Five tips on picking a free online course to further your scientific career

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, have granted anyone with an internet connection access to the world of academia. Universities from across the globe have developed free courses to be shared online, giving learners access to classes from quantum mechanics to the chemistry of conservation. But with so many courses on offer, how do you decide whether a MOOC is right for you?

Think about your aim

First, take a moment to consider what you’d want to get out of such a course. Are you looking for a course to help with your revision, or to expand your knowledge of a certain topic? Most courses will have an introductory video or summary of what the course covers so be sure to take a close look at this to help decide if a MOOC is the right one for you.

‘We’ve had people thinking of studying chemistry who want a taster, people who used to study chemistry and want an update, and people working in a related field that want extra information,’ says Paul Taylor, a professor at the University of Leeds, UK, on the reasons why learners have taken their Discovering Science MOOC.

Carys Williams, a researcher who took the University of Leeds’ science writing course, says one of the big advantages of a MOOC is being able to tailor your learning to a specific area, rather than going through a course that may include subjects you’re already familiar with. ‘I was looking to improve my science communication skills for sharing research with the general public,’ Williams explains. ‘I was able to choose just one module that suited my skills gap, rather than committing to an entire course, which was ideal for what I was after.’

Look for gateways to qualifications

Would you like to take a MOOC to support a university or work application? In some cases learners can pay to convert a MOOC into credits for university courses or certification for other courses. All models are different so if this is important to you check what type of certification the MOOC offers, and if the body you want to use it for will accept it. However, do note that MOOCs should be seen as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, university. ‘It doesn’t replace degree courses – it’s never going to be as thorough,’ says Patrick O’Malley, a lecturer at the University of Manchester, UK, and MOOC instructor.

Charlotte Istance-Tamblin is a mature chemistry student at Manchester. She was offered a reduction in her conditional offer if she completed assignments set by the university – including taking the thermodynamics section of the university’s MOOC course. For Istance-Tamblin, the course came with an unexpected benefit: ‘The lecturer’s teaching style is quite consistent, so when I started university and I felt instantly comfortable.’

Consider how much time you have

Be sure to check your chosen MOOCs start time. Some courses run at set times of the year while other are open to join year-round. However, once the course has started there is usually a large amount of flexibility. ‘As I work full-time for a charity, doing an online course was a really convenient option,’ says Williams. ‘I particularly appreciated being able to go at my own pace, moving ahead when I had time or taking a few extra days when I didn’t.’

For those seeking flexibility, MOOCs can be ideal. As well as choosing which days and times you are able to study, you can pause and watch lectures or redo classes as many times as you want. However, learners should be aware that there might be a time limit to complete the course – although you can often pay to access it for a longer period of time.

For some learners having a time limit can be a help. ‘It was good because it give me that extra kick to keep learning,’ says Martine Marcik who completed the University of Leeds’ science writing course. ‘I wanted to finish in the given time and managed. The time given was really reasonable as well.’

Embrace a new style of learning

Digital learning might not suit everyone. Courses take a variety of styles with different forms of assessments – so consider how you prefer to learn. ‘Up to that point all my learning had been classroom based so being in a virtual lecture is quite challenging,’ says Istance-Tamblin.

Another major difference between learning in a classroom and learning online is the interaction with teachers. Typically MOOCs use other learners to provide feedback and help, rather than provide direct access to tutors. ‘In a digital environment you can’t just ask “What do you mean?”,’ says Istance-Tamblin. ‘It’s an unfamiliar scenario … you have to be self-motivated.’

However, help is still available says Jonathan Agger, one the lecturers behind the Introduction to Physical Chemistry MOOC offered by the University of Manchester.

‘Because there’s such a broad base of experience, more experienced students will tend to mentor less experienced students. It’s almost self-policing.’

‘This can be positive and different,’ adds Taylor. ‘We do monitor it, but discussions are good and answers are sound.’

Try it out

Ultimately, the beauty of MOOCs is that they are open to everyone – so if you think a course has something for you, you can give it a go for free. And if it doesn’t work out, you have lost nothing: far more people sign up to MOOCs than complete them. ‘Sign up and just see what’s on there,’ says Taylor. ‘You’ve got nothing to lose.’