Have You Experienced MOOCs Yet?

by Lou Frenzel
Mar 08, 2017

How do you keep up with technology or learn new subjects related to your career? If you’re the typical engineer, you’re an autodidact, or self-learner.  You educate yourself as needed. Your sources are magazines like Electronic Design, webinars, conferences, and (of course) your endless internet searches.

These are effective up to a point, but some topics just require some more formal and in-depth learning. A college course or an expensive seminar may work, if available. However there is an alternative you may not have explored: MOOCs.

MOOCs are massive open online courses—web-based classes offered by major universities or educational companies who host them. Online courses have been around for decades, but the MOOC idea is relatively new.

The idea followed the success of what is considered the first MOOC course—one about artificial intelligence (AI) offered by a couple of Stanford University professors in 2011. More than 160,000 students enrolled. Since then, more schools have developed courses and a number of companies have been established to offer them. The breadth of subject matter is astonishing.

Online course

As for the courses themselves, they are college-level and mostly self-paced (meaning no time constraints). Many courses are free, but some have a small fee. Others are expensive. While you don’t get standard college credit, many offer certified completion credentials if you pass the exams and pay an extra fee.

The format is online lectures, videos or other presentations. All courses involve some reading assignments, and many require specific project completions. A few courses have lab requirements. If you need help, typically some can be had from the instructor by email.

Generally speaking, MOOCs are effective and competent. However, completion rates are very low—in the 7 to 12 % range depending upon the subject. The reason for this is that the student needs to be heavily motivated to get the knowledge. Self-learning is tough for most people, and it’s difficult to stick with a program even if you want to learn the subject. Unsurprisingly, they say that the completion rate increases for those who pay for the course.

I recently tried a MOOC. I was updating my book Electronics Explained and wanted to add some coverage of microcontrollers and programming. I needed to learn C programming, which I’d somehow managed to avoid all these years. I have done virtually all my microcontroller programming in assembler, which I still prefer, but C is by far the major embedded controller programming language.

I signed up for a C programming course through MOOC host Udemy. It was given by a professor from Valparaiso University. I chose this one over multiple C programming offerings because it offered lab projects using the Texas Instruments MSP430 MCU, with its LaunchPad development system. The course cost me $15 and the TI board was less than $20, plus free software.

The course consists of short lectures followed by quizzes and lots of programming exercises. Lots!  Definitely a great deal of work. But that’s how one learns: It takes time and effort. Teachers don’t teach, you learn. Anyway, I did learn C. I’m still not good at it, but I can program my Arduino and MSP430 to do most basic things.

If you are looking for some continuing education, try a MOOC. Take a look at these three companies that offer many technology-related courses: Coursera, edX, and Udacity. (A  complete list of offering companies and courses can be found here.)

In just a brief survey of each I found lots of courses on programming. Python is hot right now. Other popular topics are robotics, AI, and the Internet of Things (IoT). There are dozens of electronic courses. Try Kahn Academy for math courses.  

Lots to consider. I enjoyed my course, but be forewarned: it is a bit of work, requiring a major time commitment. Good luck, and let me know how you like MOOCs.

Discuss this Blog Entry 6

on Mar 10, 2017

From my own experience, definitely a "thing" you should try. The biggest challenge first is to decide on which course you want to attend.
Then of course you need a certain self discipline/will to complete it. The main advantage is definitely that for most, you can follow them at your own pace and from wherever you are (business trip, holiday, workplace...) - except if you need hardware hands-on!
And you may try some topics you would never dare or thought of with "normal" courses.

on Mar 10, 2017

I am enjoying doing this IoT course very much,
which is free if you don't need the certificate and if you do not want your assignments to be assessed:

Here's what you need to know to get started:

Join more than 20,000 registered IoT learners on Coursera, the world’s largest MooC platform, as they explore Bluemix, Watson IoT Platform and the open source Node-RED visual programming tool. IBM has teamed with Coursera to deliver an entry-level IoT skills course,
A Developer’s Guide to the Internet of Things.

This course is an introduction to developing and deploying a basic solution for the IoT. It will focus on capturing data from a trusted device and sending the data to a cloud platform. You will explore all the steps required to build your IoT solution using a popular device, the Raspberry Pi, and a trial version of the cloud-based IBM Watson IoT Platform.
Some basic programming knowledge is assumed and the course requires learners to complete simple programming tasks in both Python and JavaScript.

By completing the course, you can get certified in IoT. You can also access the course for free—simply register and select the “audit only” option. A payment is only required if you would like to be graded and receive a certificate from Coursera.

You can go directly to A Developer’s Guide to the Internet of Things
coursera.org/learn/developer-iot/
to get started, or learn more:
Course introduction video on YouTube
youtube.com/watch?v=UBbfNKwh0i8&feature=youtu.be

on Mar 10, 2017

MOOCs are amazing, and I really appreciate the effort top tier Universities go through just to organize a free one. I believe it is a mutually beneficial (win-win) situation. Free courses give people from developing countries (like me) access to quality education whilst promoting their institution.

They've also managed to elucidate on topics that were obscure to me when I was still in uni. One can go to the library and take copious notes from all the literature available on a subject but not satisfy your curiosity (i.e. no author addresses your specific qualms). An example is a computer architecture MOOC I took from MIT. My understanding of CPU design was once flawed and full of holes (college was only meant to give a taste of the subject). After the course, which was mainly aimed for computer scientists, I gained the confidence to design my own ISA and CPU - and since I'm in the semiconductor industry - I've figured out how to do it on silicon! Can't acquire that kind of know-how from a webinar/trip to the library alone.

Another significant advantage is the forums. I'm only 24 but MOOCs have allowed me to share ideas and skills with professionals that have specialized in the industry for decades (seniors). For the example above, the MOOC has enabled me to communicate with senior CPU architects. From them I've learned how to emulate a CPU design in Verilog. Who wouldn't feel like in 7th heaven!

Anyway, the downside is it does demand a lot of time. I go home from work late at night and summon the vestiges of my energy to devote that last hour to learning. It really is foreboding to anyone with a constricted schedule, I guess all I can say is amortize study time, be tenacious, and enjoy the view from the top of the mountain after accomplishment. It really is a rewarding experience.

on Mar 10, 2017

I have taken about a dozen on-line courses so far, and many more are on my things-to-learn list. I was one of the 160,000 students in that very first Artificial Intelligence course that was offered by Stanford back in 2011. I stuck it out to the end, scoring a final grade of over 90%. It was LOT of work, and very challenging, especially considering I had graduated with my EE degree about 40 years ago. It was gratifying to confirm "I could still do it". Since that initial AI course (which was only for personal, not professional, interest), I have taken courses on Python programming, MPS430 design, forensic science, human spaceflight (taught by an ex-astronaut), world history, search engine design, nuclear power, power electronics, etc. Right now, I am just finishing a course through edx.com, on computer networking.
Yes, there were a few I did not complete, due to lack of time, or finding the material not interesting. For the most part, the course presentations have been excellent. The videos are professionally done, easy to follow, and make good use of illustrations and examples.
As others have commented, these courses do require an investment in personal time. But, the time you spend will be in proportion to what you learn.
I plan to take a couple of MOOCs every year. They are a tremendous resource!

on Mar 10, 2017

Let's face it... The day of the buggy-whip, slide-rule, cable TV; & college campus courses are over. The lectures on the MOOC's are far superior to the majority of foreign accented college profs; the learning experience it just as good (or better); and the ratio of (amount learned)/(total time spent) on MOOC's is incredibly higher.
It's time we all accept this: Over two thirds of college courses could be better learned online. The only drawback is no college credit.
It's time to change that...

on Mar 11, 2017

I'm good at teaching myself how to do something. But I'm also easily distracted. There are so many other interesting things...

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