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How to Make the Most of a MOOC (Mass Open Online Course)

Insights & Ideas Team •  January 5, 2016 | Focus on Women, Home and Family

Continuing education can help you excel at work, pursue a new career dream or simply satisfy your curiosity. But going back to school may not be practical—especially if your calendar is crowded, your budget is tight and your attention span seems shorter than ever.

In that case, consider a mass open online course (MOOC). As long as you have Internet access, you can enroll in MOOCs to receive university-caliber instruction, usually at no cost. You choose from a catalog of courses, attend “class” through your computer or mobile device and learn from an educator who could be across town or a world away.

Several organizations offer MOOCs, and each presents courses from its own set of educators. Coursera, for example, currently offers 1,471 courses from 136 education partners across 27 countries. You could take data analysis from Duke University (US), extraterrestrial literature from the University of Zurich (Switzerland) or organic chemistry from Peking University (China). Some MOOCs offer a certificate or college credit for completion, though usually for a fee.

Intrigued? Before you enroll, consider the realities of online learning. Here’s what you can and cannot expect from a MOOC, along with a few tips on getting the most from a digital classroom.

Choose How and When to Participate

As with most educational opportunities, the more you put into the class, the more you’ll get out of it. And your participation is entirely up to you. Your teacher won’t be taking attendance or checking your work.

Canvas Network reports that 45 percent of its MOOC students plan to actively participate in class. The rest intend to be be passive participants, drop-ins or observers. If you want to just watch the video lectures and skip the assignments, you can.

You May Never Meet Your Instructor

You may be among thousands of students enrolled in a MOOC, and you’ll have little to no contact with the instructor. “Don’t expect one-on-one attention,” said Ed Gilbert, a corporate communications producer who has enrolled in several music-related MOOCs to feed a personal passion.

One upside of this anonymity is that there’s no expectation for face time with the teacher and no repercussion for skipping class. If you choose, you can sign in only when the content interests you or fits your schedule.

The downside is a lack of human interaction. Rodney Gypin enrolled in a poetry MOOC in order to study a subject that wasn’t available to him locally. “It was a quality course with very knowledgeable professors and teaching assistants,” he said. “But I missed the physical classroom interaction.”

Interaction Happens Electronically

To make up for that missing element, Gypin participated in online discussion boards—a tool many MOOCs offer as a forum for conversation. There, he could communicate with other students and teaching assistants.

In a large MOOC, online discussion can be intimidating. Hundreds of people may be starting discussions, asking questions and posting comments. The conversations get crowded and complex. But if dialogue is important to you, the discussion board may be your only option, so you have to learn to navigate the system.

Gypin advises that you “set aside quiet time in a place where you can't be distracted, and give yourself time to ask questions and participate in the chat rooms.” By posting relevant questions and responding thoughtfully to other students, you’ll gain visibility and raise the odds that others will offer you suggestions or feedback.

MOOCs Require Self-Motivation

Your MOOC instructor may release new lessons each week, suggesting due dates for assignments and establishing a pace for learning. Or your course may be entirely self-paced. MOOC provider edX currently lists 165 self-paced courses you can start any time and complete on your own schedule.

Either way, self-motivation is a must. Gilbert was moved by the subject matter. “I picked a class I was interested in, not one I had to take,” he said. He’s taken MOOCs in the history of rock and roll, the music of the Beatles and music theory.

But if you’re studying out of obligation, not curiosity, staying enthused may be more difficult. Hopefully, the instructor will draw you in. According to Professor Barbara Oakley, who developed a MOOC called Learning How to Learn, effective MOOCs feature video lessons that might be better than traditional classroom lectures.

“Good online courses make students feel professors are speaking directly to them,” Oakley recently wrote for “A teacher’s direct focus on the camera translates as personal attention in the videos.”

Completion Brings Benefits

If you complete a MOOC, odds are good that you’ll find value in the experience. According to a Harvard Business Review report on a survey of 52,000 Coursera learners, 72 percent of respondents reported career benefits, and 61 percent reported educational benefits. Specifically, respondents said MOOCs helped them enhance skills in a current job (62 percent) or improve candidacy for a new job (43 percent). The top three educational benefits cited by respondents were gaining knowledge essential to a field of study (64 percent), deciding what educational programs to pursue (38 percent) and refreshing key concepts before returning to school (36 percent).

MOOCs let you explore a world of learning without a long-term, costly commitment. If you have Internet access, a thirst for knowledge and the motivation to make the most of an online course, MOOCs may be just the way to satisfy your appetite for education.

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