A Dabbler in MOOCs


My accomplishments so far on Codecademy.

As of last night, I have completed as many Ruby lessons on Codecademy as Python lessons. Allow me to explain why this is significant.

I may be a “recreational” coder, but I am also a highly motivated learner. I may not know what I will do with my knowledge when I reach a certain level, but as of now, my objective is to learn as much programming as I can. Specifically which programming language I learn is of less importance. At this point in my life, not much stands in my way when it comes to learning, which is why self-paced, open platforms (such as Codecademy) makes eminent sense. Assuming the curriculum is well designed and engaging enough, I can see myself taking course after course. So I am very much an excellent test case on MOOCs retention.

Python badge1_edited

My very first Python badge from Codecademy.

I earned my first Python accomplishment badge on Codecademy way back in March 2015, nine months before I started on Ruby. When Codecademy lessons became impenetrable for me despite my dogged effort, I switched to Coursera to continue learning Python. My only goal on Coursera was to learn enough Python so that I could finish what I had started on Codecademy. As it happened, my Coursera Python class was taught by Dr. Chuck Severance. I loved Dr. Chuck’s class so much that I subsequently took more of his classes: “Internet History and Security” and more Python. I did return to Codecademy, finished the lesson that had stumped me (thanks to my Coursera course) – and then some! Let me tell you: That 70% accomplishment in Python was earned tooth-and-nail by a very determined learner who was simultaneously using two competing delivery platforms.

This all happened before I embarked on my Ruby journey using the Flatiron School’s Learn platform on December 1, 2015. Python was the only programming language I knew and I liked what I had learned. In fact, it never occurred to me that I’d be learning Ruby when I started on Flatiron. . So what happened?

Not much – not on Coursera at least, and that was the problem.

In the summer of 2015, I noticed some changes in Coursera. Among them were courses tagged as “Specializations”, which clustered groups of thematically related (free) courses along with a capstone course. One could still take the free courses individually, but in order to get the certificate, one must sign up for the Specialization series. And pay. Dr. Chuck’s Python class got rolled into a Specialization. Because I enjoyed Dr. Chuck’s class so much, I signed up for that Specialization. I had to warm up to the idea of signing up for a series of courses¹, but that was not a problem for me.

Then, there were other issues with Coursera during the summer. It took weeks, for example, before my enrollment was cleared. Apparently Coursera‘s new and improved platform did not make provisions for the “transfer credits” that they had promised to people who had completed prior courses. The discussion forums changed, too. I was no longer able to see all my own posts with an easy click–and therefore it was hard to see others’ responses (unless I scrolled through a lot of other posts). These were minor issues, but annoying ones. Students grumbled, but in the end, because we all liked Dr. Chuck, we all acted like good sports and carried on. After all, how many courses are taught by a master teacher with talents to match? Very few.   

It is worth noting, though, that this all took place during summer 2015, a time when schools were not in session, but precisely the time that learners such as myself, “dabblers”, were able to have a little “summer fun” by taking online classes. Bad timing. But I had enough good will towards Coursera that I was willing to put up with their growing pains.

When I finally was able to re-join Coursera in late for the second half of the Specialization courses, I went in with gusto. By mid November, I had finished “Using Python to Access Web Data” and “Using Databases with Python“. The scheduled start date for the capstone course was January 2016, perfectly timed for me to enjoy Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Then, sometime around late November, the start date for the capstone course was postponed to February. Not long after that, the date was changed to March 2016.

So what is an earnest and motivated learner to do? Sit around and twiddle her thumbs?

Turned out: No worries – not in the era of many MOOCs. The Flatiron School now had my full attention. The Flatiron School’s Learn platform turned out to be excellent. As soon as I began, I realized that it was going to be different. For that reason, it barely mattered that I’d be learning Ruby. In under two months, I have learned more Ruby than I thought possible – and without master teachers or any taped lectures.

Periodically, I go back to Coursera to check the course status. When the class begins – if it ever does, I shall devote myself to it. I am certain the capstone course will be just as good as all of Dr. Chuck’s courses. I only hope I will remember enough Python at that point to still enjoy the course.

So if you look at my official records, you might surmise that I bailed out on Python. Given MOOCs’ high attrition rate (between 90 – 98%)², no one would consider this unusual. But the fact is: I did not drop out. If I had to put my experience into a narrative, it will go like this, “I went to class at the appointed time and location, but there was no class. So I went to another class.” 

The professor, Dr. Chuck Severance, is a seasoned professor – I can’t imagine him being the one holding the class up. So what happened, Coursera?



¹ To be fair: Coursera gave people credit for being a fee-paying student in Dr. Chuck’s previous Python course, so when Dr. Chuck’s Specialization series began, people like me  had already completed half of the courses.

² Check out this article by Harvard University researcher, , titled “Learner Intention Recasts “Low” MOOC Completion Rates”