How To Do Life

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MOOCs: A Great (and Cheap) Way to Learn

Open-admission online courses may be your ideal way to learn.

Regular readers of this blog know that I believe that the most cost- and time-efficient way to learn is to read articles (largely emanating from Google searches) perhaps guided by a mentor.

I view the course, let alone the degree, as overrated because courses teach masses of content, much of which you don’t need or will have forgotten when needed, at a level and pace defined by the teacher, not you.

That said, many people need the structure of school to stay motivated and/or want a piece of paper to show employers that they’ve taken X courses. For such people, I believe that  Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may be a wise option. And that’s not just because they’re free or very low-cost. I make the seemingly unreasonable assertion that you may get a better education than you could have received for hundreds of thousands of dollars at a Harvard or Stanford.

But you protest, “MOOCs have a low completion rate.” True, but that’s partly because most people that take those courses want to learn the material, not write the term papers, take the exams, etc.

Fact is, if you select well, MOOCs will serve you better than even if you attended a designer-label university. Why? Because when you attend a single institution, your choices are limited to those professors teaching the courses you want or are required to take. In contrast, with a MOOC, there are many more offerings, more expert-curated and student-rated as excellent: You’re much more likely to find the course you’d really like to take and have it taught by a highly-rated instructor and a course compatible with your learning style. MOOC sites generally offer user reviews, online syllabi, and even sample classes/modules, so it’s easier to choose wisely. Also, websites offering MOOCs aren’t limited to courses taught by academics, who may be longer on their theoretical than on the practical.  

At Coursera.com and EdX.org, you can choose from a larger selection of university courses offered than at any single institution, liberally laced with top-rated professors at designer-label universities from Oxford to Stanford. At other MOOC provider sites such as Udemy, iTunesU, and Udacity, there are more practical courses, taught by real-world experts rather than by academics. Class-Central.com and SkilledUp.com aggregate MOOCs from a wide range of providers. 

Most MOOCs offer free or low-cost verified certificates of completion for individual courses or for completing a sequence of courses.

Take a MOOC and you won’t be alone. For example, seven million people have taken Coursera courses, three million have taken Udemy courses, and iTunesU.com reached 1 billion downloads last year! 

Sticker price for four years at a brand-name private institution exceeds $250,000 and a significant percentage of students take lolnger than four years. So you might ask, “Why do people still choose to spend a fortune on live courses and certificate programs, let alone on a degree?”

Here are some reasons. Some people like the social aspect of being in a live classroom, not just in a class with online classmates to query and peer-review each others work. Other students want a standard piece of paper: “Bachelor of Arts” and standard college experience replete with its sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll and the more salubrious extracurriculars found on campus, and/or because they’re scared employers will otherwise reject them.

But with degrees ubiquitous, taking a bachelor’s-worth of MOOCs might even give you an edge over look-alike B.A/B.S. holders if, in your job applications, you explain how you learned more by picking the best and most practically useful  among thousands of both practical and academic courses. Plus you get to learn on your own schedule rather than having to show up M, W, F: 9 AM-10 AM. Not to mention that you’ll save a fortune.

There’s a nefarious reason why MOOCs aren’t even more popular. Barbara Oakley, an acclaimed professor and author of the new book, A Mind for Numbers, wrote to me: “A lot of the bad press on MOOCs comes from university faculty who will do ANYTHING (emphasis hers) to undercut MOOCs because they fear that MOOCs will undercut their own influence and livelihood. I know a major university that has actively sought to provide students worldwide with an extremely low cost way of getting credit hours, and the pushback that administrators got from faculty, who would do virtually anything to stop the program, was unbelievable.”

So before you join the lemmings paying massive sums to those businesses we call universities to get what often is an inferior education, consider MOOCking.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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