Friday, October 19, 2012

Self-education with Coursera

One more weekend has passed and again I was singing the praises of Self-Education and Coursera to my friends. I'm guessing many of them are fed up with me talking about it. Sorry everyone... just too excited... :-)

If you're not familiar with it, Coursera is one of the leading providers of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), basically a platform for universities to offer free access to some of their coursework online, to anyone with an Internet connection and a desire to learn.

Take a look at one of the founders' TED presentation.

For me, with my never-ending quest (obsession?) of self-development, this is an absolutely AMAZING opportunity. There's currently nearly 200 courses available on a variety of subjects, just waiting for the eager student. They currently have students from all over the place...

So, what do I find so nice about it?

  • In my opinion, it offers a great balance of self-education with a little bit of structure. Each course is divided into lectures which themselves are broken down into segments. Watch each lecture, answer quizzes or do assignments, participate in forums, ... and you're on your way...
  • At the same time, it is 'freeform' enough that you can speed through content you already know or watch it on your own schedule.
  • The number of course options is enormous. Coursera has close to 200 courses from approximately 30 universities, covering 18 different areas. From Music to Biology, from Economics to Circuit Design, there's bound to be something that interests you...
  • The format is great, the selection is ample and the quality is top notch too. Content is well-designed for the delivery format, teachers are articulate and engaging, plus the exercises are relevant.

I've now had experience with 6 courses in Economics, Statistics, Finance and Investing and I'm enrolled in a few more. History, Cryptography and more Econ/Stats/Finance are on my horizon.

So, how do I find the time to study for this?
First of all, I study in the evenings, after wife and kids go to bed. 2-3 hours a night and that's easily 15 productive hours to learn something or refresh old content.
To get those 2-3 hours, I've severely limited my TV time as well as cut back on social networking (fewer Facebook discussions! :-) ) and other distractions. Each one is different, but this is what worked for me.

As with everything, there's a couple of things about Coursera courses that I wish could be improved upon:

  • First, for now, all courses have a scheduled date, often many months in the future. I understand this is done to match the academic schedule, but perhaps over time Coursera might offer a more 'on-demand' model.
  • There is minimal interaction with the teaching staff. This is understandable, as some courses can have 100,000 people or more registered. In many cases, the best option you have is hope the teacher or one of the teaching assistants participate in the discussion forums that exist (which they often do, but not the same as asking question in class...)

"So, I get to be a <insert university name> student for free?"
One key point is that courses offer minimal, if any, official status. What this means is that attending a course taught by Stanford faculty, for example, does not make one a Stanford alumni or imply any other relationship. The reality is that each course is free to issue whatever type of status they want. Some offer nothing whatsoever, others may offer an electronic statement that you completed the requirements for the course, while others may even consider issuing 'credits' towards their existing programs.
I have seen people add to their Facebook profiles that they were 'alumni' of those institutions. They're NOT. Don't make the same mistake.
In my case, what I've done is that I have added Coursera courses to my LinkedIn profile, but under the heading of 'Independent Coursework'. This still shows that I'm pro-active in my self-learning but that I also recognize the limits of the MOOC system.

As you consider Coursera, I leave you with two parting thoughts.

One, that Coursera is but one of many offerings in this space. Other notable options include Udacity (mostly computer technology related material), EdX (an upcoming partnership between Harvard, MIT and Berkley) and Khan Academy (more focused on, but not limited to, high-school level across several subjects). Good link for these and other options here.
I still think Coursera towers above them in terms of breadth and thought leadership.

Finally, Isaac Asimov's popular quote: "Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” Not much else to say, is there?