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Continuing Education 2.0: 8 Tips on Efficiently Taking Online Classes

Posted on: November 25th, 2012 by thetechmuse No Comments

You have a wish list of online classes you’d love to take, but where to begin? Intended audience: busy people interested in more efficiently taking online continuing education classes.

“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” ― Richard Feynmann


What’s the shortest path to get the real-life knowledge and skills you need after college? This post has a few tips on sticking to online continuing education classes.

37 Hours in 2 Months
Thankfully (and surprisingly) I actually use my interdisciplinary Stanford degree at my interdisciplinary job. Nonetheless, I’ve discovered that there are a lot of really practical tools I didn’t learn in college that would: 1.) make me more go further in my current projects, and 2.) help me work towards my longer-term career goals.

For example, with the evolution of marketing as Andrew Chen gracefully summarized, skills as seemingly unrelated as more advanced Excel, MySQL, mobile app development, and even Photoshop aren’t required to get a job in marketing, but can definitely be useful.

In just 2 months (vs. the 6+ months this would have taken over multiple academic quarters and many frustrating hours trying to figure this out only with Stack Overflow and Quora), amidst working full-time, I went through 37 hours of video lectures, going from reviewing the most basic fundamentals of programming to object-oriented design to Objective-C to Stanford's iOS Programming class, all for the sticker cost of $50. (One could argue I could have compressed this even further with a book or a one-day workshop at a startup incubator space, but a few additional considerations beyond the scope of this post factored into the choice of going down this route.)

I didn’t need to hack an MIT CS degree in 12 months to see the immediate return on investment on my day-to-day life and work, even before I finished all of the classes. I understand the tradeoffs of going through all of this material at this speed and level of depth, but I was able to achieve my job-specific learning goals.

Secret sauce: self-discipline
Content for online continuing education is readily available. You have flexibility in time and location. The biggest part of online continuing education is self-discipline, a skill which is fundamentally no different from getting yourself to work out (or pencil in your yoga practice). Numerous behavioral economics books have more insights on how to build lasting habits – in their book Chip and Dan Heath describe the “elephant and the rider.” The “rider” is what you intellectually know you should do, and the “elephant” is all the other factors that make it difficult to do it. A few ideas on how you can pave the way for the “elephant”:

A. Set yourself up for success
1. Prioritize: There are probably 10 classes you’d love to take. However, your time is finite and you gotta start somewhere. Create a prioritized list of classes to take - e.g. lay out why each one is important, think about what immediate impact it will have on your life or job, or start at the beginning of a sequence if the content builds upon previous topics. Start with the highest-impact class. For you ambitious millennials with the chronic Fear of Missing Out, remember you can revisit this and reset after finishing each class.

2. How deep do you need to go? Form and function: Part of the beauty of these online classes is you have a lot more flexibility in how deep you want to go.

For example, to accomplish my near-term job-related goals, I just needed to be able to read Objective-C and understand at a high level the many moving pieces of the iOS development frameworks, so in the interest of the 80/20 rule, I skipped the homework and thus saved a lot of time. However, this would clearly NOT work if my immediate goal was to code.

3. Be brutally honest with what pre-reqs you may need or what material you need to review: You may need to mix and match online services, since some may specialize in more basic foundational classes and others may be much better for advanced classes.

Although it’s been 2 years since the last time I took a programming class at Stanford, I tried taking the CS 193P class cold. For the first few lectures, I totally thought I knew what was going on. However, when the project at work required me to go a level deeper, I painfully discovered that I needed to review programming from the basics and also that the CS 193P class would be much easier to follow once I knew a bit more Objective-C itself. After I invested a month to review these, when restarted the CS 193P lectures, it was like seeing the world in HD - everything made so much more sense, I got so much more out of the class and go much faster (not need to pause the videos as often).

4. Set realistic expectations on how much you can do each day or each week: One 1-hour of lecture a day - how hard could that be? Very hard, especially if you have day job, have friends, like working out, and you’d much rather be watching Hulu or Netflix in your downtime - “everything else” seems more time-sensitive and important than that lecture. Block off time on your calendar. If something comes up that delays your schedule, just shift the timelines and and move on, instead of unproductively beating yourself up over it.

I aimed for 4-5 lectures/week, so I could split up the classes throughout the week and weekends. I did the full 1.5 hours in the evenings and weekends, then switched it up 45 min on my commute to work and 45 min on the way back so duration the long lectures would seem less daunting. As you can imagine, my social life during this time wasn’t particularly active during this time.

B. Hacks
5. Create your own feedback loops: Without the structure, social support, and external motivators of a classroom, it’s all on you to stay with it.

I created a spreadsheet and pasted in all the lectures and subtopics. As I finished each lecture, I crossed them off and marked the date - it was motivating to see how far I had come come. This method also helped me tie concepts together and see the big picture.

6. Optimize for your learning style: Another part of the beauty of these online classes is that you have all the materials upfront and thus you can design a way to consume them as efficiently as possible.

E.g. I’m a visual learner. Most If the classes have slides, so I found it helpful to take 20 minutes before each lecture to go through slides first, paste the text into a document, and annotate the document during the video, instead of pausing the video every few minutes to take notes. In contrast, more auditory learners may just like to listen to the lectures.

7. If possible, download the videos to your computer, so network not an excuse. I would queue a few downloads before going to bed, so the next morning I woke up to 1 week’s worth of lectures. Recently, I lent my house keys to a friend and waited outside on the porch for 45 min for her to return, but didn’t mind because I had hours of lectures to watch : )

8. Surviving long lectures: I wrote down Roman numerals I to V on a piece of paper and crossed one numeral off off every 15 min.

The journey vs. the destination
Until online continuing education has the "street cred" of formal degree or certificate programs of universities, you don't get a gold star just for the "journey" of completing these courses - it's the "destination," the way you apply them to your real-life projects and drive more effective results, that counts.

There is so much more I'd like to learn and many more classes I'd like to take. I'll continue updating this post as more tips arise.

P.S. For the perspective of someone teaching herself to code a real product, check out Erin’s hard-core journey teaching herself how to build on Ruby: http://neverbendeasy.wordpress.com/