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Is Taking an Online Course Worth Your Time?


Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs for short) are everywhere. From Udacity to Coursera to our own Aquent Gymnasium, it looks like you can learn a lot for free. But what are the MOOC’s roles in the skill development of designers and coders? More importantly, is it worth your while to participate in one?

We talked to Greg Meyer, creative director and adjunct professor and guest lecturer at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design and Brown College (who recently finished Aquent Gymnasium’s Coding for Designers) to hear his thoughts on the differences and similarities between MOOCs, online learning, and brick and mortar courses.

What did you think of the Coding for Designers course?

I thought it was great. The instructor Jim Webb was a terrific communicator and created a logical step-by-step format that really speaks to designers. He also didn’t make a lot of assumptions, which was helpful. It was a lot better than most online training, and head and shoulders above trying to learn from one of those printed "bibles," which tend to be more like a tech manuals (and feel like dental work).

How much coding experience did you have before taking the course?

I had some, but I use it on an intermittent basis. I am a primarily a creative director/designer first and a web designer second. I will usually start and stop throughout the year, depending on a particular client's project at hand. I do not code frequently enough on a steady basis to recall everything, so I find myself needing to refresh often.

What other online classes have you taken?

I have taken quite a few, from fee to non-fee. I am a fan of and often recommend it to both students and clients. In fact, since many of my clients have projects built in WordPress, I give them a subscription for a month so they can learn how to manage their own content. For my students, I think it’s a great way to supplement my classes. Adobe TV is good, but not as good as Almost every course Lynda offers is quality.

The stuff on YouTube is passable, if you’re in a pinch. The problem is that you never know what you’re getting and can end up wasting your time.

What do you expect to get out of an online course?

Well, it really depends on what the course is and what you intend to do with it. There are so many courses, topics, and delivery methods. But from a web design or graphic design software perspective, I like a step-by-step approach that logically constructs a project from cradle to grave. You need an overview and a view of the final project to start, a bit of deconstruction, then assemble it. Kind of like building an engine in shop class. Do they even have shop class anymore?

What are your thoughts on other MOOC platforms: Udacity, Coursera, edX, and/or Muse University?

I don't really have too much input on these platforms yet, I haven't had the opportunity to explore in detail. What I can say is they appear to be a good way to refresh, but it is a stretch to be positioned as a "university" or higher education. It is kind of like CliffsNotes for skill development. A great way to deliver content vs. reading the software manual. It’s a much more hands-on approach.

What are the pros of taking a course from a MOOC versus a brick-and-mortar course?

I can see this model as replacing technology curriculum in tech schools in some capacity. They’re great for a person that can get by in a closet just working on a computer and delivering code or engineering, or similar.

What are the cons?

The missing elements of online learning are creative development and critical thinking: immediate feedback, the face to face and body english, "bouncing" ideas off each other in a room, etc. Online delivery (so far) doesn’t do a good job of this.

Last fall, Colorado State University--Global Campus became the first American university to announce plans to grant credit for MOOCs.  Do you have any opinion about that?

That's great, but what about accreditation and the quality of the education? Who will be monitoring that and what are the criteria and standards? Until there is a national testing system for each degree, field, etc., I’ll remain skeptical. If tests are developed and folks can pass those tests, then it doesn't matter how you get there, similar to a bar exam.

We are even struggling with some of the for-profit brick and mortar institutions. Students pay a lot of money, graduate, and then find out that they don't meet accreditation requirements or can’t transfer credits or qualify to get a grad degree.

You received your B.F.A. in Graphic Communications from a brick-and-mortar university, do you think there’s any possibility in the future of getting completely educated in design via an online (and free) classroom?

Depending on the subject, I do think there is a place. Someone has to be paid somewhere to share knowledge and train. But where is the incentive? Will it deteriorate over time? Design is more than creating a web page or ad on your computer then sending it off for a fee. Again what about working with a client, boss, or peer team? Great if you are going to work from home, not so great if you are going to work onsite with a team.

MOOCs are obviously pretty new and rapidly evolving. As someone who’s taken a lot of online courses, what would be your recommendations to the “powers that be” to improve the experience and education?

Don’t oversell what it really is.

What are the next courses you’re looking at taking?

I’m looking forward to Aquent Gymnasium’s launch of the Responsive Web Design class and some CMS like WordPress may be helpful.

What would you like to see offered from a MOOC?

I think a course in prospecting or how to win clients would be good, as would something like How to Build a Winning Resume and Portfolio.

We want to thank Greg for sharing his excellent insight on MOOCs and online training!

Aquent Gymnasium’s Responsive Web Design course will be available in the next few weeks. Coding for Designers is available until the end of 2013.

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