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Useful MOOCs
May 25, 2020
16 minutes read

I found MOOCs very useful throughout my career. But I didn’t use them to land new jobs, not in a direct way.

It’s more about the power they give me to communicate with people about new and interesting subjects. They are useful because they enable high level conversations between people with interesting ideas.

Why?

I believe in education. I believe that education matters a lot in life, and that it can change the world, whereas money can’t (though it can be used to foster education).

The reason why I MOOC is deeply personal. Taking MOOC is… what I am. I am a continuous learner, and feel a deep (and difficult to express, in words) pleasure when studying.

On a more practical level, online classes are a great way to keep my mind sharp and up to date with the latest trends and technologies. World is a beautifully competitive place, but lifelong learners have a definite advantage over other people. We crave in competitive fields.

Lifelong learning is also a good way to open new career paths. The old, and perhaps bolder way was to quit one’s job and jump on a different route. I really admire those who did that. For all the others, online learning offers the possibility to explore different directions, before deciding whether to take the leap or not.

There’s one more point: MOOCs are fun! And, maybe, this should really be at the top of the list. I know MOOCs are right for me because I have a lot of fun with them.

When

I’d like to answer “always”. One part of me would enjoy staying all day long reading books, learning new subjects and watching video lessons. Luckily, there’s another part of me (I call it “the engineer inside me”) who loves to build things. The two have learned to get along pretty well, and sometimes good stuff comes out of this forced collaboration.

That’s why “always” is not an option. Studying is a lovely entertainment, but it cannot be the ultimate goal. The ultimate purpose must be to give a personal contribution and create something useful for others. Studying and learning are just good means to this end.

The solution I’ve found to work well for me is to plan accurately. I really think that discipline is freedom (cit. Jocko Willink) and I am happy to say that I used to do that long before reading Jocko’s book. I carefully plan and prioritize what I really want to do, based on why I want to do it. Careful planning allows me to organize my days, weeks and months so that I can find plenty of time and space for things I love, like MOOCs.

I have my own pace, chosen after many years of practice. I usually go with 2 or 3 MOOCs per year, two of which are quite advanced (and intense) and one is more relaxed. There have been years when I did many more, and years when I did less. As of now, I feel comfortable with this pace.

How

The internet abounds with platforms for e-learning. I have experimented with many of them, but only one has gained my trust.

Coursera is my first pick. I registered so long ago that there were just a handful of classes available and every course gave statements of accomplishment for free. My first class was Machine Learning at Stanford, by Andrew Ng.

I don’t like the assignment parts of many classes in Coursera though. Andrew’s class was actually great, but all the others I took (more than 50) have somehow oversimplified the assignment parts.

For example, I got the Deep Learning specialization (again by Andrew Ng). The class content was great. The assignments, quite disappointing. In two words: too easy. I understand that the whole content must be accessible to everybody, but I would like to have something more challenging. Maybe, learners could choose upon enrollment in the class whether they want to have basic assignments or hard ones.

That’s how I ended up trying DataCamp. A very close friend of mine has completed many tracks there and he recommended it to me. I am still using it, though the problem is that the theoretical part of a subject is almost missing on DataCamp. That’s the whole point of the platform indeed. However, I am an aficionado theoretician. For example, I do this weird thing: I first study a programming language, and only then code with it!

Additionally, most exercises are very, very easy. Just too easy, in fact. I doubt DataCamp will ever win my heart.

In 2018 I spent some time thinking about how the MOOC experience could become better for me. My starting points were the following questions:

  • I love theory, how can I be sure I master its application?
  • How can I make the practical part of a MOOC better for me?
  • Am I in a rush to complete any MOOC?

The breakthrough was a firm answer to the third question: NO. I earlier made the mistake of “rushing my way through a MOOC”, for no particular reason.

Guess what, it was another MOOC to break the lock for me. I learned the term “deliberate practice” from the famous class Learning How to Learn. Deliberate practice consists of forcing myself to practice the subject with difficult exercises, deliberately chosen. According to the class instructor, Barbara Oakley, learning is made of Understanding + Memorization + Deliberate Practice.

Thinking over and over these concepts, I arrived at my “power approach to MOOC”. What I do now with any MOOC that has a good deal of theory is:

  1. Study the best video class and book that I can find.
  2. Self-assign a complicated project at the beginning of the class. I more often say “self-inflict”.
  3. After each set of lectures, do two things, before moving on the next set: write down tutorials and lecture notes as if I were explaining the subject to another student. And do all possible work on the project.

The first time I experimented with this method was for a class on Compilers. This is a computer science subject that was missing from my background, despite a BSc in Software Engineering, because my MSc was in Automation Engineering, which is more about mathematics and less about programming. I was really annoyed for a long while that I didn’t know how a compiler works.

Thus, I collected two very good books and a great online class (from Stanford’s Prof. Aiken). As a project, I decided that by the end of the class I would have built a new programming language from scratch.

It took 9 months, but the results speak for themselves. My “power approach” demands effort and a lot of deliberate practice, but I really recommend trying.

My List

Here’s the list of courses that have had an impact on my career, so far.

Learning How to Learn, by McMaster University.

This is the MOOC with most students ever. It’s very accessible and interesting indeed. It’s on my list because it empowered my brain with a lot of useful advice. And, it’s fun!

Experimentation for Improvement, by McMaster University.

I think this MOOC is slightly unheard of. Yet, it’s incredibly well designed and really interesting. Even more importantly, it’s on my list because of the mindset it speaks about: always look for improvements. Always experiment. Always challenge the status quo.

Machine Learning, by Stanford University.

I took this course so long ago that it was one of the very few available in Coursera. The reason why I chose it was to broaden my knowledge– at the time I knew nothing about machine learning. I fell in love with the passion demonstrated by the instructor, Andrew Ng, and he is today one of the people I look at for inspiration.

Data Science Specialization, by Johns Hopkins University

This is a 10-courses specialization, thus is pretty demanding. I chose it because I wanted to deepen my knowledge about a subject (Data Science) that I was already familiar with. It’s on my list because it’s very well done, it teaches a lot about the subject, doesn’t neglect theory, and it comes with the right level of difficulty.

The Next MOOC

How do I choose the next class?

Unfortunately, educational businesses try to gain traction to maximize their revenue, and this is in complete contrast with my real “need” for learning. I like my freedom and independence as a lifelong learner, thus I don’t constrain myself to any subject, nor platform. I usually start with a question:

What am I missing?

Asking that question is how I ended up taking (and completing) a very intense class on Compilers. It’s been my best class so far.

Sometimes I fall victim of the hype. This is how I got into 2 specializations (9 courses) about Deep Learning. I think the hype is justified in this case, but I must say that these courses didn’t really give me much more than what I already knew (partly thanks to my first Machine Learning class). Deep Learning is a subject that requires a different type of teaching. I haven’t discovered which, yet.

Other times, I just follow friend’s advice. If you only want to remember one sentence from this essay, remember this: make sure you have at least one friend who’s a lifelong learner.

The tools

How do I make the most of the time I dedicate to MOOCs? Aside from intense focus, no distractions, and passion mixed to curiosity for the subject, there are many tools that I use or have used.

Slides

I find slides useless, to a large extent. They were a good tool when I was at the university, to quickly check all the content before an exam. They don’t work so well for lifelong learning and MOOCs.

Google Docs

I use google docs a bit. Especially if I believe that I will take a lot of notes while watching a video. Unfortunately, writing formulas is painful in google docs. Same for charts of any kind. At least, it’s very easy to search text in the document, and the table of content is generated automatically. Overall it’s not too bad and I’ve lived with it for many months.

ReMarkable

A game changer for me was reMarkable. I love that device. It’s for “paper people”, like myself. I use it for every class now, both for taking notes and for drawing maps or charts. Previously, I was also taking notes on real paper and then using a scanner at the end of the class. This is how I studied my first MOOC (Machine Learning, Stanford) and of course I still keep those notes in my google drive!

Hypothesis

The other great tool that I’ve started using recently is Hypothesis (hypothes.is). This is a web tool that lets me take annotations on any web page, and save them in their cloud. I can then find the same notes anytime I visit that same page later. More importantly, I can see notes taken by other students (unless they have made it private). This is incredibly powerful: I can look at what others think about the same topic, even about the same sentence. I see an enormous power in this way of exchanging knowledge.

Zotero

Zotero is a tool (online and for desktop) that helps me keep track of papers, documents and references. It’s primarily intended for researchers, so they don’t get the wrong citations in their articles. But I think it’s quite powerful even for students, and I plan on using it more.

Mind Maps

Mind mapping is a serious boost to my understanding of a subject. In fact, I had many school teachers that remarked how mind maps can be useful. I forgot that for a long while after school, and have been a “bullet points list guy” for a long time. I recently started to appreciate the incredible value that mind mapping brings.

I currently use app.diagrams.net to draw mind maps (or any other map, really). It’s free, and a desktop, open-source version of the tool exists on GitHub.

Jobs

How useful really are MOOCs for career advancement, and for getting a job?

How impressive it really is, during a job interview, to say I have completed this and that online class?

My answer is: it really depends.

It depends on who the interview is with. It depends on their mentality and background.

Some people still see online education as second-rated. I totally disagree, because in my opinion it is really up to the “student” to make the most out of each class, whether online or in person. However, I have never really faced this situation, as my original education is “classic” (in-person degrees from well known universities). Nonetheless, when talking with someone like that, my suggestion would be to highlight all you learned to do thanks to MOOCs.

There are others who see MOOCs as great achievements, even if they have old-fashioned degrees. I belong to this group. No matter my current educational background, I know that completing an online class is a great endeavor. I recognize that, and congratulate anybody who has done it.

Here’s how I use MOOCs when introducing myself. I show them off as proof of my lifelong learning purpose. That is, for me, more important than the degrees or certificates themselves. It’s a loud sign that I am always on the lookout to learn more, as well as to improve my knowledge of topics I already know a little about.

MOOCs give clear signs that I enjoy to broaden my passions and to go outside of my comfort zone. That is invaluable when I meet new companies. Actually, it’s what drives me towards getting to know new companies. I recall when I was technical manager of two companies: a fintech company and a SEO software company. The two had nothing to do each with the other. I met the first one thanks to my passion in large-scale systems and optimization; the second one, thanks to my studies and research about Deep Learning. As for the latter, the fact that I had completed three well-known MOOCs on Deep Learning helped a lot to start the conversation.

In general, more and better degrees allow one to negotiate a better compensation. I am not sure that is the case for online courses though: I believe that society is still tied to the notion of “classic learning”, and only standard degrees from well-known universities are strong supports for higher compensation.

I am convinced that it will change in the near future. Education moves online with a very fast pace, therefore it’s just a matter of (little) time before online degrees start having a bigger impact on the salary. For the time being though, and as far as I can tell, that is not the case yet.

That brings me to the question, How should online classes appear on one’s resume?

I do make a big deal about them on my personal page. You can go now on my linkedin (/in/grandinettipietro) and see that I mention all the important classes I completed. Many of them are grouped into the same specialization course, like ten classes into the Data Science specialization at Johns' Hopkins.

I think the personal resume is the right place for these achievements. It’s where they belong, because of the bold statement that they make about who I am: a learner.

And a lot of times someone reached out to me via LinkedIn mentioning they were impressed with my background and passion for learning. That is exactly how I want to be known.

Collaboration

Unfortunately I am very bad at collaborating with other students. I have my own pace, my own learning strategy, and I just find it very difficult to study with someone else. I’ve always been like this, even when I was in school.

On top of my own limitations, I also believe there’s a real lack of tools out there. For example, the student forum on Coursera is largely useless to advanced students like me. In this sense, the “level” of the student can create a loneliness problem. For instance, if I take a class on cloud storage I can’t go at the same pace as young fellows who are just learning SQL.

Overall, I think there is a sensible problem in the MOOC world: advanced students are left to themselves. The problem gets even worse because these students are perfectly capable of completing many classes without the help from anybody. That has happened to me, a lot.

But learning is exponentially better when I am given the chance to brainstorm with my peers! Discuss challenging problems, throw bold solutions on the table, mind mapping together, all of these experiences enhance learning by a factor 100.

That’s why I also believe there is a real opportunity, even for a business, to create a value to gather advanced learners and provide them with a way to learn together.

Actions

I want to circle back to the question: How can I make my MOOCs better?

Reviewing and fine-tuning this same article, I learned that there are two aspects that can be improved.

Deliberate Practice

I managed only in one case to deliberately practice at very high levels. It was for my Compilers class. In other MOOCs I certainly practiced, but not nearly enough, or hard enough as I should.

I set very high expectations for every class I take. I want to come out of the class with in -depth knowledge about the subject, and also with practical fluency on how to solve problems thanks to the concepts I learned. The only way to get so far is to understand, memorize and practice. Practicing again, and then more.

The tools I already use can help. If I force myself to mind map everything during and at the end of a class, I will likely find connections and things I need to understand better. And that will trigger more research. The same research can be enhanced with hypothesis and zotero, to keep track of my progress. And also to write things down, which always helps to memorize and practice!

Overall, it feels like I should have a post-it on my desk that says “Practice!”. The illusion of learning by rushing through the material and by watching somebody else solving the problems is very real. It must be avoided. And it can be avoided with deliberate practice.

Collaboration

I should find a way to set shared learning goals with someone else. Like a sparring student partner.

It’s increasingly difficult to find someone who matches my exact level: most learners are either much less or much more experienced. The only solution I can imagine is to reach out via some students forum (including Coursera’s) and search there for such a study partner.

This also means that we miss a dedicated tool for advanced study groups. “Advanced”, really means students who know a lot about the context around a subject and want to go deeper on the details. Like a mathematician with good programming experience who wants to learn about deep networks.

I do not know any such tool to enable collaboration between advanced students. It feels at first like a very easy problem: just talk to each other at the beginning, schedule a weekly call to check each on the other and speak about the class. As easy as it may sound, I haven’t been able to do it. One more item in my ToDo.



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