Two years ago, I was struggling to decide ‘what to do next’. My contract as a postdoctoral researcher had ended. I did not have another job, but I wanted to keep learning and developing. As an academic, or maybe not? At the same time, I developed an interest in emotional intelligence. And there it was: a course ‘Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence’. I registered and learned a lot, about myself, personal leadership, making my own choices and owning them.

The best thing about this course? It’s free and available anywhere (and the next session starts in about a week). This course is one of many distance learning options now available to anyone who wants to continu learning and has access to the internet.

At the The Other Trail, we think distance study is a great option for anyone who would like to continue developing – perhaps especially considering the limitations on paid work and access to universities here in Oman. A short course can be a good trial for someone considering a big investment in their development, such as an MBA. It can refresh knowledge from a previous career path that one would like to return to. It can provide background knowledge and skills for a hobby. Or it can kick off an unexplored trail, in a completely new expertise.

Distance studies come in many shapes and forms, from 4 week courses taking a few hours each week, to full time master degree programmes that takes 1 to 2 years to complete. From mindfulness to marketing, from psychology to programming, from CV writing to smartphone photography. From free of charge, to very expensive. And yes, from very poor quality, to the high standards of leading universities. Luckily, course reviews are also available, for example at Course Talk.

MOOCs – the pros

The latest development in distance studies kicked of about 5 years ago, with a few of the worlds top universities providing online courses, free for anyone to take, from anywhere. These courses are called MOOCs which stands for (in reversed order):

  • Courses:  with a beginning and an end (usually 4-10 weeks), teaching something using traditional and novel learning methods (lectures, reading materials, problem sets, group discussions, quizzes, …). Some courses are self-paced (start and finish whenever you want), others are session based (start at a certain time and finish before the deadline);
  • Online: you only need internet access to join, no need to physically go somewhere;
  • Open: to anyone, at any location, without entrance requirements or payment (recently, providers have started to offer parts of courses such as graded quizzes or a verified certificate behind a paywall);
  • Massive: naturally, a high quality course with these features attracts massive amounts of students.
The current 4 biggest players on the MOOC field
Coursera broad viariety of courses, some even translated into many languages
EdX globally leading universities providing MOOCs mainly in science and medicine domains
Udacity focus on programming and computer science courses
FutureLearn general interest courses, at a broad variety of levels

The pitfalls, and how to deal with them

Besides all the pro’s, I’ve also seen distance students (including myself) struggling with a few pitfalls. It can be a rather lonely undertaking and it can be a challenge to keep motivated. For this, I suggest 4 P’s:

Prioritisation

Give priority to your study by blocking hours in your agenda, and be clear about your prioritised time. For example, when we have visitors from abroad, they know that I also need time on my own and am not their full time available host and tour guide.

Peers

Find others to study with. Ideally, the same course, but even if it’s something completely different, it helps when others show interest and keep you on the right track. Plus coffee breaks are better when shared. When I was about to quit a MOOC because I found the homework too overwhelming, one coffee break with two peers helped me change perspective and motivated me to push a bit harder. I managed to complete and am still thankful to them.

Pay

Yes, even if you decide to take a MOOC, go for the paid version. It does not need to be a big amount, it’s a bigger treshold to give up on something you invested money in.

Plan

Especially if internet connection is poor or unstable and you need to watch videos. Plan and download them ahead – it saves a lot of frustration. But also: plan when you are going to take the course, self-paced courses may seem attractive, but there is little incentive to actually finish within a certain time. If you expect this to be a challenge, consider one that comes with a deadline.

In our next post, we will share the experiences of someone who took up a distance study, to prepare herself for repatriation.

Which is the next MOOC you are going to take? I’m thinking of one about blogging – to support me in making this blog even better. Care to join me (see second P)?