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Carlos Fenollosa

Carlos Fenollosa

Engineer, developer, entrepreneur

Carlos Fenollosa — Blog

Thoughts on science and tips for researchers who use computers

Learn new stuff, online, for free

June 05, 2013 — Carlos Fenollosa

These last months I've been quite busy learning new stuff. Researchers always need to keep an eye on the state of the art by reading papers, but multi-disciplinar sciences usually require a strong background in two or more areas, like biology, chemistry, math, physics or the always present computer science.

While we can appreciate a good book, it is not the ideal way to learn new skills. Books don't force you to follow a schedule, do the assignments, and obviously don't evaluate you. We all have work to do and, with no deadlines, we never invest enough time on learning new tools in depth. Most books and tutorials are abandoned at chapter 4.

University-grade learning

If you want to follow an university-like learning methodology, you will need to invest university-like time and money, enrolling in short courses or traditional Masters degrees. They are fine, but cost a lot of time and money. What happens if you just want to learn one specific tool or technique and not a whole curriculum?

Many universities offer workshops and non-official courses, typically for 3-5 days, which don't cost much money, but they are usually full-time and not really compatible with a daily job, unless you get permission from your supervisor.

In 2011, and especially in 2012, a new learning tool appeared on the internet: the MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. Their format varies, but most of them cover one or half a university class (7-15 weeks) in depth, with video lectures, assignments, deadlines, and real interaction with other students, TAs and professors.

In learning, it isn't worth to to cheat at solitaire. A hard deadline is the only way to assure we won't lag behind the class, and while nobody will be watching whether we finish the course or drop it, it is up to us to decide if we want to take that opportunity to learn or not.

Resources to learn online

If you need some pointers I'd recommend to try Coursera first, since it has the best methodology, for my taste, and the one which resembles a college the most. If I'm not mistaken, it's also the website with the most number of courses. A good alternative is Udacity, which doesn't have as many advanced topics as Coursera, but it's great for beginners. Finally, the last generalistic site is Khan Academy, but unfortunately, it doesn't provide the same assignments-and-deadline mechanism that the former have. It basically contains video lectures. As a non-website, we can't forget iTunes U, Apple's video lectures directory, with classes directly recorded from campus.

Other self-learning resources, while not strictly MOOCs, are Codeschool and Codeacademy for programming, and Memrise for languages. The number of education websites is growing, so make a quick search on Google to check if there is anything else you could be interested in.

Effort, pace and cost

MOOCs surprisingly compare to real online universities in terms of quality and material level, however, real interaction with the professor is difficult and only through public forums. The number of makes up for that, as usually there is somebody which can answer you. It is really a collaborative effort.

Besides the obvious "knowledge for all" motto, there's another big advantage for me, as you can study at your own pace. Good MOOCs have precise deadlines which allow you some margin if you have a hard week at work or home, but they are not so far enough as to let you lag behind.

Now, the question is, who pays for that? Posting video lectures online has a marginal cost, but what about the TAs and professor's time? Most of the assignments are corrected by a computer or other students, but the organizers have to invest a significant amount of money.

I don't have the answer, but probably, since those courses are sponsored by a university, it probably fits into their social community service. Some professors advertise their books on the subject, which is perfectly reasonable, and finally, there is usually some self interest and promotion goal.

Whoever pays for the courses with their time and money, thank you.

Go check these links out, especially Coursera, and see if there's anything that catches your eye. Be brave, enroll, and prepare for a university-like effort. You'll learn university-like knowledge, for free.

Tags: learning

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