Why Online Courses Are So Effective?

・11 min read
Why Online Courses Are So Effective?

Why Online Courses Are So Effective?

Do you remember the days of sitting in a library (I mean a place, not a piece of code!), flipping through books and encyclopedias in order to prepare homework that your teacher gave you? I did and actually it wasn’t that bad. However the Internet gave us access to the best, often community-driven resources with tools that could enhance the chance of remembering and learning to a greater extent. Let me guide you through how you can maximize learning and still have good memories about your teachers! Studying any field topic has never been so easy and accessible. Now, in the information era, all knowledge is accessible a few strokes away. It doesn’t, and in fact, shouldn’t mean that you can replace your memory with Google Apps. Putting aside, that you should also disconnect from the Internet and sift through the massive amount of information, knowledge worth thousands (if not millions) is a low-dangling fruit. Do you want to eat it? Learn how it may be even more palatable!

Computer never gets tired. Only you do.

A few days ago, I finished the whole Rails Path in CodeSchool. Sometimes I got stuck, but the constant feedback I got after submitting the answer, gave me more insight to what was wrong. If the error wasn’t too specific, I could have a closer look, look it up, or try to use what would work, but Code School didn’t accept this as an answer. This is of course a disadvantage as any course app has a limit to possible answers. After every ‘failure’, I wasn’t punished, or forced to stand in the corner and kneel on the bag of peas (just joking if you are wondering). Instead the forgiving interface gave me some hints as to what is wrong and how I could finish the level. Since March 2014 we started using Code School in Selleo as another learning tool enabling every colleague to perfect his craft, and as a part of the mentoring of new developers. Personally I am very fond of using Code School and find it a great source to keeping me moving forwards.

Everywhere in your pocket.

It’s not surprising, that our mobile phones have become more powerful than the PC’s that we had in 2000, but one story really struck me. According to the book ‘The way of linguist’, Steve Kauffman, the author, tells the story of how he was learning Chinese with a large tape recorder, not portable in any possible way. Comparing it to todays devices he was right that we can learn any language, any time, and that there should be no excuses about this or that. Any modern mobile phone you have in your pocket can serve as a learning tool whilst commuting or anytime you may have a spare window time. Instead of wasting most of your time playing games, surfing the Internet, consider using apps that can bring more value, even if the amount of time you can spend in these time windows is as short as 15-20 minutes. Remember that it is the time that matter, and every minute adds up! If your dream is to work as a developer, consider using mobile apps for such online courses as Coursera, or Railscasts. Another type of apps that will serve as a brain workout is Lumosity (60 million accounts!), or any maths games. Truth be known, the only skill you have to develop (in any field) is active fluency in English. If the above examples don’t convince you, for example watching TED talks, Crash Course episodes and the like on the bus (or any way of commuting) will make your trip not only pleasant but will give a great start to the day and stimulate your mind! Remember, time flies!


In 1980s Piotr Wozniak, a Polish scientist, created SuperMemo based on his studies of the forgetting curve. Though a manual technique was widely used years before via paper cards, only a computer-based app was able to calculate the best time to review the already learnt material. In short, Spaced Repetition System (the SRS) is a technique, that helps you recall things, to not forget them in the long term. Imagine that you’re learning Polish and there’s a word ‘apple’ on the screen and you have to guess the Polish translation. If you answered ‘jabłko’ (before pressing the button to show answer), the app can schedule your next review in 2 days. If you answer correctly then, it can, for example, schedule next review in 4 days, and so on (actually the algorithm is far more complex). There are at least two rules in order to make the best out of the SRS technique. The first, is that you have to understand (or relate it to something you have an experience with), and to do reviews on a daily basis, possibly at the same time of the day. Using SRS is not only effective in language learning (try Anki, or any SuperMemo course). In fact many people use it to study maths, poems and keyboard shortcuts. I was surprised that ShortcutFoo started to use it to help you to master Vim or any other editor. Unfortunately, the authors forgot about keeping it simple and in most cases it is not how it should be implemented. Apple – Jabłko – Apple – that’s obvious. But it took me some time to win the fight in which I had to type T-w after reading ‘move before previous W in the line` – what?! In SRS the idea is that it shouldn’t take you long to respond. It should be automatic, become a habit and be obvious. Reading ‘Practical Vim’ I learnt that I can edit text at the speed of thought. The example I have given above is contrary to how Vim works. It is as if you were learning English this way: (you want to say ‘I go to school every day’)

  1. I – after ‘I’ I have to use verb in with or without ending ‘s’, so
  2. go – now I have to use noun and preposition, so
  3. to school – should I add adverb at the beginning or at the end? What about ending ‘-s’?
  4. every day

It’s the other way around. In reality you’re not learning a language, you acquire it, immerse yourself in it or you are exposed to it. Sadly, the example above is the way that most of us learn (if you wondering I barely passed the Matura exam and could not speak a word after finishing high school!). Only a few of us had the chance to meet a passionate teacher, who knew that language is all about communication, not about tests, grammar or learning how to pass this or that exam! Anyway, I found ShortcutFoo very interesting. Simon, my colleague that sits (or stands) next to me, is my opponent in Vim fights. A single fight (or even sometimes three in a row) may not only be a good refresher when you’re stuck with some prob… (challenge ;), takes 3 minutes, but it’s definitely better than watching funny videos on YouTube.

Rich & vivid content

Close your eyes and imagine you’re sitting in the library studying the CSS box model from W3C spec. There are only few people around, each one of them focusing on something, tapping on the desk from time to time. The sound of the pendulum clock ticking is as only as loud as it was in the middle of the night. 20 minutes after you have had your lunch, yawning and sipping the awfully bad coffee from the coffee machine, your head begins to nod, but you have to remember this: “The CSS box model describes the rectangular boxes that are generated for elements in the document tree and laid out according to the visual formatting model.” Remember: there are no images, figures, unicorns or candies. Now consider this. Forget about closing your eyes this time unless you have some awesome text-to-speech app – Siri or something for 200 dollars. This example will make you feel at home. It’s Saturday, in second or third week of Spring. The temperature is mild, air crisp, and after a morning jog returning home you can even smell the fresh smell of the curtains and other nice scents after the spring clean. Having had breakfast, full of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, you’re waking up your Mac, or Ubuntu (after spending four days struggling with the new upgrade) and with the cup of coffee you start a new level of CSS for Whalers. "We're whalers of the moon, we’re carry our harpoon…". Being now in a good mood and still having the song in the back of your head, humming and giggling (or the other way around), you are watching the video for level 1, in which Greg Pollack is describing the CSS box model in a funny and interesting way. The short 10-minute video spruced up with nice infographics and fluffy kittens just made its way to your mind. You bought it! The thing is that your mood, or attitude, affects drastically the topic you studying, learning. If the content is dull, it gets even worse. There’ve been many things I was learning / just watching that really attracted me, like O’reilly Head First book series (the most interesting and inspiring technical paper books I’ve ever read!), or Crash Course on Psychology with energetic Hank to name but two.

You game it!

It seems that now every content creator is using gamification to make our learning process as smooth as silk. Gamification, especially badges or award you earn, serves as a real award that you might give to yourself after reaching some (micro) goal, like eating a doughnut after a 10-minute workout. The idea is that, as we can read in the "The Power of Habit", ‘self-awarding’ makes getting into the habit of something stick. In short you are so attached to doughnuts, that the morning jog is only a side-effect, automatic, without any effort! And the result of eating a doughnut after every workout will make you put it even more effort to burn it!

Traditional is not bad!

As I wrote at the beginning, Google, or any information storage, shouldn’t be our external memory, or the thing you first reach for when having questions to answer. The brain, as any muscle does, has to be trained with different kinds of workouts. That’s why disconnecting from the Internet is so beneficial, as it does not only allow the pieces of information that you keep in your working memory (short-term memory) to go to the long-term memory. Signing up for some offline course in a class setting is not only about socializing, but also about exchanging ideas, and building upon them. Student-teacher relationship is the only way to make your learning process as smooth as possible with helping you to move forward when you’re stuck. This may seem strange to you, but the teachers I have good memories about, are the ones that were demanding some discipline from me, and didn’t tolerate shortcuts. After almost 15 years I can still recall one of the sentences my Polish teacher was saying over and over again: ‘You can forget to eat breakfast. You can forget to breathe, but you can’t forget to do your homework!’ If you’re wondering: eating a good, whole-grain breakfast with vegetables and fruits every day can even increase the chance to do this homework well!

Share what you’ve learn!

It’s said that if you can’t describe something in simple words (or in a down-to-earth way), you don’t understand it. At the beginning of December, I started my first teaching session with my neighbour’s son. Explaining something to a beginner was a kind of challenge – what’s the difference between ‘arrays and hashes’, I asked myself in order to explain it. As hash doesn’t mean anything to most people, a dictionary (another synonym to a hash) was the safer way to explain the concept. To show how it works, I used a real world example – a dictionary (or precisely, Polish-English one). This didn’t only help him to get it right, but helped me too! There are many ways to contribute, to give something back. Thousands of people around the world put enormous effort into creating brilliant open source apps, libraries, or any kind of digital content you might be using, now or in the future. Contributing to something doesn’t only bring some good to this world, but it can be your virtual CV that can attract potential employers.

Last but not least

As you can see in this article, there are many ways to help you learn something more effectively. Before you start complaining about ‘not enough time’, think about how limited access to any knowledge people had 10, or 20 years ago. Start now. What are you waiting for?