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The Accidental Student
How I went back to college at age 44

By Maria L. Hughes / August 2013

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It started on a whim. I happened to be reading an article that discussed the rising popularity of MOOCs (massive online open courses) and in particular, how a Stanford professor decided to try an experiment with his traditional brick-and-mortar classes (around 220 enrollees) versus his online class (approximately 160,000 students). Sebastian Thrun's course on artificial intelligence was offered to both of the two groups, and to most people's surprise, the online students ended up passing the class in record-breaking numbers. My curiosity was piqued: College courses, taught by prestigious professors, some from universities I could only dream of attending, offering their studies for anyone, and unbelievably, at zero cost! How could such a thing exist?

The truth is they can and they do. Behind this drive for online education are some of the biggest names in philanthropy, altruistic promoters like Bill and Melinda Gates (who also coincidentally helped fund the uber-popular and ground-breaking, Khan Academy are attempting to meet rising higher educational needs on a global scale, with the goal of little-to-no tuition. So what does this say about our traditional beliefs of higher education? Do students really need to be saddled with great debt and an experience that really doesn't apply to the world of working realities? Or is there a better, cost-effective and easier way to attain the same level of knowledge and mastery? The answer truly may lie somewhere between the two.

Certainly the idea of receiving an education, with no tuition fees, at the ease of a few keystrokes and the click of a button, almost seemed too good to be true. So I had to try it out on my own.

Find Your Own Path

My online educational needs were unique to me and my background. As someone with a B.A. in communications from an accredited state university, albeit 20-something years ago, I decided to take some refresher courses in my field of study. The course I chose seemed perfect for my needs, "Crafting Effective Writing." My writing course, through Coursera, began with an introductory video, a syllabus (also a video), a place to access social media (Twitter and Facebook), quizzes, dedicated space to store your online writing journal, and finally there was a tab that linked us to online writing resources. The topics and assignments were laid out in a calendar format, starting on a Monday; you merely followed the dates and the work required, including watching videos for discussion and reading the written material. Quizzes and homework were to be submitted by Saturday of each week (10 pm PST).

For fun, I plotted my location on the Google map tab and to my shock found the location of my fellow students, the majority of which lived in faraway continents; Africa, Australia, Europe and Asia were among just a few, truly an international experience. I have to admit I was impressed, it was going to be every bit as thorough as my traditional route, but with the added ease and comfort of learning in my home (and wearing my comfortable pajamas to boot). Yes, I was on board.


Before you consider signing up for an online course, you should ask yourself the following: Are you taking courses to achieve some kind of certificate or are you looking to improve your trade with additional tools that only a college course can offer? Many times a course that is taught online will not have a traditional grading process, just a notification that you have successfully passed the course. Something to think about if you are trying to earn credit for a degree. On the other hand, if you are already employed, taking additional courses in your current field of study or industry could certainly boost and enhance your knowledge and value when it comes to performance reviews or promotions.

If your purpose for taking college classes is being able to obtain a degree (master's, bachelor's, etc.) then MOOCs are not for you. In fact, they would just add more to your workload, especially if you are taking accredited college courses at the same time.

Time Management

Yes, online courses offer an amazing opportunity to take advantage of remote learning, but you have to make sure that you are also putting in the effort and prioritize the time to attend class and the assignments required by the instructor's guidelines. Unlike classes that are set by days/times, when enrolled in a MOOC you have the freedom and flexibility to control when you hop online. Here's a tip, make sure that "attendance" becomes as routine as it would be in a traditional classroom.

I ran across one friend who couldn't finish the courses they had signed up for because they were unable to manage their time. The major thing about MOOCs is you have to do everything yourself. It's all about self-starting and self-learning by giving you the tools and resources then letting you go at it. If you have trouble with procrastination or just sitting down and doing work, you may be in for a rude awakening. Unlike a regular classroom, you don't have grades or a teacher telling you to do the work. Without a grading system some people have difficulty with getting the work done to actually learn something from the course.

Online Discussion Groups/Forums

Unlike traditional study groups that may meet for coffee before or after class, your study group will consist of discussion threads that can be shared with students, some of whom live in nearby time zones or thousands of miles away from your computer screen. Online courses have a global arena and are not in any way restricted by physical location. A bit of advice here would be to reach out with a general question; you might be surprised to see who responds.

The only major concern with these massive discussion forums was that you could either spend a lot of time there—reading and interacting with some great opinions and discussions—or you'd get people only meeting for the minimum of discussion interaction and that was it. Also some of the good discussions can get completely overrun with tons of other things like people asking questions when answers could be found in the syllabus. It shouldn't be too surprising since there can be more than 2,000 students in one course. That's a lot of people discussing in a single forum, and not everything talked about is gold.

Questions for the Instructor

Let's face it, with any new course or material it could generate a bunch of confusion or perhaps a host of questions that you are having a difficult time keeping up with. Unlike the days when you stayed after class and stood in line for your turn with the instructor, you are not relegated to the physical queue instead it is the digital queue via an email, forum post, or direct message.

In my class, this was easily accomplished both as a means to resolve any obscurity in the material and as a way to inform the professor about any future events that might prevent you from "attending" class. The professors were timely with their replies, and many of them recommended looking for or asking your answer in the various interaction areas with the other students first. Just remember that you aren't going to get your answer immediately, so don't email the professor on the night your homework is due with a question that would be crucial to you finishing the work; you might not get it.

The Future and More

I believe the Internet will remain an invaluable tool for our future, both socially and academically. But will it ever replace our college campuses and universities? Not in the immediate future. With virtual reality type systems and video chats advancing further we might eventually reach virtual classrooms that are identical to physical ones.

However the massive enrollments we have with MOOCs courses has its drawbacks. Not only do you get completely lost in the sheer crowd and numbers of people taking the course (something that general education courses in regular universities have), but this means the education tends to be more generalized or commercial in a way. MOOCs are a lot like the mass-marketed version of what had previously been a "hand-made" product of classroom education. This isn't a bad thing, but there is something lost along the way when you go from a handful of people in a classroom to well over 2,000 people. You lose a bit of the personal power and interaction.

For now, these virtual courses used in conjunction with brick-and-mortar campuses could be a win-win all around. Back in the day, such things as correspondence schools were an option, where you learned materials through a series of courses mailed through the postal system. However, with the advent of online courses, this more primitive method has been taken to a whole new level and vastly improved the virtual classroom experience. Though the scope and depth of what MOOCs can offer is still very much in its infancy, I believe it will only get better and more effective through time. And at the very least, this is getting education and learning into the hands of people who want to learn, but can't pay or attend classes on campus. And that's always a good thing. Curious? Try it out yourself and see what the craze is about. Google Coursera, EdX, and Udacity to learn more.

About the Author

Maria L. Hughes is a children's book enthusiast and online publisher for

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2013 Copyright held by the Owner/Author. 1535-394X/13/08



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