How to Get the Most Out of A MOOC
Learning for free from top-rated universities is a dream come true for those seeking personal or professional enrichment, which is what massive open and online courses (MOOCs) provide. I’m a MOOC junkie, I have to admit. I took one of the first MOOCs offered through Coursera and loved it. Since then I’ve taken several, and though I’ve enjoyed some courses more than others, I’ve developed some strategies, general principles really, that will help readers get the most out of a MOOC learning experience.
Establish personal learning goals
It might sound peculiar to create your own learning goals, more so if the course already has its own objectives listed in the description, but establishing learning goals prior to starting a MOOC is the key to a successful and rich learning experience. The beauty of a MOOC is the flexibility to learn when you want, on your own terms, without a significant commitment of resources other than your time. And, because your time is valuable, goal setting ensures you get the best bang for your (time) buck.
The first step is to determine why you are taking the course. Is it for personal enrichment, or to develop a skill set that can be applied to a current or future job?
Clarifying the why segues to the next step — to create learning objectives tailored to your reasons for taking the course. Learning what matters to you by creating personalized learning goals is the most effective use of your valuable time.
Decide how much time you want to commit
A weekly time commitment is another worthy goal — the number of hours per week that you plan to devote to the course. Some courses provide a guideline of how many hours per week are required to keep up with the course, though these are not always accurate, and depending upon your goals, the time commitment will vary.
Once you establish your own time goal, making it a reality can be a challenge, especially if you have responsibilities like work outside of the home, family care and civic duties. A strategy I find helpful is to block off specific times each week in my calendar for course study. Though it doesn’t always happen as planned, I’m more likely to be committed to the courses if I have specific times booked in my schedule.
Keep an online notebook
Once you set your learning goals, it’s time to delve into the class, and I highly recommend keeping an online notebook of some sort. You’ll want not only to record your learning goals at the outset of the course but also a place to make notes, list web links, images, web artifacts and other content associated with the course.
My favorite tool is the Evernote application. I create an online notebook for each MOOC I enroll in and start each course with a note that includes the course description and personal goals for the course. As the course progresses, I add to the notebook. For instance when I watch a lecture, I’ll type notes while watching the video.
There are several options for notebooks including Livebinder, Google Docs or Google Keep. Here are examples from notebooks I kept during MOOCs I completed recently.
Accept the information overload
Feeling overwhelmed when starting a MOOC is not uncommon. Numerous students aren’t sure where to begin, don’t know where to find the course materials and are at a loss as to how the course works.
It may be helpful to know that inherent in the MOOC concept is the premise that the learner is self-directed and motivated. MOOCs assume you are active in the learning process, will be responsible for creating study plans and reviewing course content, that you are able to identify what and when topics will be covered and can determine when and how to interact with the hundreds of students in the discussion forums. Given all these assumptions, it’s not surprising that the majority of MOOC students experience information overload, as it’s a far different learning format than traditional classroom learning.
Don’t become discouraged if this happens to you — it’s a normal reaction. Once you spend some time navigating and reading through the course home page content, it should begin to make sense. Think of the course home page as a virtual classroom packed with resources and content that will act as a catalyst for your learning. However, do accept that the overload phenomenon is real, and expect it to last for at least the first week, though the following strategies will reduce the learning curve.
Get familiar with the course home page
The first step in the strategy is to become familiar with the contents of the course, which you can do by reviewing the various sections , accessed via the tabs on the course home page. The next step is to review the course syllabus to get a handle of how the course is broken down and then read or watch the professor’s introduction, which usually is in the form of a written welcome message or recorded video. Some courses may include a ‘start here’ page which is (obviously) a must-read.
Once familiar with the syllabus, it is helpful to go back once more and read through the information located within the tabs on the course home page. After you are familiar with how the course home page works you are ready to begin, which means identifying what you are supposed to do in the first week whether that be watching lecture videos, reading content etc. Because you are doing this to achieve your own goals however, you have leeway to follow your own plan. Don’t feel you need to follow everything to the letter, and consult your own learning goals to keep you on track.
Create something and share
Learning within a MOOC is not a passive endeavor. It requires learners to actively seek and create knowledge, which you should try to do even if the course does not require creating or writing something. You might do that by writing about what you are learning and posting to a blog, writing an essay to share, developing a SlideShare or Prezi presentation or creating a YouTube video.
Consider connecting with other learners even when it’s not a requirement. MOOCs provide an opportunity to learn from and engage with students from all over the world. I connect with other students in different ways, yet it depends upon the subject matter and how much time I have. I also like to participate in the Google+ communities or Facebook pages many courses establish, and I follow the class Twitter stream if there is one. This way I can read other classmates comments and blogs posts about the course topics.
Some students form study groups using social media platforms, and even communicate in real time using chat platforms or Google Hangouts. Others will use the discussion forums within the course itself, though this method can be challenging when there are hundreds of students posting comments. Meaningful dialogue and discussion can happen within class forums, though my suggestion is not to attempt to follow more than one discussion theme. If you find one that interests you, post a thoughtful comment that contributes and furthers the discussion. Stick to this one thread, and engage in discussion, as you like.
A MOOC can provide a rich learning experience that can satisfy a need for personal or professional development, yet it takes a self-directed learner to get the most out of these open learning opportunities. The student who invests the time to review materials, set goals and create a system for sharing and collecting the knowledge learned, will get the most out of a MOOC and enjoy a rich and robust learning experience. Embrace the MOOC experience to learn, share and grow!
Editor’s note: See also “Don’t Be a MOOC Dropout” from Sylvia Moessinger and our MOOC Resources page for more advice about succeeding in a MOOC.