What You Should Know Before Starting a MOOC or Online Course

By Denton Zhou | Published June 19, 2018

MOOCs and online course have put in-depth learning resources within reach of some three billion plus Internet-connected individuals. But tapping into these courses' full potential means understanding them as more than just digital analogs of their classroom counterparts.

A course, a reference, or entertainment?

In the early days of the MOOC, industry participants fretted over low completion rates. Most students who signed up for online courses simply failed to make it to the end and pass. It took a while longer for the industry to see low completion rates as a reflection of students' intentions—not as a sign of failure or weakness on the part of online courses.

As far as online courses go, intentions typically fall into three categories. Those who hope to earn a certificate from a course will likely see their MOOC experience as a highly structured experience akin to the classroom experiences they've had elsewhere. If that's you, then great! You're automatically part of an audience the instructor meant to target and will experience the course as it was designed to be experienced.

But what if you're looking at online courses from an entirely different angle?

You might see courses as reference materials like books, rich resources that you can leaf through at your leisure. Or if you generally enjoy learning, you might even see online courses as a source of entertainment, something a bit more than just a playlist of educational videos found on YouTube (which was incidentally how many of the early MOOCs were structured).

If you fall under the two latter camps, then you're in for a treat because you get to design your own learning experience.

Bending the syllabus: creating your own learning experience

When I was a college student, the syllabus seemed like the master plan. It outlined everything I could expect to learn from a given course and when I'd learn it. It defined the timeline of assignment due dates and exam dates. It seemed almost sacred, a contract that I as a student must adhere to, unchangeable by anyone else but the professor who issued it.

The truth is, the syllabus only worked as well as it did because those reading it were more or less on the same page. My classmates were all taking the course for at least the shared aspiration of meeting a requirement to graduate. The same could not be said for online courses, where your classmates participate from around the world with different expectations and goals.

While a course's syllabus might be decent for the average learner, you need to optimize it to make the most of your learning. That means taking some time at the start of the course to really read into the syllabus you're given and decide which parts of it you'll stick to and which parts you'll adjust.

The point is, don't hesitate to rewrite the syllabus. Take advantage the flexibility afforded to you by online courses. Slow down when the going gets a little tough and speed up when the content's light. Move assignments and quizzes around. Maybe even cut out parts of a course that aren't particularly meaningful to you (with caution), and add material and other courses you find to enrich your experience.

Remember, you're in charge of what you learn and how you learn here.

Two tracks: Audit vs. Certificate

In line with this reasoning, there are now fittingly different kinds of "tracks" that certain courses offer. Platforms like Coursera and edX have long offered ways for students to pursue certificates, but they now also allow students to audit courses (i.e. take a course without having to complete quizzes, assignments, or tests).

If you're learning just to learn and you don't care about grades, certificates, etc., then these tracks won't mean too much to you. Just know that in some instances, audit courses can be taken for free where certificate courses typically come with a price tag (although you might find other reasons to pay beyond the certificate).

Stock up on motivation

One unique aspect of online courses is that any progress you make on them is purely the result of your own motivation. There are no extrinsic motivators like grades, professors, teachers, and parents to push you along by carrot or stick (or maybe there are, in which case, this section might not apply to you). There aren't any classmates you can get help from or share your frustrations with (unless you actively participate in a discussion forum, if one exists).

You set your own learning goals. You pick the course you think will help you meet those goals. You do what it takes to get the most out of them.

That might sound easy, but you should know that it's just as easy to fail, even if you set your own definition for success.

Learning will always take willpower and energy, even for topics you're deeply passionate about. If you're mentally depleted, say, after a long day of work, then putting just 15 minutes of progress towards an online course might seem like a chore for tomorrow. String together a few too many of these "long days" and add a couple of weekends where you "just want to take it easy" (and not study) and voilà, you've put yourself on the fast track to failure.

This isn't the kind of failure that hits you in the gut either. It has a seemingly benign way of settling in. You might, one moment, feel a bit discouraged or realized you've become bored and disengaged one day. Before you know it, you'll have forgotten you ever started the course in the first place. This isn't to say you should stick to a course no matter what—sometimes, dropping a course is probably the best thing to do. Just be forewarned that it's also the default option and the default option isn't always what's best.

Set and reset your expectations

Which brings me to the last point here: set your expectations and readjust them as the weeks pass. Create realistic goals at the outset and have a reasonable idea for the amount of time, effort, and attention you'll devote. If at any point reality and expectation diverge, re-evaluate your expectations and ask yourself:

  • Is this course helping me meet my goals?
  • Does it still make sense for me to pursue learning what I set out to learn?
  • Are there better resources out there (including non-course ones) that are a better use of my time?
  • Am I still able to devote the amount of time I am to keeping up with this course?

Answering "no" to any of these means it's time to either adjust your expectations or consider setting aside a course. Remember, with online courses, you're in control, which sometimes means making a few tough decisions. Good luck!

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