MOOC points

Epidemiologista recently posted a really useful list of short stats and epi courses that might be of interest to PhD students looking to improve their skills and knowledge. As well as highlighting some excellent face to face options, the ‘online’ section features a number of providers of MOOCs.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses. Freely available to anyone with a good enough internet connection, the number of courses delivered in this medium seems to be increasing on a weekly basis, though it’s probably the case that the quality might not be consistent across all providers. Coursera, founded by two Stanford lecturers, seems to be the most rapidly growing source of MOOCs, but the MIT-Harvard partnership EdX shouldn’t be overlooked, particularly the clunkily named “Health in Numbers: Quantitative Methods in Clinical & Public Health Research” course which might be a good starting point for wannabe epidemiologists (starts in two weeks, folks!) Also worth checking out are Academic Earth and Udacity.

There have been plenty of discussions about whether or not MOOCs are going to replace university education as we know it. I think some of those debates are a little premature; in the UK it seems that the tuition fee hike and the aggressive reductions in student visas are probably going to have more destructive effects on the tertiary education sector in the short term. Where I see more potential for MOOCs at this stage is in the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) arena. For the professional or postgrad looking to broaden their knowledge base, I think they’re potentially a great resource.

For me, one of the advantages of courses delivered in this format is being able to take one’s time in absorbing the material (and even rewind the lecturer!) over a longer period than is the norm in standard CPD/short course formats. Hands up who else has taken the ‘right course at the wrong time’ because it’s only offered once a year, and then forgotten all the material that was crammed into two days by the time you come to implement it six months later…? The longer delivery times also allows more material to be covered than you might get in an ‘overview’ style short course.

Another pro I can see is the opportunity to dabble a little. As all the courses are free, it’s a good chance to ‘try before you buy’ rather than committing you or your grant to several hundred pounds on a few days which might not turn out to be relevant. No doubt I’m contributing to the drop out rate that critics point to as a weakness of MOOCs, but I don’t see any harm in signing on to a course, exploring a couple of lectures and then deciding that’s enough for now.

On the downside, the fact that these are proper content-filled courses makes them challenging to take on in parallel to other work. Coming home at the end of the research day and watching lectures can feel like information overload. It’s easy to get carried away with enthusiasm on reading the course descriptions; far harder to keep up with the workload. Of the three I speculatively enrolled for this term, one I’m determined to finish, one I’ll give a reasonable shot, and the third has been totally neglected and stares accusingly at me in my Coursera profile. It helps that the first two courses were ones I chose for being of direct relevance to an area I want to delve into during my PhD. I’d love to claim I enjoy learning for learning’s sake but I spend too much time learning for necessity’s sake to have that luxury!

Another reason I don’t think MOOCs will displace conventional degrees any time soon is that I think they’d probably be rather challenging to take for users who haven’t yet developed the study skills that are honed in higher education. Nor is the content trivial. Perhaps because I’m pushing myself outside my comfort zone (for what would be the point otherwise?), I’m definitely finding this a challenge, but one made easier by previous learning and work experiences.

Over to you. Have you tried to participate in a MOOC? What did you make of the experience?

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One comment

  1. George D · · Reply

    My experience has been remarkably similar. I’m a little disappointed there isn’t more flexibility and longer timelines for content delivery – 8 weeks rather than 6 or 4 would allow me more time to watch and try out examples. I’ve got enough time to be doing what’s required, but only just. Which means an evening off or some distraction or good reason I need to do something else and I’m behind, never to catch up. I’d also really like if they provided more written material (I’m taking Coursera classes, probably the same ones as you). Videos are nice, but sometimes you just understand it all a little better when reading. You can also fit in reading in a few more environments than you can video or audio, which is important when squeezing out the time.

    I suspect there are a few excuses above, and if I was more committed, I’d have found a way. Still, the concept is good, and much of the execution is excellent.

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