Eight years after graduating from Bowdoin, Dan Farnbach was doing a lot of sitting on his couch. He'd taken on several side jobs over the years—working in a library, woodworking, and building—as a way to support his creative writing, but the writing was going slow and he was starting to feel woefully underemployed.
Farnbach was interested in digital media and how it could help creative communities, but he didn't know the first thing about it from a technical standpoint. So, like many, he signed up for a bunch of free online classes.
Farnbach worked on assignments and watched lectures for his Massive Open Online Course (or MOOCs) from his couch and kitchen table in Portland, Maine. In the end, he only finished two of the five classes he'd signed up for.
But for one of them he'd completed a social network analysis map that he started sending around as sample work to his contacts. The MOOC assignment helped him land his first freelance gig in the field and a few months later he got his first full-time job at F+W Media, a site that covers crafts.
Studies have show less than 10% of people who sign up for these free online courses actually finish them. What's more, only about five in every 100 students who enroll in a free course actually learn the material. MOOCs have so far proven to be better in theory than they are in practice. Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, one of the largest open online course companies, even admitted as much earlier this year.
But that doesn't mean free online courses are worthless. On the contrary, done the right way, they could help open doors as they did for Farnbach. And there's a potential to reinvigorate your appetite for learning. "It gave me a confidence boost for retraining myself more," says Farnbach.
Making the most of online classes means more than just getting through all of the assignments. Kio Stark, author of the book, Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Almost Anything, offers her insight on how to maximize your online course experience:
Slapping an online course title on your resume can't hurt (unless you didn't actually take the class), but there are other more effective ways to use the experience to make yourself more marketable. Most importantly, you need to be able to articulate how the skills you learned make you more marketable for the work you do. "Be able to say something clear about how what you learned makes you a better job candidate," says Stark. "Being able to give some context to what you learned is a powerful thing."
Taking a class about an abstract topic might be interesting, but if you don't have something concrete to show for your work, it won't help make you more marketable. "I would certainly choose classes that have some concreteness to them," says Stark. This will also help you better identify with the material. "You are much more likely to integrate what you are learning into your life if it's not a total abstraction," she says. "If you are learning a skill, you have to be making something."
New knowledge, like a muscle, needs to be worked in order to stay strong. Once you've learned something new, figure out ways to apply it to your life or create something of your own from that information. Stark recommends blogging about the course material or making your own personal project from what you've learned. "Making projects out of what you are learning is key," she says. "Otherwise … there's little likelihood you will internalize it."
One of the best ways to ensure that you internalize the skills or information you're learning, is having an actual flesh-and-blood person to talk about it and share your work with, says Stark. Sign up for an online course with a friend or find someone in your life you can share the new material with. "Learning with other people is a really powerful way to keep yourself accountable," says Stark. "My advice would be to invite someone to join you on the couch."