Make your new year worthwhile, enrol in a free online course, By Zainab Usman

Zainab Usman

The onset of a New Year is usually accompanied by a tide of resolutions we typically abandon before the end of January. My efforts to resist the temptation of making elaborate plans for 2014 on New Year’s Eve were futile as I reflexively reflected on things I’d like to accomplish. The usual promises we make to ourselves such as more aesthetic reading and writing, less procrastination, more exercise, being more goal oriented, self chastisement to kick bad habits, spending more time with friends and family all featured. One of the resolutions I am enthusiastic about, is completing an online course I registered for in the twilight of 2013.

Taking this course had been on my agenda for a while. I flirted briefly, with the thought of enrolling in a part time master’s programme just for it. And then I stumbled upon Coursera, free online courses provider. All I had to do was register, wait for the commencement date, watch the video presentations and take their respective quizzes weekly during the 11 week period, take the final exam et voila, done! The best part: no required readings! Just watch the video, assimilate and conceptualise the information. At the end of 11 weeks, a statement of completion is given. Optionally, a Verified Certificate of completion from the sponsoring institution — the University of California Irvine in my case — is provided, for an additional fee of $49.

Online courses are no new phenomena. They are the latest in phase in the evolution of Open and Distance Learning (ODL) approaches which has came about in the 19th century. The ICT revolution of the 21st century has led to an expansion and greater liberalisation of this learning method. In particular, the rapid expansion of Web 2.0 tools was accompanied by an explosion of open access learning resources collectively referred to as the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

Some of the notable MOOCs providers include Coursera, Udacity, edX and Courseware, all financed by top ranking global institutions. Coursera for instance has partnerships with Stanford University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania and scores of other elite institutions around the world. It offers a wide array of courses in fields such as engineering, medical sciences, economics and finance and languages all facilitated by globally renown academics. For instance, The Age of Sustainable Development, a course convened by the influential economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs starts soon on the platform. Coursera also uses a hybrid approach, with physical networks of spaces where students can access the Internet to take classes online.

It does all seem revolutionary. Digitising and liberalising education through the MOOCs hold great potential for spreading the best knowledge in the world to underprivileged demographics and regions. The Washington Post describes the MOOCs as “elite education for the masses”. Of course, certain prerequisites such as Internet infrastructure, electricity, certification, mainstreaming certificate acceptance must be sorted out particularly in developing countries.

To be candid, my previous reservations about open access learning on its accessibility, the digital divide and quality have watered down considerably. Coursera’s resources are easily accessible — material for each week consists of a series of short audio/video clips all under 10 minutes, with PDF summaries. Our restless youth in Africa can put their internet-enabled mobile phones to better use than Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry Messenger. The options are vast, the potential unlimited and so much is available just a click away.

As with most innovations, certain setbacks abound. The first is that MOOCs have a very low completion rate, typically lower than 10%! A survey by Open Culture, an online magazine finds the reasons include: courses take too much time, courses expect the candidate to have some background knowledge, lecture fatigue, students take courses to satisfy their curiosity and hidden charges.

Furthermore, it would seem the free nature of these courses provides little incentive for completion — if it’s free, then more urgent priorities easily take precedence. The absence of the traditional classroom environment to regulate interaction and discipline students worsens this situation. In my case, more than half of the day my course started was spent more in transit across two continents. I took advantage of my jet-lagged induced insomnia later to quickly catch up on the week’s videos and quiz.

All the shortcomings of MOOCs notwithstanding, my enthusiasm for my online course remains high. I would recommend that those interested in self improvement in 2014 should look up the options available on Coursera’s website.

Zainab blogs at @msszeeusman and

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