In the early summer of 2022, I signed up for a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) for about the thousandth time.
Okay – that’s a bit of hyperbole, admittedly. Philosophy and Critical Thinking was probably the tenth MOOC I’d signed up for since they started gaining popularity and publicity back in 2012. This particular course was curated by professors at the University of Queensland. It’s available through EdX, one of the several “big” players in the MOOC scene.
I’ve always loved the idea of MOOCs. Free, structured, learning materials on a topic interesting to me, curated and compiled by academic experts? Yes, please! It’s free education, with content delivered by folks who get paid to teach and do research in these areas. You don’t get face time with an instructor, no, but these courses do have learning communities built in through message boards, and I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t include periodic learning checks through quizzes, midterms and capstones. While not every MOOC is high quality pedagogically-speaking, for the philomath – the lover of learning – they’re a gift.
And yet, I’ve never been able to sustain the motivation to actually complete one of these MOOCs. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever made it past a second or third module.
And to be fair, I’m not the only one. An estimated 90% of folks who sign up for a MOOC don’t complete the thing (Narayanasamy and Elçi, 2020). In fact, there’s a large body of empirical research that explores the reasons (and potential solutions) for these low completion rates (see the Suggested Reading section below).
Still, I consider myself a good learner, and a motivated person. Maybe even in the top 10% of learners. So, why hadn’t I been successful?
Maybe because MOOCs are free, and don’t include face time with instructors, or actual deadlines, or any other forms of accountability. Or maybe it’s a discipline thing. Even though I’m a person who loves to learn, I’m not a particularly disciplined person. I’m not one to finish something just because I said I would.
Until now, my friends! I finished this thing.
And in the process, I did a lot of metacognitive thinking around why – after all those failed attempts at maintaining interest and motivation – I finally persisted and completed the Philosophy and Critical Thinking MOOC. (And I’ll tell you right now that it’s not due to an increase in discipline – if anything, my discipline has lessened with age and perspective on “the important things in life”.)
The following is a distillation of my thoughts and theories on the factors that led to my completing the Philosophy and Critical Thinking MOOC. For those who have yet to complete, or yet to try learning through a MOOC, I hope this can provide some insight and instruction!
The course quality was good.
I have to give credit where credit is due: This felt like an excellently curated and delivered MOOC, compared to others I’ve tried in the past. The content included many hours of video instruction recorded by the professors and their teaching aids, as well as lengthy interviews with other philosophers and subject matter experts. The learning checks (quizzes, discussion questions) felt appropriately paced, and effective repetition of material was sprinkled throughout. Despite a few technical bugs that we can attribute to the EdX platform (for example, the application refuses to acknowledge that I’ve finished the course, despite showing that every lesson and every quiz in every module is complete!?), as an educator, I hold this course in high esteem.
I got clear about my motivations.
There’s a large body of interdisciplinary research that examines the effects of motivation on persistence through challenging learning situations, and some have posited in various domains that motivation is the single-most important factor that predicts “stick-with-it-ness”.
Knowing this, I decided to get very clear with myself before starting the course about why I wanted to take and complete the course. And honestly, I don’t know that I can explain my interest in and the value of philosophy any better than the EdX course does (bolding is mine for emphasis):
Philosophy can be personally confronting. It is not a game of abstract or idle speculation but a practice of subjecting one's beliefs and actions to rational scrutiny, including beliefs that one may be clutching to one's chest like a teddy bear one has had since childhood. And it can be confronting to have to let go and re-examine the beliefs that one holds dear.
One of my favorite activities is subjecting my beliefs and actions to rational scrutiny. (Also the beliefs and actions of others, but that’s probably better suited to be explored in a post titled “My Journey to Becoming Less Judgy”...)
So, the above describes the seed of interest, but initial motivations are so rarely examined and sustained, in my experience. And so I wanted to go further and really ask myself what I hoped to become, what I hoped to be able to do with this new knowledge and skills.
And research supports the effectiveness of this sort of motivation analysis. Motivation can be sustained through imagining oneself with the new knowledge. I’ve written about this previously in the language learning domain. The book Design for How People Learn talks about the “gap between a learner’s current situation and where they need to be in order to be successful.” In other words, what’s the difference between the current learner and the ideal learner post-learning experience? Defining this for oneself can help one persist through the challenges and occasional monotony of learning.
In my mind, future me would be able to:
Recognize philosophical terms, concepts and figures
Continue developing a personal, moral and ethical philosophy informed by millenia of thought into these topics
Apply philosophical concepts to new situations
Subject my beliefs and the beliefs of others to rational scrutiny
Begin learning more specialized philosophical topics (like epistemology)
I already knew about 25% of the content.
I had encountered some of the course content through previous studies over the last decade or so. For example, while still an undergraduate back in 2006, I had begun familiarizing myself with the metaphysical and pragmatic arguments for god – and their responses – and so Module 3: God did not feel like an explosion of new information.
Between the fall of 2012 and the spring of 2016, I taught academic writing and college composition at Colorado State University. These were basically courses in argument and persuasion – achieving specific purposes with specific audiences – and so lessons on cogency, logical fallacies, and critical evaluation of claims were concepts I felt more than comfortable with.
Because I was already familiar with some of the content, I didn’t feel constantly overwhelmed by new information, and I was able to integrate the new information into my mental model more easily.
So, moving forward, I won’t sign up for a MOOC on a topic that is completely new to me. If one day I’m interested in data analysis (I have no background in statistics), I won’t start with a course like Data Analysis: Statistical Modeling and Computation in Applications. I’ll start with something like Fundamentals of Statistics. And I’ll preview the course syllabus and outline before signing up. If everything looks new, I might take a couple months to do some preparatory reading to begin familiarizing myself with terms and concepts that are likely to show up in the course.
I took my time.
With past MOOCs, I’d always tried to stick to a strict schedule. I love a good schedule, and I love deadlines.
As I mentioned previously, though, I lack discipline
(Which, sidenote, I do not beat myself up about, and neither should you – the world needs all kinds!)
And so with MOOCs, without any external discipline enforcers like instructors and grades and having paid tuition, enforcing a strict schedule just hasn’t worked for me. As soon as I would miss a self-imposed deadline – and I always missed one of these self-imposed deadlines, and typically pretty early on in a course – I would feel like a bit of a failure. Then I’d start to see the course as an imposition, and eventually quit.
This time, I went into the course with the mindset of I’m deeply interested in this topic, and I will linger on subtopics for as long as I want. No deadlines!
This was a game-changer for me. With this approach, there wasn’t a single module that I worked my way through in less than a month. And I don’t think there was a single lesson for which I didn’t open up YouTube and Wikipedia and do some ancillary learning on a new topic or a historical philosophical figure.
What did this do for me? It gave me time to absorb information and actually commit it to long-term memory. It gave me time to contemplate and apply and assimilate a new concept before completely obscuring it by moving on too quickly to the next concept. And it resulted in many, many of those magical learning moments that – to borrow a term from Jen McGrath – us curious nerds live for!
I created flash cards.
One of the tragedies of my life has been that I love to learn, but because I chase new information constantly, I feel like I don’t retain much of what I’ve encountered. I don’t give myself time to assimilate new information into my mental model before moving on to the next new concept.
To be clear, I don’t think that the point of learning is to remember and use the information that you’ve consumed – just the act of encountering a new idea or piece of information brings me pleasure – but in this case, I really did want to remember the things I was learning. If there’s any topic, after all, that serves as a foundation for all other disciplines, it’s philosophy, and I’d already taken the step of getting really clear with myself about my motivations for taking the course.
So, I ended up creating flash cards, not with the intent of quizzing myself, but as an information repository that I could easily flip through when I was watching TV, or laying in bed winding down before going to sleep, or during road trips, or while riding the stationary bike. This enabled me – and will continue to enable me, far past having completed the course – to engage with and reinforce the ideas that I find most interesting and applicable.
When I’d have an urge to consume new information, I’d try to moderate that urge and instead go back over content I’d learned before via the flashcards. Oftentimes, in the hour before laying my head down for the night, I’d leisurely revisit lessons and concepts from previous modules – information that I’d consumed months and months earlier.
And it worked! One of the new concepts I learned through the course and committed to a flashcard was deontology. And I swear, within a month of learning this concept, I encountered it in the wild, during a one-on-one conversation with a co-worker. It was such a satisfying moment, and one that I might not have had if I hadn’t enabled repeated exposure to that concept via my flashcards.
Alright, folks. I hope this personal account of how I (finally!) finished a MOOC was helpful. If my experience can encourage and inspire even just a single person to enroll in and complete one of these public treasures, I’ll consider that a win!
Bingol, I., Kursun, E., and Kayaduman, H. (2020). Factors for success and course completion in massive open onine courses through the lens of participant types. Open Prax. 12, 223–239.
Chen, C., Sonnert, G., Sadler, P. M., and Malan, D. J. (2021). Foreseeing the endgame: who are the students who take the final exam at the beginning of a MOOC? Behavior and Information Technology. 40, 565–577.
Eriksson, T., Adawi, T., and Stöhr, C. (2017). “Time is the bottleneck”: a qualitative study exploring why learners drop out of MOOCs. Journal of Computing in Higher Education. 29, 133–146.
Lee, & Song, H.-D. (2022). Motivation for MOOC learning persistence: An expectancy-value theory perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 958945–958945.