I’m proud to say I “attended” Stanford for a bit in 2012. No, I wasn’t at the actual Palo Alto campus; in fact, I’ve never even set foot inside a Stanford classroom. And I didn’t receive college credit per se either. Instead, I enrolled in a few Stanford free online courses—aka “massive open online courses” or MOOCs.
But I’m not someone who likes to humble-brag, so I’ve decided to address a few of the most common dilemmas surrounding MOOCs that I hope will help you decide whether to enroll in one. To make a long story short, if you’re the kind of person who’s more independent and can dictate your own deadlines and what-not, then YES, a MOOC is definitely for YOU.
[Try a new MOOC from Kaplan University.]
How do you figure out which MOOC to take?
I didn’t have to go far or do a lot of research to find the Stanford MOOCs; it was all a matter of serendipity, to be honest: One day I saw a tweet that referred to the free courses Stanford would be offering and I decided to look more into them. Because the word “free,” to me, is almost an aphrodisiac (well, not really, but you get my point), and I dream of attending Stanford for my doctorate after all, I jumped on the opportunity.
Here are all the free classes Stanford was offering back then:
Later on, these Stanford MOOCs joined Coursera.org, which has other MOOCs (currently over 200) from many other leading United States universities.
When it comes to figuring out which MOOCs to take, though, I’ll admit it all depends on you. Since I had graduated with an honors degree in marketing the year before, had worked at a local marketing agency, and helped run two businesses, I knew that I both needed and wanted to take a business-related MOOC; I wanted to apply what I had learned and have the chance to learn even more, so I enrolled in Technology Entrepreneurship.
In addition, because I want to get a PhD in marketing and wanted to know more about building websites, I thought it’d be important for me to learn just a tad of programming. So I enrolled inComputer Science (aka CS) 101.
As you can see, I wanted to learn more about what I thought would greatly benefit me even though I had already graduated from my university. In addition, many people (both young and young at heart) say they like to learn stuff online to get ahead in their jobs or even at school.
So enroll in the course(s) that you feel will teach you what you need or want to know—either for the sake of curiosity, job advancement, or your grades.
[Read more: Top 10 Tips for Adult Learners Taking MOOCs.]
What makes a great MOOC?
This is also subjective, actually. I enjoyed both of my Stanford MOOCs, but if I had to pick between the two, I’d opt for CS 101. Ironically, I’m not a computer geek at all; I can’t assemble computers, I’m not fluent in programming lingo, and I’d rather know the basics when it comes to new gadgets than their nitty-gritty. But I really enjoyed CS 101 because it was a truly independent course: my progress depended on me and no one else. If I didn’t complete the assignments or do the quizzes, then it was on me. Plus, the professor was fun, engaging, and had cool assignments. Tech Entrepreneurship, however, did involve group work. And my group, “Adventure Lab“, was made up of guys from all over the world, as you can see here.
Now I don’t have anything against group work, per se. Despite the less-than-ideal group assignments I had to do while pursuing my first BS, I know that groups constitute the lifeblood of a business, so I value group work when it’s done right. Thankfully, my group for this class was AMAZING and I consider myself fortunate to have met them and worked with them.
But I noticed late enough in the game that our expectations differed from the start (e.g., some of us envisioned simply taking the class and doing the necessary coursework, while others wanted to create a real company and keep working on our product well after the class ended). Therefore, I wish our professor had put all the alternative outcomes out there earlier on so that we all knew what we were getting into.
So make sure that you know exactly what the course is about right from the beginning. Know what your fellow group members want out of it and don’t be shy; ask as many questions as possible. If you realize that your expectations differ from those of your colleagues, let them know sooner rather than later.
How do you get the most out of a MOOC?
Simply put, pretend it’s an actual college class because, in all honesty, it is (if you forget the part about not receiving official credit). So apply yourself and do your best to impress your professor and classmates or fellow group members. Yes, there may be hundreds, or even hundreds of thousands, of other people taking that same class, so if what you’re studying is a true passion of yours, let your professor see that commitment.
Try your hardest to show your professor how much you do care about the course because at the end of the day, they might have more suggestions and even connections(!) to further help advance your career and education.
[Want to get ahead in a career? See our 5 Tips for Listing MOOCs on Your Résumé.]
MOOCs are both the future of education and the bomb. But they’re not for everybody. Because of their significant flexibility, I highly recommend them to self-starters and to those who don’t mind taking a bit of control over their lives. Before taking these classes, I used to think online education wasn’t for me. But I have to admit it was these classes that propelled me to take some online classes for the BS I’m currently pursuing. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Annie Paul, A prospective doctoral student, is a Utah-based college student pursuing her second bachelor’s degree in psychology after having graduated with honors in marketing. She’s old-fashioned, yet likes to think against the norm, and loves dulce de leche. Find her on Twitter and on her blog, The Ranting Latina.