Online learning: how to acquire new skills during lockdown

Apr 19, 2020 by

Millions of users are signing up for free courses taught by professors from Harvard and other top universities

For many of us in self-isolation, it can feel like the coronavirus has put the world on hold as we wait for release from our temporary imprisonment. But increasing numbers of people are using the time to build their skillset, with an upsurge in enrolments on online learning platforms such as edX, FutureLearn and Coursera, which offer “massive open online courses” – or Moocs.

Coursera, for instance, has seen an eightfold increase in enrolments for social science, personal development, arts and humanities courses since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. “It’s unprecedented,” says the company’s chief product officer, Shravan Goli. (In late March, its Science of Well Being course saw 500,000 new enrolments in a single weekend.)

Devoting some of our quarantine time to self-education makes sense. Besides helping to bolster your career during this economic uncertainty, learning a new skill can give you a sense of control that will help cope with anxiety engendered by the epidemic.

As James Wallman says in his book Time and How to Spend It, personal growth is central to many psychological theories of long-term happiness. So although an hour listening to a lecture may not be as enticing as the instant gratification of reality TV or social media, it will lead to greater life-satisfaction in the long term. “You could say that humans are like bicycles: if you’re not heading towards something you fall over,” Wallman says. And when we are social distancing, online courses are one of the best ways to do that.

What do the courses involve?

The specifics vary from platform to platform, though many follow the same basic model. With the larger platforms such as edX, Coursera, and FutureLearn, you can choose university-affiliated courses – so you know you are being taught by experts in the field. The courses are of varying lengths – from a few hours to a regular, weekly commitment over several months – and typically involve video lectures, reading texts and regular tests to check your memory and understanding of the syllabus.

In many cases enrolment is free, but may have to pay to get a certificate verifying that you have completed the course.

What should I look for in a course?

You might be tempted to sign up to the courses with the most prestigious instructors, but that would be a mistake, says James Murphy, who used Moocs to prepare a master’s degree while he was housebound with an illness. “Institutional affiliations aren’t always a good guide to quality,” he says.

Many of the platforms offer user reviews where you can gauge other learners’ enjoyment and satisfaction with the course, but nothing beats trying it for yourself, says Murphy, who is now an associate lecturer at the Open University. “I think the best advice is to sign up and see if you like it – there’s no reason to stick with one you dislike if the delivery isn’t engaging. You can usually tell in the first hour if you’ll enjoy the course or not.”

If you are hoping for professional development and considering the cost of the certificate, you might want to check whether employers recognise the qualification. Coursera’s Goli points out that about 30 companies now accept the Google-affiliated course on IT management, for instance. The reviews can guide you on this, as can the course descriptions, which sometimes include statistics from student surveys about the professional benefits that came from the experience.

Source: Online learning: how to acquire new skills during lockdown | Education | The Guardian

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