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Can I Learn a Real Skill with Online Courses?

If I look over the list of courses I have taken recently, what have I learned?

Have I improved myself at all? Have I retained any of that knowledge? Has anything I learned been at all useful for me in my life?

It is a fair question of course. But let’s also put it into perspective: some of those courses may have only required 10-20 hours of my time. Certainly watching only a single season of American Idol takes longer than that. But what value would I get from a course such as the “Search for Extraterrestrial Life” that could have any positive ROI on my life at all?

I would argue that some courses are entirely practical (like Startup Engineering being almost entirely a programming course and teaching me a new style of development), and some are for interest only. Not every course I take needs to improve my daily life in even a small way, but pursuing courses that interest me is actually fun and interesting for me. That is the value.

Also, a good course will pose questions and make you think about things you’ve never really considered before. Like what is required for life to form, or why were the Beatles so instantly popular in America?

In a way, it’s like balancing the reading of non-fiction books with good fiction books too. Are reading fiction books a total waste of time? No. (I’m not saying the Music of the Beatles course is like fiction, but it is interesting and not designed to lead to more income.)

So back to the question at hand, not counting courses taken purely out of interest, can knowledge learned online translate to an improved skill offline?

Most certainly, yes. If you really wanted to be a wiz at finance, and took several introductory, intermediate and advanced finance classes online, studied hard, and passed the tests, you could legitimately say you are good at finance. You would most certainly find college or university finance classes much easier, and could legitimately start pursuing a career in that field.

What about a skill that requires practice, like learning to play the guitar or piano? Well, those skills DO require practice and you are going to have to do the work for that. Once you learn to read music, once you learn the position of the notes on the keyboard, you will have to spend dozens of hours (not in front of the computer) practicing. Just like learning that skill offline.

The ultimate question, perhaps, is online learning through MOOCs a substitute for real college or university classes? That’s really the question I guess, because asking if online courses are worth it can be similar to asking, is college worth it? And the answer is always, it depends. If you go to college, and get a degree in Late-18th Century Art, what were you planning to do with that degree after graduation?

In some ways, college and MOOCs are the same, except for the distinct lack of advanced classes online. In 2012-2014 so far, the classes being converted to online courses have been “introduction to” classes for the most part.

So yes, you can learn skills online, just like you can learn skills in college and university. Some skills take active deliberate practice which is no different than the way all skills are acquired.


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