How to pick the best MOOCs: 6 tips from a Coursera junkie

Feynman Liang will make you feel like a slacker.
The 21-year-old is pursuing a dual-degree program in engineering and biophysics from Dartmouth and Amherst, but in the last year or so, he’s also completed 36 massive open online courses (MOOCs) on Coursera, Udacity and edX. Right now, he said, he’s taking 10 courses simultaneously — while he completes a summer internship at Google.
When his friends go out for Thursday night parties, he said he often stays back to complete Coursera assignments due the next day. And, once, he spent 80 hours on a single assignment. But he said the MOOCs have helped him pass out of lower-level classes in college and even prepped him for his Google interviews.
“I get to gain a nontrivial understanding of a field,” he said. “And it translates into me doing a lot better in college.”
In the past year, MOOCs have attracted all kinds of interest from people inside and outside education. And the major MOOC startups have teamed up with dozens of top-notch schools around the world for classes in a range of disciplines. But, despite the buzz, attrition rates are very high — some estimates say as many as 90 percent of online students never finish the classes they sign up for.
Most of us aren’t likely to go on a Coursera bender or take 10 online classes at a time. But more of us could probably afford to give up an hour or two of Breaking Bad now and then for a little bit of learning. Here are Liang’s tips for picking the best classes.

1. It’s not just about the certificates

If you’re the kind of person who likes to rack up accomplishments, you might be tempted to stick to the online classes that award official-looking certificates at the end. When he started taking Coursera classes, Liang said that’s what he did. (Not all classes offer them and they’re not worth institutional credit, but they were a way to show his parents that he wasn’t wasting his time.) But then he realized he was going about it all wrong. “You really don’t need a certificate or official recognition for what you take away from the class to be useful to you,” he said. Liang said he took a class on algorithms and data structures with a top Princeton professor that did not offer certificates of any kind. But when he walked into his technical interviews for summer internships, he said he realized that “being in that class gave me the answers to the questions in the interview.”

2. Don’t judge a course by its videos

Some online courses offer highly produced videos with graphics and animations and artfully shot sequences, while others just stick a professor in front of a camera. But don’t dismiss a whole course just because the videos don’t seem up to par. An electrical engineering course he took on Coursera didn’t have great videos, but Liang said it was on of the best classes he’s taken online. So, what’s a better way to evaluate a class early on? Test out a class for a couple of weeks to get a sense of the professor’s personality and commitment level. Assignments and quizzes that just ask you to recall material covered in the video might indicate that the professor is doing the online thing because of a university initiative, not a real personal interest, while more thought-provoking questions and problem sets could show that the teacher is really invested, Liang said.

3. Be prepared to gripe about peer grading

If there’s one part of the Coursera experience Liang isn’t crazy about it’s the peer review process. To enable students in a class of 30,000 to get feedback on papers and assignments that don’t lend themselves to automatic computer grading, many Coursera classes rely on peer grading. Students get trained to use a grading rubric and then they’re asked to evaluate a set number of their peers’ work. The problem, as Liang and others see it, is that there’s huge variability in the feedback. Some students may be Ph.Ds in the topic of the course, while others may be high-school students or non-native English speakers with limited vocabularies. There is an upside, however: you get a chance to interact with people from all kinds of backgrounds.

4. Don’t play it safe when you pick classes

In a competitive college environment, where every final grade ends up a transcript, the nearly straight-A Liang said he’s been reluctant to branch out beyond the courses he knows he’ll do well in. On Coursera, however, he’s been free to delve into social psychology, behavioral economics, climate science and other topics – without worrying about the outcome. Indulge your curiosity. You can learn anything from the history of humankind to the history of rock, from the comfort of your own home. And, if you want, you can ask dumb questions or test out half-baked theories without anyone knowing who you are.

5. Don’t assume there’s consistency between classes

As Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng has said, his startup isn’t a university — it’s “a humble hosting platform.” That means the professors and schools behind each course design the curriculum, create the content and set the class requirements. Coursera obviously sets the framework and provides support, but its classes run the gamut in terms of quality. Once you’ve registered for a class, pay attention to its assignment policies. Some classes may not ask you to submit anything until the very end, while others will fail you if you miss more than 30 percent of one week.  Also, a lot of professors are trying out classes for the first time, so be prepared to feel a bit like a guinea pig as policies shift as the professors learn what works.

6. If you take just one class, make it this one

Obviously, potential Courserians have a huge range of interests and motivations, and there’s not going to be one course that’s the best for everyone. But Liang said that of the more than 50 classes he’s tried, the one he’d most recommend to a MOOC newcomer is: “A beginner’s guide to irrational behavior.” Taught by a Duke professor of behavioral economics and psychology, the class gets into all kinds of interesting lessons about human nature. “It’s one of the more accessible and rock-your-world classes,” he said.