For all of the hype and excitement about massively open online courses (MOOCs), the dropout rate is about 90%. Only a fraction of people get anywhere near finishing the course, let alone passing it.
These classes are free to sign up for, which also makes them very easy to drop out of. The majority of people don’t make it through the first lecture, which is a shame, since there are so many fantastic and genuinely useful courses out there.
I’m now in the process of taking my first online course, MIT’s Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python on EdX, after having tried and dropped out of another on operations management.
Pulling from my own experiences and advice from veterans, here are some tips on how to become one of the few who actually finishes an online course.
Test the platforms and the professor.
There are a number of different companies competing in the MOOC space, and the experience can be very different on each platform. The three major ones are Coursera, EdX, and Udacity.
After testing a course on all three, I decided to go with EdX. It was in part because the course was most appealing, but also because it struck the right middle ground between feeling like a traditional course and adding online elements, and because I found the transcription that runs alongside each video extremely valuable.
Those with a shorter attention span might prefer Udacity, which breaks things up into shorter segments and has more interactive elements, and Coursera seems to have the most polished videos.
It’s worth at least watching the introductory video/tutorial that the platform offers, or the first few videos of a course to get a sense of it.
Just like many college students will drop in on a variety of classes in their first week before they make a final decision, it’s worth trying a number of courses out. If you dislike the professor or the material goes way over your head, you aren’t likely to stick with it.
Pick the right course.
There are now a ton of fantastic online courses from top professors at great schools. But there are also a lot of indifferent, un-rigorous, or badly done ones. There are a few things you can do to make sure you end up with the former.
First, stick with a major platform. EdX is a nonprofit collaboration between some of the best universities in the world. Udacity and Coursera are for-profit but were started by highly regarded Stanford professors and have high-profile backing. While some courses are going to be better than others, the baseline on those will be solid.
Second, particularly on your first go around, go with a popular professor who’s done this more than once. A professor offering their first MOOC may turn out to be excellent, but those who have done it several times have refined their courses to work better.
There’s not much in the way of comprehensive ratings on courses, but a cursory Google search will let you know if a course has been offered before and what people’s reactions have been.
Do the assignments, and take the quizzes.
As with any online course, there’s an option to simply “audit” the class, to watch the lectures and do the reading without doing any of the accompanying activities.
That’s a mistake. Even if you’re not enrolled in a course that is ongoing and can earn you a certificate, skipping the quizzes makes it more likely that you’ll pay less attention, almost certain that you’ll learn less, and will increase the chances that you’ll disengage and drop out.
Don’t push the prerequisites.
If a course says that you need to know linear algebra in order to take it, believe it. And don’t think that you’ll pick it up along the way, unless the course explicitly says that it will teach the needed material.
It’s difficult enough to stick with one of these courses, so having to learn background material in addition means you’re more likely to get behind, get frustrated, and drop out. When in doubt, stick with the intro course. Better to be a bit bored or skip a few early lessons than be in over your head after two weeks.
Set a schedule, and stick to it.
One of the biggest benefits of online courses is that you can take them any time and anywhere you want. It’s also the biggest reason people drop out.
Especially for courses that progress sequentially and have assignments with specific due dates, like on EdX or Coursera, it’s incredibly easy to leave multiple hours of lectures for the day before an assignment is due or there’s a quiz.
The majority of the people who take these courses have jobs or other obligations and probably just want to go to bed when they get home, rather than learn about computer programming.
The best way to ensure success is to spread the work out, do at least a bit every night or a couple times a week, rather than leaving everything for the weekend. The odds of dropping out are much higher when work is crammed into fewer days.
Even for entirely self-paced options, large gaps between lectures or work make it much less likely that you’ll ever complete the course.
Give it at least a week before committing to any course.
A tip from “Coursera junkie” Feynman Liang:
The first few lectures are usually going to be much easier than what comes later. There’s some house cleaning and basic content to get through before the real meat of the course.
Keep an open mind about switching courses until week two. Just because the first one you try doesn’t work out, doesn’t mean you won’t love the next one.
Pick something you actually want to take, and have a good reason to do it.
I’m taking the course that I am (MIT’s introduction to computer science) not because I think I’ll be ready to code at Google afterward, but because I genuinely think people in any field who can understand the basics of programming have something of an advantage. I’m also curious if I’m any good at it, and find the lectures fascinating.
I also regret dropping out of the one computer science course I ever took in college. I added it at the last minute on top of an already punishing course load, but still regret not finishing it. I’d like to prove to myself that I can actually make it through one. And I love data and statistics, so hope to learn some tools to let me explore that better.
The first course I tried to take had a great pedigree, it was one of Wharton’s new offerings, and was very much in the field that I write about. That might actually have been the reason I dropped it. It was too close to what I’d already spent so much time doing during the day, which made it harder to put in the time after work.
I couldn’t make the same personal and professional case for taking it, and couldn’t stay motivated.
Have a good enough reason, or enough passion for the subject, that you’re willing to skip a happy hour or a favourite TV show to spend some time after work on the course.
Connect with the professor or staff and the community taking the course.
The stereotype of online courses is that it’s done entirely alone with no contact between the student and teacher or university or their classmates. That very easily can be the case, but it doesn’t have to be.
All of the platforms offer some kind of online forum where students can ask and answer questions, often with the participation of the professor or teaching assistants.
On a purely practical level, you can get some help understanding a tricky concept or question from an MIT or Wharton student or the professor themselves. The forums are also fascinating, with students from all over the world talking about themselves and the course, and why they’re doing it.
Participating and engaging makes the course feel less solitary and more like a class.
Figure out the time commitment you’re willing to make, and be honest.
10 to 12 hours a week is a lot of time for somebody with a full-time job. If I drop out of the course I’m taking, that would be the reason. And beyond that, the weekly problem sets are time consuming, the one quiz for the course take a full 90 minutes, and there’s a multiple hour final exam.
The key is to be honest about how much time you have and are willing to put into the course and factor it into your decision. Something relatively less time-intensive might be the best choice for busy or first-time MOOC students.
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