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Most of the discussion about MOOCs and their advantages has focused on price (cheap or free) and teaching methodology (flipped classroom, lectures that can be viewed again and again).  But as I am discovering, a MOOC-based learning program has two other much less-discussed advantages, especially for working professionals – customizability and immediacy.

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog, my goal is to mimic a traditional MBA education using MOOCs and other free resources. I’ve used the curricula of top MBA programs like Wharton, Harvard, and Stanford to come up with my list of courses and topics. (If this is something you’re interested in, you can find more info on my Curriculum page, or on the MBA Learning Pathway on SlideRule, which I helped to create). But recently I strayed from the traditional MBA curriculum to take a course on Social Psychology, and I’m very glad I did.

Somehow I managed not to take any psychology courses in college, despite having an interest in the subject and the fact that my roommates in both undergrad and graduate school were psych majors. It seemed like a hole in my education, and I thought a bit of education on the subject as might serve me while navigating interpersonal relationships in the world of work.  Even though it isn’t a topic that is typically covered in business school, taking this course has convinced me that it should be. Social Psychology was packed with pearls of wisdom about perception, biases, and decision-making – all relevant to work in any office. One of the most interesting units was on group behavior, covering such phenomena as the Abilene Paradox, in which fears of non-conformity cause a group to arrive at a decision that no one actually thinks is a good idea. Being aware of this tendency and taking simple steps to counter it can actually prevent a group from going down an unproductive path.

Because I am setting my own curriculum, and because the entire universe of MOOCs is open to me, I am able to tailor my curriculum to very personal specifications and to include courses like psychology that aren’t covered in most MBA programs. I see this as being a great advantage of my chosen method of study. 

My next set of courses also includes personally relevant offerings that aren’t always in the B-school lineup. One is Supply Chain and Logistics Fundamentals, the first in MITx’s long-awaited supply chain and logistics management series. The other is a course on evaluation of social programs from MITs Poverty Action Lab, which pioneered the use of randomized control trials for international development interventions. The latter, by the way, will be my first course on data analysis.

As I did with Social Psychology, I’m straying outside of a narrowly-defined business curriculum to take Evaluating Social Programs. While my overarching goal is to acquire a particular set of business skills, I am interested in any course with the potential to make me a better professional. As a designer of social programs and a consumer of program evaluations, my expectation is to be able to put what I learn in this course into practice in my current job. Which brings me to the second less-discussed advantage of a MOOC education – immediacy. 

While I suppose any study-while-working program has this advantage, being able to use new knowledge and skills immediately in a real-world setting is enormously valuable for cementing what you’ve learned. MOOCs also offer another kind of immediacy – there is almost no cost to changing your mind. If you discover that a course is not what you were expecting, or doesn’t meet your needs, you can choose to study something different without waiting an entire semester and without losing any money. The only sunk cost is the time you’ve already put in to the course. In both of these ways, the feedback cycle on MOOCs is short. If, like me, you’re mapping out a series of MOOCs to achieve a larger educational goal, you can easily course correct if you need more or less of a certain topic, or if you discover gaps in your learning program.

I’m not sure how many “non-MBA” courses I’ll end up taking over the course of my studies, just as I’m not sure how many courses in finance I’ll include. It depends on the opportunities that arise and the learning needs I discover along the way. 

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