Maximum Impact: Get the Most Out of MOOCs

You can get more from your next MOOC by following these tips.

MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, are fast becoming a staple training and study for knowledge-hungry IT audiences. So how can you leverage this still new-ish tool for your benefit, not waste time or money, and really add value to your professional portfolio?


The concept of a MOOC — pronounced however you like, though most people use the noise a cow make, with a hard C-sound at the end — is simple. A MOOC creator takes a topic, records lectures and displays (professional or amateur), and then broadcasts course content on the web.


A MOOC is distance learning, with a web flare. Any person can, for a few hundred dollars, sign up to take a class offered by Yale or Harvard. MOOCs are not limited to ivy-league schools, or even to schools in general, and attendance is open to all.


Take a MOOC and you're almost certain to find amateurs training right alongside the professionals. As long as there are individuals out there are willing to pay for content from a given provider, even if that provider is an amateur, then course creators can make some money.


(This is as good a place as any to note that many, if not most, MOOCs are free. With free MOOCs, you generally only have open up your wallet if you want a certificate of some sort verifying that you completed the course.)


This author has taken several MOOCs and can attest to the fact that the amateur trainers are oftentimes as good as the professionals. Sure, the Yale and Harvard classes will look good stacked on your resume — but the real-world work, being discussed by someone who does it every day, may be better for your learning ability in the long run.


The biggest benefit is that ability to learn your way, anyway, right away. You can drop in on a MOOC anytime and that, to today's busy human, may be the biggest benefit of all. There are quite a few tips and tricks to getting the most out of MOOCs — and web learning, in general. Here are my top eight suggestions:


1) Tag Team, Back Again: You should always double-up your MOOC-inations to get credibility along with your learning. For example, if you want to learn "Python for Genomic Data Science," then "Joe Bob" from down the street is probably not the most qualified instructor.


Job Bob, on the other hand, might be able to help you wrap your mind around the basics and fundamentals of Python, before you then go on tackle the specific advanced topic referenced above, which is an actual MOOC offering Johns Hopkins University.


You'll find the likes of advanced courses from John Hopkins on Coursera, whereas you're most likely to encounter the Joe Bobs of the MOOC universe at Udemy. You can put Johns Hopkins on your resume and LinkedIn profile, even if credit for your base understanding is more due to Joe Bob.


The relevant point is that you should get the learning and the gold star for your CV by taking similar courses from different sources.


2) Pay the Piper: Don't skimp when it comes to MOOCs. None of these courses are terribly expensive, but if you are looking for bargain basement, the you are looking in the wrong place. Some course providers are cheaper than others, but if you are a prolific learner, then be prepared to drop some cash on beefing up your skill.


You can get more from your next MOOC by following these tips.

3) Don't Wing It: As the project manager in me might put it, "Have a plan." Don't just jump on a MOOC index and scan until you see something that looks interesting. Sure, that can be fun for a Sunday afternoon. What does your employer need from you? What new skill will land you your next big gig? Which courses can help you get side work?


Know what you want to achieve before you ever make a purchase, or you will waste your money. Understand what the definition of success is to you (or your employer) and you will never waste your money.


4) Pass the Buck: This fourth tip comes my frugal heart, one that I think beats in almost all IT workers and whispers, "Get someone else to pay for it." Simply put, figure out how to offload the cost of your desired MOOC, and your exercise in resume-building will be a whole lot cheaper.


If the demand is there, for example, then your employer should not have a problem coming up with the supply. Look for a gap at work and find a course can teach you what you need to know to fill the gap. Then ask your supervisor if you can get it paid for, while taking care to point out how it would solve the problem you discovered. Never pay for anything if there is a possibility that someone else will.


5) Buddy System: Do it with a friend. Knowledge is best when it is shared. I have spent time in both the student and teacher roles, and I have found that a fellow interested learner and/or partner is the best thing that you can have to boost your learning potential.


Grab a friend, sign up together, and challenge each other as the course unfolds. Make a game out of it. You can even share the costs (refer to previous tip). Learning is more enjoyable and takes root much more deeply when done in a community. Many of the MOOCs have associated communities and forums: use them.


6) Pick Your Spot: This doesn't have anything to do with Milton Berle's famous advice to Ricard Pryor, but rather refers to a nice quiet place at home, or even at the local library. Don't lay down in bed, you won't learn better that way. That isn't me talking to my daughter, it's simply a conclusion based on years of study into the matter.


7) Don't Take On More than You Can Handle: I am a big fan of Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" Callahan character, and my favorite line from those films comes at the end of Magnum Force: "A man's got to know his limitations." This applies directly to how many courses you take and how advanced those courses are.


Do not take too many at once and always get a primer before you jump into something big. Don't take an advanced course before you understand the basics — you will be just wasting time and money. Go back to the "have a plan" tip and understand where you are going and what you are getting out of the course. After you know your goal, you will understand how much load you can stand.


8) Don't Worry, Be Happy: Have fun! Life — and, yes, learning — isn't anything without spice, without zest, without enjoyment. Don't book classes that won't spark your interest or tickle your "knowledge bone." You need to love what you are doing or it really is not worth it. Move on.


Here's hoping that something I've said here will help you with your choices and your direction when choosing your next MOOC. As always, I wish you the best of luck and happy certifying!


Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Nathan Kimpel is a seasoned information technology and operations executive.

Nathan Kimpel is a seasoned information technology and operations executive with a diverse background in all areas of company functionality, and a keen focus on all aspects of IT operations and security. Over his 20 years in the industry, he has held every job in IT and currently serves as a Project Manager in the St. Louis (Missouri) area, overseeing 50-plus projects. He has years of success driving multi-million dollar improvements in technology, products and teams. His wide range of skills include finance, ERP and CRM systems. Certifications include PMP, CISSP, CEH, ITIL and Microsoft.