04/12/2013 11:39 am ET Updated Jun 12, 2013

Doin' MOOC Time

I recently devoted a week on the Degree of Freedom web site to a discussion how time relates not just to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) but to any form of independent learning.

When trying to determine whether a particular class can work with your schedule, one of the first issues to confront is whether the class is being taught synchronously (with lectures and assignments released regularly as part of a scheduled program with a start and end date) vs. asynchronously (where students can start and stop a course at any time).

Of the three main MOOC providers described previously (Coursera, edX and Udacity), Coursera and edX primarily follow the synchronous model with each course scheduled to begin and end on a specific date. Between these two dates, lectures and assignments that build on each other are released on a weekly basis. And these assignments have their own deadlines, requiring students to complete a certain body of work on a certain schedule in order to pass the course.

In contrast, students taking Udacity courses can start any time and take lessons at their own pace with no deadlines hanging over them to complete the course within a required timeframe. While Udacity courses are more structured than asynchronous "lecture only" classes from sources like iTunes U, the bottom line is that asynchronous classes are self-paced from beginning to end (vs. synchronous courses that require you to replicate some version of the weekly schedule you'd expect at a brick-and-mortar university).

The responses to a question in this Quora Q&A forum talk about the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. And the only thing I think I would add is that regardless of what time-style the course you are contemplating uses, truly "taking" a course (vs. just auditing one) requires structuring your time in a way that resembles a traditional college schedule.

In theory, online learning means you can listen to your lectures whenever and wherever you like. And asynchronous learning frees your schedule even more, allowing you to cram a class into two days or stretch it out over two years.

But given that I'm juggling 6-7 such classes at a time as part of this Degree of Freedom project, I can vouch from experience that this level of flexibility has its downside.

For example, because it's so easy to decide when to listen to this week's of lectures or do this week's homework or reading, it's just as easy to decide to not do them at all this week. But one week's slippage can turn into two, and then into three, until you reach a point where it becomes impossible to cram all the material you've been postponing into the remaining class time.

And even if hard deadlines aren't looming, there's a reason traditional classes are spread over 3-4 months vs. 3-4 years: since there is a certain momentum to learning that gets lost the more time separates one lesson from the next.

Given these issues, here are some lessons I've learned while managing an excessive class load that should be relevant for anyone taking online classes at a more normal pace:

  • Put your classes on a fixed schedule. For example, I've recently scheduled my edX Greek Hero lectures for Monday afternoons and my Coursera Modernism and Post Modernism lectures for Thursday mornings (with my Udacity statistics classes spread out between the mid-days of Tuesday through Thursday). While you may not need to map your courses out on an hourly basis if you're just managing 1-2 classes at a time, I highly recommend you at least assign each class to the day of the week where you know you'll have the time to give course lectures your undivided attention.
  • That undivided attention I just mentioned means you need to add enough time into your watching/listening schedule to pause the video lectures in order to take notes, scroll back to clarify a point, or look something up that the teacher is referencing. This means that (1) if your class has an hour of video lecture assigned for the week, make sure you're setting aside 1.5-2 hours to give this material the quality focus it deserves; and (2) DO NOT MULTITASK, meaning e-mail, Facebook and Twitter should be shut down (or at least inaccessible) while you spend the time on learning and learning alone.
  • Make sure you are building enough time into your weekly schedule to do all of the assigned reading and working on all of the homework, quizzes and other assigned materials to the best of your ability.

This last point can be tricky since you can actually complete a class without having read anything with no one being the wiser. Professor Roth (who teaches Modernism and Post Modernism) won't pull his video (or deny me access to it) if I choose to blow off reading To the Lighthouse before his lecture on the book. And since most assignments associated with MOOCs are easier than what you'd find in equivalent brick-and-mortar classes on the same subjects (at least for now), it's easy to do the minimum and still pass the course.

But as of now, there is no reward for taking a MOOC beyond the learning you achieve. Which means that arranging your time to not learn everything you can from them would be the most ridiculous time waster of all.