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How To Pick & Plan Your First MOOC: Getting Started

POSTED 06/14/2013
By Victoria Meng

Your First MOOC

So you’ve decided to enroll in your first MOOC. Congratulations! Maybe you want to learn enough about astrophysics to read one of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s books.  Or maybe you just want to make a career change without drowning in student debt.1  Most likely, you’ve decided to learn something new for a number of reasons. Getting started with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) will help you get get the most out of your online education. MOOCs are one of the best types of courses you can take for your online education, for reasons we’ll explain below. Today, we will help you understand what a MOOC is, find the ideal MOOC for your learning goals, and point you to the best tools to support your first MOOC experience.

Girl Holding Up Student Loan Text

Don’t be this girl.

Avoid the Fakers: Make Sure Your First MOOC is a Real One

Defining a MOOC should be simple. It’s a Massive Open Online Course. It’s a class for your online education, it’s free, and lots of people take it. It should be simple, but of course, it never really is. If you were to read the Major Players in the MOOC Universe, you might see that three of the eight MOOC providers mentioned aren’t MOOC providers at all. There are lots of other online classes that look like MOOCs, but can’t offer the same benefits. Here’s how you can tell a real MOOC from a fake, and make sure your first MOOC is a real one:

  • MOOCs are open, and they are free. The first “O” in “MOOC” stands for open. In education-speak, open formally means these courses have a Creative Commons License that allows anyone to copy the content, modify it, and make it available elsewhere. Colloquially, it also means MOOC’s are free. Sites like Udemy, which are sometimes lumped in with MOOC providers, are not truly open as many of their courses require a fee. Most MOOC providers do charge fees for a certificate of completion or college credit, but the course content is still available for free. Students gaining credit are getting the same content as those enrolled for no cost.
  • MOOC are college-level courses. Sites like Khan Academy that target K-12 students are not MOOC providers.
  • MOOCs are taught by PhDs and Professors from selective, top-tier universities. Coursera only allows the top 33 universities in the world to hold classes on its site. Until this year, edX only allowed classes from Harvard, MIT, and UC Berkeley. Having top-tier classes promises quality. Other online education sites like Udemy allow any user to start a course.
  • MOOCs have an instructor with graded assignments and exams you need to complete to pass the course. This differentiates MOOCs from open courseware (OCW), where schools will simply post course content on their website without enrolling readers in a formal class. iTunesU, for example, is an OCW provider with lots of pdfs and video lectures, but it has no platform for course enrollments or grading assignments.

Of course, it’s okay if you read open courseware or pay for an online course, but we want you to know that you don’t have to pay for your first MOOC or online course. MOOCs offer benefits that other kinds of e-learning might not: they have qualified instructors, they have no tuition fees, and they’re typically more engaging than courses that do not require graded assignments. If you want specific sites to start at, Coursera, edX, and Udacity are currently the largest, most reliable providers. Each provider has its own concentration, and pros and cons.

What to Look for in Your First MOOC

Once you know what a MOOC is, you’re ready to start shopping for classes. When picking your first MOOC, take these factors into consideration:

  • Tangible Portfolio – If you want your first MOOC to increase your chances of getting hired or getting a better job, look for a course that lets you build a portfolio or project to capture what you’ll learn. Look at the syllabus and make sure your first MOOC includes assignments that will show off your skills to future employers.
  • Course Schedule – Can you join the course anytime you want, or do you have to follow a university semester schedule? Udacity allows you to join the course and work at your own pace, but Coursera separates its classes into three-season cycles: spring, summer, and fall. edX does not have summer classes at all. For these sites, you will be able to join shortly after the course begins, but by mid-semester, enrollment will be closed.
  • Professor Availability – It’s hard to get 1-on-1 time with a professor in a free course with 10,000 other students. As one student laments: “The professor is, in most cases, out of students’ reach, only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon. Several of my Coursera courses begin by warning students not to e-mail the professor. We are told not to ‘friend’ the professor on Facebook.”

Despite this, it is worth checking out if any of the instructors are regularly engaged. Some professors do take it upon themselves to engage with their students. One professor reportedly traveled to 6 different cities for his MOOC class. Others use Piazza, CourseNetworking, and Blackboard. Look at the syllabus and past class forums and pick a professor who actually wants to talk to you. A few courses also have TA’s, but they’re usually volunteers who took the course and did well, not graduate students. If you can’t find a class where you can easily contact the professor, don’t worry. You can find class Facebook groups and sites like GetStudyRoom to talk with students and experts alike. (If your class doesn’t have a Facebook group yet, why not start one on your own?)

Changing Careers?

If you’re looking at MOOC’s to explore serious career changes, make sure you pick a subject where the right MOOC will help you more than a degree. With fields like biology that require extensive experience in “laboratory, workshop, or studio,” it may be better to focus on a degree where you can work with the right physical facilities. Fields where MOOCs can be very helpful include computer science, where self-taught technologists are often considered better than computer science majors with student loans.

Track Your Progress: Make Your First MOOC Count

Although MOOC providers are beginning to offer certificates for course completion, it’s best to take no chances and actually document your work. That will ensure that future employers are able to verify that you didn’t cheat, and allow you to have a place to demonstrate and prove that you actually went through the class. Right now the best tool for tracking your progress would have to be Accredible, which allows you to upload course notes, assignments and take screenshots of different parts of your course so that you can combine it into an open and online “certificate”.

Accredible Home Screenshot

Accredible allows you to pair your MOOC certificate with course work, proving you actually learned something.

Good Luck and Happy Learning

If you’ve successfully picked your first MOOC, pat yourself on the back! However, now the real work begins. Many students don’t finish their MOOC courses, but if you pick the one that will meet your person al goals, fits into your schedule, and has an engaged professor, you will give yourself the best chance to succeed.

  1. Can you Mook Your Way to a Career?[]
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