comfort zone. Therefore, I took writing and public speaking classes on Coursera, which allowed me to gradually expand my comfort zone.

  1. Build up a portfolio and credential

As tech people, you like to share what you learned as well as any tricks and tips; look how many people are writing blogs and post code on GitHub. Some MOOCs give you hands-on opportunity to build something. For example, the final project for “An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python” class[3], offered by Rice University, involves building a video game.

As a consultant, having something to show your client is important. We have so many younger technologists fresh out of college, so taking a MOOC allows them to stretch themselves and build something that will ensure good hands-on experience. Posting codes and blogs online may also drive potential clients to learn more about your capability.

  1. Sampling new technologies

As I said before, there are so many wonderful new things happening in the tech world that it’s almost impossible for a person to learn them all. Instead of being committed to a specific thing at the beginning, taking multiple MOOCs gives you the chance to sample new technologies. It empowers you to make a more informed educational decision.

  1. Get more involved in the tech community

The tech community has always been known for being supportive. By taking MOOCs, you get the chance to expand your social network. You also get the opportunity to work with people all around the world. You can post a question, answer questions posted by your “classmates” or volunteer as a teaching assistant (TA). There is no better way to expand your knowledge than answering questions. It will deepen your expertise or give you a new perspective when looking at things. If you have the chance to take a MOOC, don’t be a lone wolf – join the discussion! Make friends and consider being a TA.

  1. Fresh Perspective

Sometime ago, we found ourselves stuck in a rut after working on something for a while. For example, I took the “Mode Thinking” class offered by The University of Michigan last year. There was a lecture about the stochastic model, and I had previously taken a masters level stochastic model before. What amazed me was that the instructor did not jump into the mathematic equation at the beginning. He used the stochastic model to illustrate political science, using democratization. I had never thought of the stochastic model like that; I was too focused on solving the complex math problem and tried hard to get an A. After taking that class, I watched the news with a fresh set of eyes.

50% & 4%-5%

Can you guess what these numbers stand for?

A study done by The University of Pennsylvania suggests that of the “1 million MOOC users who participated in 16 Coursera classes, only half of the registrants viewed even a single online lecture”[4]. The completion rate is just 4%. The study done by Harvard and MIT shows a slightly optimistic result, with a completion rate of 5%.

I asked my friends and coworkers what the biggest challenge was to completing a MOOC. The most common answer was lack of motivation and time. I have a confession I need to make: I signed up for lots of classes; however, I only completed two of them. This is the third time I have signed up for a Machine Learning class offered by Stanford University.

The good news is I learned a lot from the struggle process. I also found some useful tips online. Let’s see how to push through the classes together.

How Do You Push Yourself Through?

  1. Have a reasonable expectation

Before you open Coursera and start class shopping, here are some things you might want to check with yourself:

  • Do I want to finish the whole class or do I just want to get the information I need?
    There’s nothing wrong with taking a portion of a class to get the knowledge you want or just simply sampling to see if you like the instructor’s style or content.
  • What is the duration and time I can dedicate to this class?
    Unlike a full time student, we have work and life. We get extremely busy during certain periods as well. If you know you have a major deliverable by the end of August, you probably don’t want to sign up to a 4-month long class by May. This leads to my next point.
  • If I plan to finish it, what score am I shooting for?
    Since MOOCs are designed for everyone, finishing a class is usually not difficult. However, if you want to finish a class with 95% source or with a distinction, you may still need to go an extra mile by spending more time debugging or do the bonus exercise.
  1. One class at a time

It looks somewhat redundant with the first point, but it’s never been emphasized enough. How many people have had New Year’s resolutions before? Studies show that multitasking is not the most effective way. Since we already multitask by working hard on our daily job along with having a life to enjoy, taking one class at a time is enough. It’s not about the quantity, but about the quality as well as how much you can take away from a class. Therefore, I strongly recommend you take one class at a time.

  1. Set some time each week for the class

This is perhaps the biggest challenge/excuse for us in taking or completing a class. My approach is to sit down 5 hours before the deadline, watch tutorial videos and then do the quiz and homework. I would recommend completing the class as early as possible, as it allows you to have more time to do the homework or ask the questions. If you can finish early, it will give you a sense of achievement and peace of mind. I would also suggest watching the video, as well as completing the homework and quiz together. Some questions in the quiz are very tricky; if you wait for a day or two after watching the video, you may not recall the right answer during the quiz.

  1. Consider joining a Certification Path and pay

Using the study done by Harvard and MIT, if students pay for the certification, the completion rate is 59% compared with students who do it for free – approximately 12 times higher. Paying a little money for the certification provides you with a more serious mindset and stronger commitment. The certification makes your work more recognizable. By paying for the class, you help support the website financially, as well.

  1. Join/start a study group

You can run faster, lift more weights and get better protection if you have a fitness pal. The same concept applies for taking MOOCs: If you have a group of people studying together, you will feel more motivated and supported. You can also ask questions in a friendly environment and get responses more quickly.

In some MOOC classes, a few students will voluntarily organize study groups. If there are no study groups available, why don’t you start one? You can ask your friends or coworkers who may also be interested. There are so many local technology Meetup groups available; you can ask around to see if anybody is interested in taking classes with you.

We talked about what MOOC is, why they are useful for a tech person, and how to motivate yourself to complete a class. Now you can realistically set your expectations for MOOCs and check out some platforms like Coursera.

About the Author

Da He possesses a unique talent for listening to the needs of management, assembling any data sources needed and building quantitative models and dashboard that allows management to effectively lead the business. He brings a deep understanding of data, mathematics, statistic and a sense how they are applied to achieve business outcomes. Da is a certified Tableau Desktop 8 Qualified Associate and is a Six Sigma Green Belt.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massive_open_online_course

[2] https://alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/spring-2015-dropouts-and-drop-ins/many-enroll-few-finish-moocs-march-how-online

[3] https://www.coursera.org/course/interactivepython1

[4] https://www.gse.upenn.edu/pressroom/press-releases/2013/12/penn-gse-study-shows-moocs-have-relatively-few-active-users-only-few-persisti