I’ve posted about this sort of thing in the past, but seeing the most recent conversation about learning and technology, I thought I’d post it up again. I’ve recently taken two online courses. I completed the Attain N3 level Japanese course from Attain through the Udemy platform, as well as the Learning How To Learn course on Coursera. Both courses were really good.
Is online learning better than attending a college lecture or a small group section?
There are advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantages to MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) are cost and convenience. The Learning How to Learn course was free, and I bought the Japanese course during a sale for $10. N3 Level Japanese is supposed to be equal to a fifth semester class in college. There is no college in the country that charges $10 for a college-level class. You can take online courses whenever you want because you’re never on someone else’s schedule–the internet runs 24-7. If you miss something during the videos, you can just play it again. If you miss it a second time, you can play it again. You can play it over and over until you understand what the instructor is saying.
The biggest disadvantages are that you’re on your own and dealing with a computer, rather than other humans. There are no other students to push you or share learning tips. It’s easy to fall into procrastination traps (although the Learning How To Learn course teaches you have to avoid these). The computer itself can be distracting; it’s hard to study on the same device that connects you to your e-mail and social media. There’s a tendency to “interact” with the computer, which often means that your mind is needlessly active with non course-related activities.
I think there are probably advantages and disadvantages for various subjects as well–certain courses of study lend themselves better to MOOC’s than others. I’ve heard that online computer courses are great, while I can’t imagine learning literature on a computer.
As for my current course of study, Japanese, I think the online course is useful for introducing new material, but not very useful in mastering new material–at least not as useful as one might think. First, there truly is no substitute for a live native speaker who can speak with you and correct you. You’ll never be able to converse at natural speed without being exposed to someone who challenges you to respond at natural speed. Second, one might think that it’s easy to memorize something with pure repetition, but I’ve found that this isn’t necessarily the case. It’s far more useful to hear words within the context of articles or media that you’re trying to understand. YouTuber Steve Kaufman has excellent advice on listening and reading in order to learn languages. I agree with everything he says: material is easy to learn if it’s interesting, and the most interesting material comes from sources that are trying to convey ideas, not teach languages. I also agree that language exchange is far more efficient than classroom practice.
Anyway, I’m still a big fan of MOOC’s and online learning. I’m planning to buy Attain’s Japanese course for the next level, and I’m hoping to take more courses in the future. Online learning is accelerating the growth of human knowledge. While I strongly believe that online material must always be combined with real world practice, it’s undeniable that the web has opened up huge avenues for busy people to continue expanding their knowledge.