The internet can be used as an effective learning platform, usually done through an online course. One of the most commonly-touted advantages of an online course is convenience and accessibility. The ability to study a material in your own time at any place sounds amazing indeed!

I enrolled in an online course offered by the University of California, Berkeley called Foundations of Data Science. This is an actual university course that they converted into an online course format. As the topic of data science interests me, I decided to give it a shot.

The course is composed of three parts with each part lasting for 5 weeks. To learn the material, you need to watch video lectures about a topic every week. A free online book is also available to supplement the video materials. At the end of the week, you need to finish a practical test (laboratory) using a Jupyter Notebook.

After 4 months, I have successfully completed the course. Here are some things that I learned about my experience completing an online course.

Technology is wonderful

As this is my first time taking an online course of any kind, I was wondering how they can assess what I have learned. Surprisingly, technology has advanced far enough to make it easy for teachers to assess students online.

In the data science course, we use Jupyter Notebooks to run examples and to take exams. This is basically a web application that allows you to run Python code in the browser and display the results in real-time. This allows the student to experiment using actual code and actual data without installing Python or any additional software on the computer.

The web application also allows teachers to use auto-grading software to assess the student’s exams. This means that they no longer need to manually check each individual student and instead the application handles it for them automatically.

The best part of this is everything is done in a web browser! For students, this means ease of use and accessibility. A modern web browser is an integral part of computers nowadays, and having it as a web application means that students can learn and take exams anytime and anywhere that has an internet connection.

Paying for it has advantages

One dilemma that I encountered when I was enrolling for the course is whether to purchase a certificate or just do it for free. The course is also offered for free to the public so there is an option to learn the same things without paying for anything.

Online course providers list several reasons why you might want to pay for the course. Main reasons are to support the teachers and making sure the service is running smoothly. For me however, I opted to pay for the course due to the following:

  • Motivation – unless you are a self-disciplined autodidact, there will be times when you will not feel like studying or taking exams for the week. Paying for the service helped me to curb this feeling by thinking about the money that I spent. I admit that this helped me more than anything to push through the end of the course. Looking back, if I had taken the course for free, I would have quit mid-way as I don’t have that many “chips on the table”.
  • Verified Certificate – another reason for me to pay for the course is that they offer a “verified” certification for completing the course. This will allow me to link the certificate in my resume or my portfolio and an external service can verify my accomplishment.

Consistent time helps

If you are considering taking an online course, chances are you have something else to do in your day. Having a full-time job, studying for a degree, or home-building may be reasons why studying online is attractive.

To be more effective, you need to set a specific schedule in your week dedicated to studying. As there is limited communication with the teachers, you need to focus on the learning materials and absorb as much as possible. This will require a set time in the day when you can focus and study.

Having a set schedule also allows your mind to switch to “study mode”. I find it easier to do the courses in the evening after work and when the chores are finished. This provides me an hour or more of uninterrupted time that I can use to focus solely on study.

Do not rush things

As the learning materials are readily available (given every week for example), you may be tempted to rush things and do everything in one sitting.

While this may allow you to catch up on the lessons, this could be counterproductive. Your mind needs some time to solidify the concepts you have learned and also to help retain the ideas in memory. Binge studying may be helpful in the short-term, but may not be that useful long-term.

Taking regular breaks and sticking to your schedule in the week will help you understand the lessons better.

Still requires time

While online courses are more convenient than traditional learning (e.g. classroom setting), it does not necessarily make it easier or faster. After all, it is still studying! Learning anything requires attention, time, and practice.

No matter how good the online materials are or how accessible it is, if you do not devote time for studying or incorporating it into your schedule, then you may not get the most out of the course.

 

To summarize, online courses are a great way to learn new things. The ability to incorporate learning into your own schedule on your own terms is powerful. I hope this article helped you see the benefits of learning online and perhaps motivate you to enroll for one in the future.

Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash

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