Moocs: Learning becomes a joy again

Massive open online courses are an intellectual treat for some, but a heavy workload for others
Addicted: Barney Thompson says some Moocs are little more than infodumps; others stimulate and provoke

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Some people finish work and go to the gym, or hit the sofa and watch TV, or compose symphonies, paint portraits, create apps, write poetry. Me, I Mooc. Since I discovered Moocs – massive open online courses – six months ago, I have become a Mooc-aholic.

Scrolling down Mooc providers’ course lists gives me that child-in-a-sweet-shop feeling – a giddiness that explains in part the somewhat scattered nature of my selections.

I have taken Coursera’s The Power of Macroeconomics, a 12-week course provided in conjunction with the University of California Irvine, and Central Challenges of American National Security, Strategy and the Press: An Introduction, an eight-week course from the Harvard branch of edX.

I am currently in the middle of the more lugubriously entitled ChinaX, a series of modules spread over 15 months – a commitment I completely failed to notice when I signed up. And I’m about to start The Analytics Edge, an edX/MITx 11-week course in handling big data.

But I’m tempted by dozens more – Shakespeare and his World, Networks, Crowds and Markets, Applied Cryptography, The Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe, although I draw the line at An Introduction to Aeronautical Engineering or Discover Dentistry.

Given this reckless, wide-eyed attitude, I try to apply two rules: any Mooc I study must be relevant to my employment – actual or desired – and I am allowed to take no more than two at a time. But, even then, it has been hard to keep up.

Central Challenges of American National Security called for two 600-word memos to the US secretary of state outlining what American policy should be on Iran and Syria, and one to the editor of a fictional newspaper recommending what to do with a WikiLeaks-style dump of secret documents on North Korea.

Each had to be done in three days and each was accompanied by about 70-80 pages worth of reading material, plus video lectures and online discussions. It is not easy fitting all that in around your job when you have a professor from the University of California Irvine coming at you from another direction with his lectures on the components of the Keynesian Expenditure Function or the factors shifting the aggregate supply curve.

I have had to adjust the pattern of my day to fit it all in. Choosing the longest possible commute, for example, to win more time to read, watch and listen to all the material I download on to my tablet. Using my lunch breaks and a few late nights have helped me keep up with the work, but not without some nasty grinding of mental gears. And, as with any new material, one needs to find the time to revise if it is to stick.

If Moocs had not evolved, I would have given up: The Power of Macro­economics, for instance, was basically a weekly hour-long lecture split into five or six chunks accompanied by some PowerPoint slides and rounded off with a short test. Given these constraints, the amount of information it packed in was both overwhelming and unappealing. (To make matters worse, I was trying and failing to learn shorthand at the same time, with the result that my notes are incomprehensible where they are not indecipherable.)

But ChinaX is an entirely different animal. It uses video lectures, readings, interviews, footage from Harvard’s classrooms, multiple choice quizzes and discussion forums, annotated texts, songs, drawings, artefacts and maps over which you can lay kingdoms, populations, trade routes, rivers and so on. It is hugely imaginative and innovative, and when one week’s work is done, I find myself impatient for the next.

What started as a mission to plug a gaping hole in my knowledge of the world has become learning for the sheer joy of it; the next two weeks’ topics, the poetry and calligraphy of the Tang Dynasty, are unlikely ever to be of any practical use, but I do not care. ChinaX beats any component of my formal education hands down.

I suspect this is why dropout rates for Moocs are so high: some are little more than infodumps; others stimulate, provoke and encourage, and you cannot know how it will be until you try them out. But when you find one that works, you gain access to knowledge and skills that a few years ago would have required a trip to night school – which might have been halfway across town – or a lonely wrestle with a pile of textbooks.

The naysayers are wrong. Whatever your motive – life-long learning or upgrading the CV – for those who are hungry to learn, Moocs are where the feast is.

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