Back to School with MOOCs

by Ema Naito-Bhakdi
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Ever wanted to go back to school and learn something new but couldn’t find a course near you, weren’t prepared to fork out a lot of money for it, or just didn’t think it was an option in Thailand? Maybe it’s a good time to consider a MOOC.

What’s a MOOC?

For those of you who haven’t heard of it before, ‘MOOC’ stands for ‘Mass Open Online Course’. When you unpack that name, you’ll find that MOOCs are free online courses offered to anyone with internet access and a desire to learn. The range of subjects that MOOCs cover these days are impressive and ever growing: programming, cooking, languages, parenting, education, law, health, the arts, business and management, philosophy, history, statistics, mathematics, the sciences – there’s something for everyone. Courses are offered by real universities, including top institutions such as Harvard and MIT, mostly through MOOC ‘hubs’ such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity.

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“The range of subjects that MOOCs cover these days are
impressive and ever growing …  there’s something for everyone.”

Most run for a defined duration such as 6 weeks (although now there are also ‘self-paced’ courses), and enrolment is typically massive: think thousands of people from around the world joining up in one course. Courses usually comprise of weekly video lectures, online reading material, quizzes and/or tests, in some cases peer-evaluated assignments, and discussion forums.

While the free courses are generally not tied to course credit, you can pay to get a certificate of completion which can be shared with potential employers. And for those who wish to continue on to the next level, e.g., get qualifications for work, MOOC hubs now also offer tuition-based specialisations, certifications, and even degrees.

MOOCs aren’t perfect

The concept of high-quality higher education being made available freely to all – especially to those who otherwise wouldn’t have access – is appealing, but the data seem to indicate that the majority of MOOC users are based in the West and already have university degrees (see ICEF Monitor’s article ‘Who uses MOOCs and how?’, 22 Jul 2014). As with any course, the quality can vary widely – I’ve taken several MOOCs over the past five years or so and enjoyed top-notch, engaging courses, while others were less well-designed, and one even seemed to be on automatic ‘repeat’ mode with no live persons on the backend after the first one or two times the course had been offered. Also, online learning may be a challenge for those who need the engagement from real, face￾to-face interactions.

How to approach a MOOC

Despite these drawbacks, I still believe that MOOCs offer valuable and precious learning opportunities, especially for those of us in Thailand. Here are some tips/ideas to help you on your way:

Start off by browsing

The first step is: go to Coursera, edX, or Udacity and simply start browsing. If you see something that piques your interest, sign up for it – it costs you nothing to cancel later; there’s no reason whatsoever to wait. You’ll get email reminders when the course is about to start.

Know that there are different levels of participation

The fact that you can commit as much time and effort as you can and wish is both a strength and weakness of self￾directed learning. Taking a class doesn’t have to take the ‘do all assignments, pass all tests, and actively participate in discussions’ approach. For example, I’ve fully completed some courses, was recruited and served as a volunteer teaching assistant on one, followed the videos on others without doing any of the assignments… and dropped a few. There’s no one to tell you you’re doing it wrong.

TIP: If you like podcasts and are often on the move, download the videos and listen to them later.

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Write down your goal

One way to help keep you on track or not entirely lose your motivation is to be aware of what level of engagement you’re aiming for in the first place. Write it down.

TIP: Write your goal down. Putting it into writing makes a difference!

Re-adjust your goals/engagement as you go along

If you find part-way through that you don’t have the time or energy to engage as you had initially hoped, don’t chalk it up as a ‘failure’. There’s nothing wrong with re-adjusting your goals halfway through. Just tweak your goal (‘I will download all the readings and videos, and look at the ones that interest me whenever/if-ever I find a moment’), and carry on! (And of course, if you find that you want to do more with the course, you can revise your goal accordingly as well.)

TIP: If you don’t complete some regularly-offered courses, in Coursera you can re-enrol in a later run and your progress will be carried forward. (Personally, though, I needed to pressure myself to ‘finish it this round!’; otherwise I’d never have finished.)

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Mix the virtual with the real

If you’re the kind of person who needs face-to-face interactions, try signing up for courses together with friends or join a local study group if there is one, to make it more interactive. It may also help some learners to take courses that run on specific dates, rather than self-paced ones. Knowing that you need to complete each module by a certain deadline and interacting with your course mates on the forums during that period can help better mimic a live course. The world of MOOCs is ever evolving and offers an exciting way for us expats to continue our learning from Thailand. Give it a try and happy learning! For a great overview on the MOOC phenomenon, its strengths and weaknesses, look for the New York Times article, ‘The Year of the MOOC’, 2 Nov. 2012.

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