The MOOC System Is Broken. Where Does Online Learning For Data Science Skills Go Next?

The build-up to the holiday season is well and truly upon us. And with it the customary race to get all loose ends tidied up before the end of the year. It also becomes a time for contemplation over a few glasses of mulled wine as we look back at the year we’ve just slogged through. And, just as importantly, a look ahead to how we want to step things up next year in our data careers.

As it’s easy to get left behind by standing still, the most common method for anyone looking to up their data skills is to take a training course. (Don’t panic at this point. I’m not trying to sell you anything. This isn’t one of those soft intros before the hard sell kicks in and the sob story of my kids facing a present-less Christmas begins.)

Learning By Doing.

I have been thinking a lot recently though about the changes in learning in the data and analytics industry. I wrote an article about my own experiences and the different learning methods I’d tried over the past 10 years or so. From MOOCs to books, expensive in-person courses to Just F*cking Doing It, I’ve done the lot with varying levels of longer term success.

Check out that article and see how much of it resonates with you – I’m willing to bet quite a bit if you are anything like the other data analysts I’ve spoken to about it.

What Isn’t Working?

What kicked my thoughts on learning off was a podcast called Level Up Your Course (episode 073), hosted by Janelle Allen. Janelle’s guest is online entrepreneur and course creator Justin Jackson. They had a very interesting conversation about the reasons why online courses and MOOCs aren’t working for the vast majority of people.

I won’t ruin the podcast as it’s well worth a listen if you have a spare hour on your commute / walk / gym session. But it really boiled down to two things: 1) Lack of accountability and 2) Lack of consequences for failure.

I subscribe to a LOT of email newsletters in the data science world. So recently my inbox has been filled to bursting point with everyone and their dog trying to hawk their paid “How To Get Started In Data Science” courses. I get that we all have to put bread on the table. And I’m all for experienced people in the industry passing that knowledge on to a hungry new generation. I don’t write articles on Simple Analytical (just) for my own narcissistic pleasure. I do legitimately want to help people learn from my own experiences. And I know the majority of others offering these courses and bootcamps do too.

I’ll Say It. MOOCs Don’t Work For The Vast Majority Of People.

What I’m conflicted about is how to successfully empower that learning for people if we know that less than 2% of all MOOCs purchased (in all domains, not just DS admittedly) actually get completed.

What is the best way to give new entrants enough of a grounding to get interviews, jobs and make a new life for themselves?

I don’t think the current system of online self-monitored learning works. It clearly doesn’t. But then, increasingly, neither does the old model of paying thousands upon thousands of pounds/Euros/dollars to a traditional university. They force accountability on you and there is a consequence for not doing the work (i.e. flunking out). But they usually consider their job done as soon as the scroll is handed over. Then you’re just a name on a mailing list being asked for alumni donations each year.

Where do we go next?

Lamdba School seems to be making huge inroads into finding a middle ground between the flexibility and power of remote online learning while still keeping numbers controlled and a tight leash on students in terms of accountability.

They are doing great things in the web development world and I’m eager to see the results in terms of students hired from their Data Science track over the next year or two.

(If you want to find out more about Lambda School I’d recommend following their CEO Austen Allred on Twitter.)

I’m always eager to hear the thoughts and experiences of working analysts on this topic. What has worked for you? What hasn’t? And how do you see the world of learning new data skills developing over the next few years?

Maybe The Students Aren’t The Problem.

I’m not advocating throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Online learning has put the entirety of human knowledge in the hands of anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection. And any adult has to have the self-discipline within themselves if they want to keep improving their skills.

But as educators (and anyone passing on the smallest piece of knowledge to someone who doesn’t know it IS an educator), we have to take responsibility to not just sell dreams of magic beans to willing marks. Helping the student actually stick with the material and get the positive benefits at the business end of the course HAS TO BE the main goal. Not just the warm fuzzy feelings and dreams for them at the beginning when the credit card number has been typed in and the Transaction Successful message pops up.

We owe people more than that. Now we all just have to find a way to provide it.

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