Online Learning: Do You Want to Grasp a Concept or Gain a Skill?

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He was a motivated film student at a University, often seen around campus in baggy t-shirts and short shorts. Impressed with computer graphics, and intrigued by an amazing free 3D rendering program, he opened one of their many free online tutorials. He was going to learn how to build a three-dimensional door. Easy enough.

Four hours later he had a round-ish blob next to a rectangular-ish blog, a headache, and little else.


Today, he only rarely dreams of creating things inside his computer. But every now-and-again the crazy idea rears its head and he looks for yet another tutorial that may help him understand.

This poor soul isn't actually interested in gaining a new skill. He has told me, more than once, that he doesn't have time to devote to these technical pursuits. Instead, he keeps yearning to understand how creating computer graphic elements works. He wants to "get his head around" the complexities of CG work. So, it's little wonder he keeps looking for tutorials, but it's also obvious why he keeps "failing" the classes he finds online: He wants to grasp the concept, but he doesn't want to actually put in the time to master the task.

I think a similar thing is at play in online courses, which can boast up to a 90% dropout rate. In fact, when I heard about the free artificial intelligence college course, I almost signed up. But then I learned that there was homework and deadlines and the like. So I "dropped out" before I even registered. I was interested in the topic, and would love to understand it a bit more, but I'm not looking to learn how to code an AI.

In the world of blogs and podcasts and YouTube videos and infographics and webinars, we can quickly grasp big ideas. Free online courses are built for something else entirely. They are designed to help you gain a skill... and that takes work. In my own experience with my free film school, I've had a bunch of people sign up, several complete the first assignment or two, but only one student has finished the course.

Is that a failure of my online class?

It could indicate a problem with how I built it. But more than that, I think most of my would-be students are more interested in learning about filmmaking than actually becoming filmmakers. Because, honestly, gaining a new skill--be it filmmaking, programming, cooking, writing, or otherwise--takes a significant investment. And when the tempting offer of free is coupled with a natural curiosity and interest, people will come check it out. But, perhaps, a good YouTube video on the subject is a better fit for those interested in learning more.

What do you think? Have you taking an online class or used a tutorial to gain a skill? Did you discover--part way in--that you were actually more interested in the topic than the practice?

 ~Luke Holzmann
Filmmaker, Writer, Empty Nester

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