Make sure you have the time for Coursera

With the end just passed for the two Coursera courses that I enrolled in recently, giving me time to reflect on how I did, I have some simple advice for anyone thinking of taking advantage of some incredible, free, no-strings learning.

Make sure you have the time.

That might sound obvious, but any reasonably inquisitive person when faced with the list of courses at somewhere like Coursera will instinctively want to sign up for all the things. That only works if the things are trivial; when you’re dealing with undergraduate-level education you need to be able to spend significant time working through everything.

If you’re anything like me and work and life consume a large part of your day, even trying to squeeze it in at the weekend can be difficult. Coursera stated the workload for each of the two courses I enrolled in — Algorithms: Design and Analysis and Cryptography — should be somewhere between 5 and 7 hours each week.

That turned out to be wildly unrealistic for me, especially for Dan Boneh’s Cryptography course. Without a grounding in discrete probability, I had to learn that in parallel. It took a lot of back and forth between the math and the cryptography theory, and a lot of extra time, before I felt like it was sinking in; what I didn’t want was to do the bare minimum each week to pass the course work. I wanted to really learn the material and have it stick.

Sprinkle the extra programming assignments on top and it just consumed too much time for me to keep up and still be able to sleep and function properly in my normal day-to-day life.

The end result is that I stopped taking the lectures and effectively dropped out of both courses. I say effectively since the course material is still available to me and I can do the work as before; I just can’t get it graded.

I’ll take both courses in full properly one day, but only when I’m absolutely certain I have the time. The effort indications aren’t something I suggest anyone take at face value if you really want to do well and truly learn and it seems they’re based on the knowledge and ability of existing undergraduates expected to take the courses for real.

I remain convinced that Coursera and its modern peers are a big part of the future of education and I look forward to reenrolling.