One of the more interesting gifts I received over the holidays was The 4-Hour Chef by Timothy Ferriss.
In the book, Ferris tries to boil down the essentials of cooking (if you’ll excuse the pun) into four hours worth of work. As much as Ferriss is writing about cooking, he is writing about the process of learning.
I remain skeptical about many of the book’s claims (learn a language with conversational fluency in 3 months? I studied Italian for 7 years and was never conversationally fluent. Ma, posso dire “Io vorrei un gelato…”) but inspired by its premise: Learn something.
It’s a conversation I’ve had with some friends who are still in school, how envious I am they are still in a position where they can, relatively easily, acquire skills that aren’t related to their job.
As much as I complained about taking a science class for general education requirements in school, it forced me to learn about something I might otherwise never have considered. (And considering I took a class called “New and Emerging Diseases,” I would say I learned more about Ebola than I wanted to know.)
After reading about half of Ferriss’s book, I was inspired. I decided it was time to learn how to do something new, although I didn’t think I had the time to devote to something as intense as learning an entire language in 3 months.
My alternative, perhaps symbolic of my generation, was looking online.
The options are nearly overwhelming. The blogosphere is full of DIY options (Pinterest is so vast you could drown in it) and then there are the legitimate sites devoted to specific topics.
I decided to narrow the field by adding a few parameters: whatever I chose had to be free, structured, but not too time intensive.
I stumbled on Coursera in New York Times article around a month ago about how online classes are searching for ways to monetize their ventures.
Coursera, true to my specifications, is free. Courses range from equine nutrition to the electrical engineering from universities all over the world. They have set beginning and end dates which somewhat stymied my admittedly impulsive decision to enroll in a class.
I’m currently considering the different course options, because there are a lot of different options.
Coursera and other sites like it (Harvard/MIT brainchild edX.org) are somewhat controversial in the higher education community. A December opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education urged readers to “Jump off the Coursera Bandwagon,” arguing free massive open online courses, or MOOC’s, doesn’t foster an environment of learning.
“The Coursera model doesn’t create a learning community; it creates a crowd. In most cases, the crowd lacks the loyalty, initiative, and interest to advance a learning relationship beyond an informal, intermittent connection,” wrote Doug Guthrie is dean of the George Washington University School of Business.
I would argue the learning environment depends on how motivated the student is to learn. We’ll see if I can maintain my initial impulse.
I also signed up for CodeAcademy.com, a site that will teach you how to code, again for free.
This program is self-paced which means I can forget I ever wanted to learn how to do something new for another month and no one will judge me. I feel like the shame of lagging behind the rest of a class might make me more likely to commit to learning but I also appreciate the flexibility.
Lessons are subdivided and the program teaches you, as far as I can tell, everything you need to know. For me, this was the more intriguing option of the two, and I’m interested to see how things progress.
A recent Associated Press story reports that few higher education institutions are currently accepting credit for at sites like Coursera or edX. That could change, however, with American Council on Education’s recent decision to recommend credit for five Coursera classes.
Tell me in the comments- have you tried a site like Coursera, edX or CodeAcademy? Did it work for you?