I have complicated relationships with education. I have not finished my degree – I was studying microelectronics, and after 3 years I decided that it is too boring for me: even though I was actually working writing I2C and SDRAM drivers for FPGA, it was about 5% thinking and reading specifications, and 95% about designing finite state machine and implementing it (probably the ratio was due to the fact it was my internship). Now I write some code for web, and, ironically, I find it much more interesting (even though, I bet, many people will say I am crazy), and truly enjoy to create web products.
Funnily enough, in order to be a web developer, you need to know much less than for FPGA progamming, and your salary is bigger, at least in Russia.
However, I like to learn – I always was this way, with curiosity and unhealthy desire to learn everything, which I find interesting. At some point I’ve discovered MOOCs (massive online open courses) and fell in love with the concept, and started to go through all available courses, trying to fill the gaps in my education.
Here is the list of my observations – they are applicable not only to Coursera, rather to all online learning platforms.
Probably it is my personal problem – maybe I don’t care about money, or $50 is not big enough to regret: sure, it is nice to have them, but it was not a gamechanger for me at all. There are specializations on Coursera, which can be pretty pricy, and they might solve this problem, but I don’t want to risk: I have no idea whether I’ll have enough time to go through the whole thing.
Another payment incentive is certificates. Usually you can’t get certificates anymore without payment, but except for credits for US universities, I don’t think they are very valuable – in ideal world, it shows your commitment and learning, but it is not very helpful in the wild: nobody cares.
If you plan to enter the field, you might find yourself struggling – a lot of courses are very theoretical, and assume you already know a lot, or can have a really fast pace. Some courses boast to be very practical with little theory, but in reality it depends heavily – some of them find this sweet spot, but majority fails.
From my experience, in usual university curriculum, students have both practical and theoretical classes, and some of them overlap and touch past material. Moreover, practical classes go immediately after theory, and therefore you cover same theory again (not so deep, but still), and then do some practical stuff. In MOOCs, you either have to do the practical part on your own (via some coursebook, or explaining concepts to other students, whatever works for you), or pick a parallel course with bigger stress on practice.
some courses resemble this funny picture
As I mentioned in the previous part, a lot of courses are pretty abstract and theoretical, which is a big downside if you just start in some topic. However, if you already know something, or just want to refresh or deepen your knowledge, it might be a great idea to go through the course – it should not be very complicated, so not a big time commitment, and there will be plenty of tests and assignments to train your skills.
For example, when I started to go through algorithms first time, I was overwhelmed by all new (for me) concepts, and did not finish the course. Later I went through a simple book, looked into some examples, and after it was much easier to finish the same course (it turned to be extremely helpful, and I am glad that I managed it).
If you are a graduate from CS, algorithms on Coursera might be a good idea to sharpen your skills, but if you just switched your field, it can be really hard and frustrating (and everybody around will tell you are not a real programmer).
To rephrase this point, if you have two courses: one with more suitable content, and other with a much better teacher, always go the second route. Personality is incredibly important – if you like pace, presentation, sense of humour of the teacher, it is a huge bonus and encourages you to finish the course.
It also means that if you found someone who you really enjoy, you should try other courses by this person, even they are not directly in your area of interest – some content might overlap (it is not very common to be an author of two completely different courses), and you also might find that other content is interested by itself.
People are more important than product (so it is better go to the best team with bad product) – same logic here.
This advice was the most influential for me – after increasing speed I was able to go through familiar parts much faster, slowing down in more complicated ones. It works everywhere – conference talks, screencasts, lectures, all video content for learning. It is a very refreshing experience – if you know material, on high speed you need to challenge yourself to keep up with the presentation, so you (ideally) are never bored.
For a long time I’ve judged courses only by title and description, without looking into syllabus. So, if description looked a little bit different from what I was looking for, I closed and went to another one – even though they had couple of weeks dedicated to topics which I was interested. Of course, you won’t be able to get a certificate, but again, remembering about complementary tool, it might be a great idea to learn about some topics from several courses – they will explain the same thing, but using different examples, with different reading material and with different teachers.
I think I finished about 10~15 courses, while starting more than 50. It is a pretty poor performance, but it gave me a lot – even though some could be skipped without any consequences, and I hope this list can help you to get more out of MOOCs. They are very challenging, and definitely need different approach from traditional classes. It is a hard path, so good luck!