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Invest in your further education with low-cost MOOCs

Our writer on (and nearly in) retirement goes back to school without leaving his home office

The handful of you who know me in real life will already be aware that I’ve become a bit of a bore over the last couple of years.

No, not about index trackers, or high-yielding shares.

Instead, I’ve been boring people on the subject of another sort of investing: investing in human capital, namely myself.

That’s right. I’ve been getting an education.

Sell-by date

Now, let’s put that in context, lest you all think that you’ve been reading words penned by some unlettered ignoramus.

I actually have four degrees, including a Ph.D and MBA. But time, as they say, marches on, and as I approached 60 I was increasingly aware that a growing proportion of what I’d learned was past its sell-by date.

Which, when – like me – you earn your crust selling what you know, raises some troubling questions. In particular, I recognised that my data analytics skill set was looking very dated.

The amount I knew about open source analytics and modelling packages such as R, for instance, was zero.

Whizzy analytics techniques such as Excel’s pivot tables? Likewise.

Handy analytics and numerical analysis packages in Python, another open source language? Ditto.


At which point, let me share the broader strategy with you.

I’ve always enjoyed analytics, and that Ph.D involved some fairly hefty statistics and multiple regression modelling. A not-insignificant part of what I do for a living is writing-up survey results, and carrying out secondary analysis. Clients send me Excel spreadsheets or SurveyMonkey output, and off I go.

(My rates are very reasonable, so if you’d like to discuss a project, get in touch. Note to our host, The Investor: I take it that I am allowed such gratuitous promotional plugs?)

I’d like to do more of this sort of work, and quite frankly see it as a very enjoyable – not to mention rewarding – potential retirement activity.

But as I’ve said, the world is moving on, and my analytics skill set was largely mired in 1970s and 1980s techniques and applications. Heck, back then the spreadsheet had only just been invented.

Incidentally, does anyone else remember working with VisiCalc? Or SPSS? (Now owned by IBM, and eye-wateringly expensive for individuals to buy, as is rival SAS’ equivalent package.)

Massively Open Online Courses

Hence the grand plan: Get up to speed with more modern analytics techniques and applications, and also catch up with more modern approaches to analytics.

But how? Enter the world of ‘MOOCs’, otherwise known as Massively Open Online Courses.

MOOCs come in a number of flavours. Leading American universities such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, for instance, provide online learning. Britain’s Open University is arguably one vast MOOC.

Any number of computing-specific MOOCs exist. My son and some of his friends, for example, are ploughing through courses at Coding Academy. The well-known Khan Academy also counts as a MOOC, although it lacks features found in some others. Ditto LinkedIn’s Lynda.

In short, MOOCs are hot, and venture capitalists (and philanthropists such as Bill and Melinda Gates) are pouring money into them.

What you get

So I’ve been taking courses at Coursera, and at edX. Both take the route of partnering with leading universities and other entities (such as Microsoft, say, for IT-specific courses) to offer a vast range of courses in all kinds of subjects.

From my experience, a typical course takes four weeks, and may be combined with others to form a specialisation.

A typical four week course costs in the range of £35-£45, which certainly meets my definition of ‘open’. Many permit learning for free, but the advantage of paying is that you get a certificate that can be posted on LinkedIn or shown to employers. Learn for free, and you don’t.

All courses have online forums where students can interact with others in their four-weekly cohort, and interaction with lecturers and teaching assistants is common.

There are lecture videos to download and watch, tests to pass, and assignments to perform. Individual approaches to deadlines vary – most will allow slippage if you pass by the end of the course. A recent Coursera innovation is to allow learners to move from one four-week course to another, if they fall behind.

Pass or fail?

My experience has been overwhelmingly positive. In just short of two years I’ve completed 12 courses, all of which feature on my LinkedIn profile. I’m almost at the end of a further one.

Courses vary in quality. The medium is new, and not every university and every instructor is yet up to speed with the limitations and advantages of MOOC-based online learning.

If you value interaction with other students (such as when you’re stuck on a particular problem) then busy courses are obviously better than quieter ones.

But, as I say, my experience has been overwhelmingly positive, and I have most definitely gained the skills that I was looking for.

Indeed, I’d go further: I can see me becoming a ‘serial offender’ – because as new courses are added, it’s oh-so-tempting to sign up.

Silver surfing studying

For the Monevator crowd – and in particular The Greybeard’s own retirement-focused readers – the merits of MOOCs are obvious.

Low-cost learning – what’s not to like? Either as a retirement hobby, to keep the grey cells ticking over, or like me to refresh old skills (or acquire new ones) in order to keep up-to-date with what is going on in the world of work.

Or, to whet your appetite even more, to acquire investing and finance skills. Yes, there are MOOCs here, too.

As I say, my own experience has been at edX* and Coursera. But let me leave you with a taster of what is on offer in the money-related domain – MOOC Tracker, a popular link, maintained by the Financial Times, of business and finance-specific MOOCs.

See you online!

Note: If not using the hyerlink URL above, please be aware that edX is to be found at www.edx.org, and not www.edx.com.

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{ 26 comments… add one }
  • 1 PC October 18, 2016, 12:58 pm

    Can’t recommend these highly enough – I did the Data Science Specialisation on Coursera, from Johns Hopkins. Challenging and very enjoyable, but then I confess to a rather nerdy side .. I would have signed up to another one, but real life intervened.

  • 2 EUOphan October 18, 2016, 1:04 pm

    I am also of a similar vintage (and similar skills) and agree wholeheartedly on the approach.
    Do not forget to embrace recurrent neural networks and their derivatives if you continue to go down this road 🙂

    Good hunting

  • 3 Cathy October 18, 2016, 1:24 pm

    Hadn’t come across either Coursera or EdX, they both look brilliant – I’d been meaning to go searching for something of this nature online, so many thanks.

  • 4 Lee October 18, 2016, 2:17 pm

    Always wanted to learn R, having been trained in Stata. Wonder if that is still on the go…

    Moocs are something I look forward to after FI. I signed up for a lot thus far and agree that there is variable quality. Working and with young kids I last less than a week though …. I know.

    I also did some courses on statistics.com. Not a mooc but with a higher cost I found my motivation to be greater.

    Udacity is also ok.

  • 5 Pedro October 18, 2016, 3:17 pm

    Just a shame they don’t offer something a bit more tangible than a “mooc cert” generally. If there was something a bit heavier weight available I’m sure I’d pull my finger out instead of getting half way through so many…

    I did a MOOC from the University of Nicosia on cryptocurrency a couple of years ago – that was offered free and gave a handful of credits towards a masters at the time (with the intent to hook you in to pay for the rest, of course), not sure if they still do. Thought there might be one or two on here that are interested in taking a look, even if it is a little niche. http://digitalcurrency.unic.ac.cy/free-introductory-mooc/

  • 6 A Different Richard October 18, 2016, 4:03 pm

    A very useful article – thank you.

    I’m a huge fan of distance learning. I’m a decade or so younger than you but did the BSc/PhD route full time at university and then did the MBA and a couple of undergraduate degrees by distance learning.

    I found the Open University to be exceptional – did the MBA and an Ordinary BA with them. I found the materials and tutor support to be better on the BA than the MBA but overall had no complaints.

    OU fees – at least in Scotland, where I live – are about £1,800 for a year’s full-time equivalent study. It’s an altogether different £5,600 per annum if you’re in darkest Englandshire. The English costs would be a huge disincentive to me if I lived there. Fine (sort of) if you’re going for your first degree, much less so for fun.

    Your £50/month sounds very reasonable.

    When I retire I hope to do further study for general interest rather than ongoing employability. I’ve tried (free) short courses with Futurelearn but never finished one. Without the overarching discipline of a qualification, and no submitted assignments or end of course assessment, and not having paid…I simply fall behind. They have some wonderful-sounding courses though…

    Had a quick look at Coursera – lots of courses that appeal. Couldn’t find the fee information…okay, only shows when you create an account and log in to a course. But can do for free – a good way to test the system – and only pay at the end if you want a certificate (£36 for the course I’m looking at).

    Thanks for the tip – I think I’ll give this one a go…

  • 7 The Greybeard October 18, 2016, 4:16 pm

    @ Lee: I also did the Data Science Specialisation on Coursera, from Johns Hopkins (or rather, most it — there were a couple of courses I didn’t want) and that is where (amongst other courses) I learned R. Stata is still around, but dwarfed by R. Highly recommended — one of the very best courses I did.

  • 8 PC October 18, 2016, 5:27 pm

    @Lee @TheGreyBeard learning R and lots of statistics was very interesting and useful. Still fire up RStudio for fun occasionally.
    Most recently this was to follow up on an article about some analysis of @RealDonaldTrumps twitter timeline which concluded that there were two separate individuals tweeting – himself and his office if I remember rightly.

  • 9 Jonathan October 18, 2016, 5:43 pm

    @The Greybeard: “In just short of two years I’ve completed 12 courses, all of which feature on my LinkedIn profile. … Low-cost learning – what’s not to like?”

    The point of high-cost learning is that it’s exclusive. Low-cost, open courses are easy for the masses to access, and therefore have little value as qualifications on one’s LinkedIn profile.

    Economists argued for a long time about the mystery of why people paid good money and time to obtain “clearly useless” yet difficult degrees in philosophy. Of course, the solution to the mystery is that only a person who is clever and non-needy can afford to study philosophy, rather than something banal like engineering. That’s why philosophy graduates are, on average, far more successful than engineers (and very few become professional philosophers).

    A valuable qualification is a badge of exclusivity, not inclusivity.

  • 10 Fat but fun October 18, 2016, 5:46 pm

    Timely reminder. Have been early retired for a couple of years and am worried that my synapses and beginning to fire more slowly than of old.

    NB, just read a rather patronising article on page 2 of the business section of the Telegraph by Paul Killik of Killik & Co. Very anti-DIY investor, aiming to scare punters back into the hands of the fee bloodsuckers.

  • 11 PC October 18, 2016, 5:50 pm

    @Jonathan easy to access not at all easy to complete, that was the value to me

  • 12 hosimpson October 18, 2016, 10:13 pm

    I’ve only managed to complete two so far — one on game theory and the other one on the 20th century American literature. Good stuff, but for me the issue is sticking with it. First couple of weeks are fine, but the courses run for 7-8 weeks… perhaps I need to take a MOOC on ADD.

  • 13 Steve October 18, 2016, 10:32 pm

    Glad you mentioned these. Being forced to choose A-levels at 16, I went into science many years ago, but always resented being made to give up the other subjects.
    With the kids at uni, I finally made up for lost time.

    Of course, it depends why you want to do the course and how motivated and self-disciplined you are.

    Online courses seem to fall more or less into three categories.

    1. Accredited courses i.e. including (shock-horror) Tutor Marked Assignments with deadlines (TMAs) and awarding CATS points which can count towards official qualifications.
    e.g. Open Univ, Open College of Arts, Oxf. Uni Dept. Continuing Education (OUDCE), MA/MSc from Leicester, Nottingham..?.
    N.B. London Uni International offers loads of possibilities, but AFAIK they’re not courses as such, just book lists and guides.

    2. Non-accredited courses requiring Proof of Forum participation/Portfolio/Assessed Coursework and awarding a Continuing Professional Development (CPD) certificate.
    e.g. Some Exeter uni and maybe some Futurelearn and Coursera courses.

    3. Non-accredited courses including discussion forums, online tests, certificates, but no TMAs.
    e.g. Most Futurelearn, Coursera and OpenLearn courses ( part of Open Uni.) ie Most MOOCs
    I’m currently on my 4th course with OUDCE and loving it.

  • 14 ermine October 18, 2016, 11:50 pm

    Interesting post, and I am partway through starting that Data Science Specialisation course, because Google on its own is a tough way to learn R.

    But I listed the £21 under Entertainment in Quicken – someone who is FI has no human potential, so it isn’t an investment IMO. Human capital is where young people are already rich and it’s consumed as you get older, because the cumulative future income stream wastes away 😉 That’s no reason to stop learning, but it’s a different reason from when I was 18…

  • 15 Tim October 19, 2016, 1:36 am

    Writing as someone who’s hired technical people in the past based on CVs and interviews: a big list of MOOC-ey type things (or “non-exclusive” qualifications generally; Jonathan has a good point above) didn’t count for much with me beyond demonstrating a certain level of interest in personal and professional development. Far more impressive is some evidence of having being able to put learning (from any source) and experience into action (github activity, publications, Getting Stuff Out There generally) and using it to Do Something, and being able to solve relevant problems in the interview without falling back to “well I used to know that” excuses; I was always looking for people who’d immersed themselves deeply in the fundamentals of the field (which would let them solve the sort of things I was asking from first principles, often in surprising and delightful ways)… who lived and breathed the subject rather than just having skimmed over it superficially. From what I’ve seen MOOCs just don’t get you anywhere near that point, although they might be useful for a first introductory encounter with a subject.

    I find the economies-of-scale deflationary aspect interesting though. Was recently recalling that when I was a teen, only the poshest/most aspirational families had an Encyclopedia Britannica set in the house. These days everyone has Google, Wikipedia etc at their fingertips (for better or worse; some degree of “you get what you pay for” for still applies when it comes to information quality). MOOCs do seem like another useful contributor to the democratization-of-knowledge trend.

    People with time on their hands and a bit of mathematical and programming skill to exercise might also find https://projecteuler.net/ of interest.

  • 16 L October 19, 2016, 8:38 am

    How timely! I’m taking the first lumbering steps back into some further education (IT) after sitting in an unfortunately comfortable trough for 5 years.

    Short courses like this look like an entry point for some more interesting topics, but I have been around the world of work for long enough to apprciate that you need formal qualifications for most jobs unless you are brilliant a) generally or b) at interviewing.

    I’ll be starting out with a distance learning college course, with things like this to try and give me a few extra talking points for interviews.

  • 17 Amit October 19, 2016, 12:14 pm

    Wow.. what a whole new world I never knew existed.

  • 18 ermine October 19, 2016, 4:47 pm

    > only the poshest/most aspirational families had an Encyclopedia Britannica set in the house.

    Some proles did too. I grew up in a working class family, but my mother cadged a free set of 1947 Encyclopedia Britannica from someone who wanted the space back. Many idle hours as a kid reading about all sorts of unrelated this and that, truly fascinating.

    ISTR the standard of writing was far better than wikipedia, but maybe that’s because I was a kid…

  • 19 PC October 19, 2016, 5:21 pm

    luxury, we had a 10 year old Pears Cyclopedia .. which packed in a surprising amount

  • 20 The Investor October 19, 2016, 10:27 pm

    Yeah, we only had the Pears at mine, too. I used to randomly open it and just start reading sequentially for an hour or two when I was a kid.

    Precocious reader. Inefficient autodidact.

  • 21 hosimpson October 20, 2016, 9:07 pm

    Oh, we used to dream of having a Pears Cyclopedia! That would have been a luxury to us. We used to have 45 boxes of old notebooks filled with random facts, recorded in chronological order by a 19th century monk.

  • 22 Steve October 21, 2016, 5:28 pm

    19th century? Well of course we had it tough. The working class family whose outside toilet we were renting suddenly got a copy of the 1947 Encyclopedia Britannica and promptly evicted us. Far too posh to have lodgers. We lived int outside lav of Classical Greek studies in Oxford and got an education by translating Plutarch, Homer an’ Plato. Didn’t go down to well in Junior school an’ I got belted every day for refuting Aristotelian syllogistic dialectic. Or as Mr Bendover said “Bein’ an arrogant li’tle twat.”

  • 23 Tim J October 21, 2016, 11:20 pm

    I am just finishing the Stanford machine learning course by Andrew Ng on coursera and would highly recommend it as well, it is sad to hear that these will count for little in the real world though, Professor Ng had seduced me into thinking that one could learn to be an ML engineer from such courses and a bit of real world application of course.

  • 24 PC October 22, 2016, 10:14 am

    @Tim J

    I think the jury’s still out on what they mean in the real world.

    I did the Data Science Specialisation mostly for personal interest but I don’t think it does my LinkedIn profile any harm .. and I have had a few enquiries ..

    I’ve heard lots of good things about Andrew Ng’s course. Thanks for jogging my memory.

  • 25 Steve October 23, 2016, 6:37 pm

    Thank you for another informative and interesting post. I have used a couple of Coursera courses in the last couple of years but it was useful to be reminded of this wonderful resouce (and to learn of the links from the FT). Some of the courses are from highly regarded Unis and are of high quality.

    As a result I am now taking a ‘Become a Changemaker’ course in preparation for making good use of my time as I wind down from my current profession (over the next 12 months). I don’t see it as retirement but the opportunity to try something different, to take on new challenges, move out of my comfort zone and hopefully make a positive difference to something somewhere. With a large proportion of my funds in passive investments, I can hopefully leave them to look after themselves and spend my time doing something more constructive (and fulfilling) – and if it generates a modest income as well then thats just a bonus (and broadens my scope for more ‘impact investing’).

    Keep up the good work!


  • 26 Moneysaver October 26, 2016, 11:10 am

    Thanks so much, this has opened up a whole new area of interest for me. I hadn’t even heard of these course providers before and I’ve now signed up to loads! I need to keep the brain cells ticking over in my early retirement.

    There are some interesting finance fundamentals courses coming up on Futurelearn (run by the Open University). Worth a look as they’re free to complete, although may be somewhat basic for many of the readers on here.

    I’ve also found a week of learning promotion on LinkedIn Learning:
    All courses are completely free this week (24-30th October)

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