I want to study everything, but I’m paralyzed by modern realities. I want to dive deeper into cluster computing and machine learning, and also into philosophy and natural languages, and I want to do this while working full-time. I have no children, no second or third job, and I do have free time, so there’s no obvious structural hard limitation getting in my way. And yet, I can’t pull it off, but why is this? Is it just a matter of discipline? Or is there something deeper going on here?

The internet now has several Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) providers, a myriad of blogs and how-to guides, and relatively easy access to buying books when helpful. There is no shortage of raw documentation, but paradoxically, the larger the volume of work available, the more difficult the choice of text. A similar choice paralysis occurs when selecting a software library. If there are 5 libraries that do similar things, how do you pick? Feature set? Number of stars on GitHub? Most recent commit datetime? How about if there’s only 1 library, but has few stars, and the last commit was 2 years ago? With online courses you can pick by whatever comes up higher on Google, shows up in more blog posts, or in the case of a rapidly-evolving field like machine learning, the most recent course. Specifically for Machine Learning people will recommend Andrew Ng’s course on Coursera, but it’s from 2011. Luckily in this case there’s an updated course by him from 2017, but it’s not always this clear-cut.

This is a discussion of self-improvement through online education in the modern day, the challenges that arise, the strategies available, and a few ideas of how new technology may one day help us to succeed in our self-improvement with greater efficacy and ease.

Education Run a-MOOC

In university, once you pick a major, the required courses are more or less laid out in an effective order. In the best of cases, it’s done by someone who deeply understands the nature of the major, the dependencies in courses, and the relative difficulties of each in turn. While many MOOCs now offer online majors, often by accredited institutions, there appears to not be a similar packaging for a group of related courses for a smaller subset of education (with some exceptions, like a machine learning package). I would wager that most people looking to MOOC sites for education aren’t looking to complete a new degree, but rather to get up to speed on new things, or to scratch an itch for the sake of learning. In some cases this can mean a single course in which case this is not an issue, but this is not always the case. There is some degree of hand-holding by MOOC sites which could go a long way toward ensuring people take sets of courses that truly interest them and help them, but it’s not quite there yet today.

MOOC sites give the convenience of watching lectures on-demand, and are flexible with homework submissions. You can do it whenever you want (within reason). If you don’t log in for a bit, the site might email you to nag and guilt you into coming back, but this lacks the same pressure as attending a real lecture, knowing your lecturer and graders, and interacting directly with classmates. One email leads to two, and before you know it, you get caught up in work and give up on the course. You can’t really fail a course, because you can always come back and try to take it again later, and this freedom can lead to putting off a course indefinitely. I have fallen into this trap many times.

For me, the in-person human element is significant. Having classmates to talk to about assignments with, as well as random things, makes going to lecture and lab more fun, and I will tend to dedicate myself more when I’m having a good time and am feeling more engaged. MOOCs have online discussion forums, but it’s not the same.

All of that said, I think MOOCs are a fantastic option and I’m glad they exist. In time, I’m sure they’ll improve to be more human-friendly, though how they will address the differences with a university class, I cannot say.

Goals

Motivations for education vary from person to person, but while learning things on a whim online can be easy to start, it can be difficult to continue without concrete goals in mind. Before starting a single course, decide what the ultimate goal is, and perhaps create a selection of courses to take, and a schedule of when you plan to finish them. Career goals are often better motivators than learning for its own sake, as you have economic or long-term incentives to continue when things get hard, so if your motivations are purely for education, lower the barriers by reducing the number of courses you will take, perhaps just one to start.

Practical Considerations

Studying while working full-time, even when online, is not the same as being a dedicated university student, and many of us are not in our 20s anymore. Things will not come quite as easily as before. Keep it real. Weekends will often be the main time where you have enough energy and time to focus on classes, but might be insufficient depending on how many courses you plan to take at once. You may have to make time or sleep sacrifices during the week to keep up, and this can get untenable for more than one course.

Discipline

There’s no getting around the need for staying disciplined, doing the coursework in the time you allot for it, on the days that you can. If you can take the course with someone you know in meatspace, or have someone else that can motivate you to stay disciplined like a significant other, it can help a lot. It is very easy to fall behind on coursework while working a full-time job, so commit to it.

Language Study

Studying spoken language without a class can be immensely difficult, as it involves a lot of speaking and listening. There are online services for practicing with native speakers, but the barrier to talking to complete strangers is admittedly higher. In case the language uses a different writing system, things get more complex because the written form either uses a cursive you won’t find in print, such as with cursive Cyrillic in Russian, or you must learn stroke order and written variants that are different from printed ones, such as with Chinese characters. The best advice here is to get real pen and paper, or a tablet with a stylus, and practice until you feel you’ve achieved some level of mastery. This is harder to do without a teacher, but uploading some written text to a language learning site once comfortable can go a long way. While in the modern day most people use computers to write, I’ve found that simply typing a new script isn’t enough to learn it. Handwriting is the best way.

Future Improvements

MOOCs are still a relatively new phenomenon and will continue to improve over time. This is a short list of a few improvements I feel would go a long way toward helping people out. I haven’t used a lot of MOOCs recently, so some of these features may already be implemented to some degree, and if so, would love to hear from you all which.

In short, make it easy to have study sessions with other people.

  • Group of people at work can take a course together

It may be hard to go to a traditional university or college, but what if you could take courses with coworkers together, and have private study sessions? Of course it’s already possible for people to sign up separately for the same quarter, but organizing this can get to be a challenge. I feel like MOOC sites target the individual learner, but signing up as a group would be great. It could also lower the barrier for companies who already give stipends to their workers to take courses. This would also lead to higher motivation to take and complete courses for people.

  • Schedule study sessions online

Allowing the scheduling of study sessions as part of the MOOC platform, integrated with calendar apps, or exporting iCal, would help students get together on a regular basis, and keep their studying structured.

  • Shared whiteboarding app on tablet w/ video/audio chat

Meeting up in real life is hard, even with coworkers who are in the same office, and these days, many are remote or in another office. Integrating a whiteboarding app to the study session, which would save sessions to shared spaces for later review, would be immensely helpful to recall discussions and keep track of where the group is at.

Studying while working full-time is challenging for a lot of reasons, but in order to keep up with the pace of change of the world and satisfy my own learning goals, it’s a necessity. MOOCs are a step in the right direction and will keep improving, but I feel we’re only halfway there. One day we’ll come home from work, open our tablet, laptop or whatever computing device of the day, get personal assistance and reassurance in real-time by a human or a bot for that day’s assignments or lecture, and be able to have ad-hoc discussions that help to keep us engaged, but not overwhelmed. Until then, I guess it’s up to self-discipline and perseverance to make a dent in self-improvement. I think I’ll sign up for a MOOC class soon which I won’t promptly give up in a few weeks’ time. Wish me luck.

Inspiration: https://towardsdatascience.com/how-it-feels-to-learn-data-science-in-2019-6ee688498029

Backend web developer. Silicon Valley / Tokyo.

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