Taking online classes is easy, fun, and surprisingly cheap

ByMike V. Cooper

Aug 18, 2022

I WOULD LIKE consider myself smart and successful, but when it comes to saving, I have no idea.

What I usually do when I have a financial question is ask my family, all of whom have MBAs. But because they took longer and longer to respond to my emails asking them to explain NFTs (again), I knew I had to gain more intellectual independence.

I knew I should probably go back to school.

Luckily for me, online learning has exploded over the past two years. Covid has pushed face-to-face university classes online, while shelter-in-place measures have left people wanting to learn again.

In fact, US searches for e-learning, e-learning, and massive online open courses (or MOOCs; more on those later) increased fourfold between late March and early April 2020, according to a 2020 report. Part of that may have been the boredom of the lockdown, but you can’t ignore availability either. The pandemic has also increased online course enrollment by 93%, according to 2020 data from NC-SARA, a nonprofit that helps distance education programs.

Despite all this, I still had my reservations about re-enrolling. The last time I had to attend a real course was in the spring of 2004 as a broadcast journalism major. Since then, Tom Brady has won five Super Bowl rings, eight new Supreme Court justices have been nominated, and Twitter has become a thing.

And then there was the whole ordeal of which type of class to choose.

Every educational entity, from the University of Phoenix to Harvard Business School, offers online courses and degrees. Sites like MasterClass, Skillshare, Mindvalley, and LinkedIn Learning all offer multi-unit programs. And MOOCs hosted by organizations like Coursera offer free college-level courses, from English Composition I to Game Theory, to students around the world. After considering all of this, I felt I needed to take a course on how to take a course. So I contacted Becky Klein-Collins, author of Never Too Late: The Mature Student’s Guide to College.

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“My advice to someone looking to get back into learning in some way is to be very clear about the person’s goals,” Klein-Collins says. If you’re a guy looking to move up the corporate ladder (or jump to a whole new ladder), Klein-Collins recommends asking your employer what kind of skills or credentials are needed to achieve your goal.

“More and more, employers are open to other degrees, not just a bachelor’s degree, especially if they are degrees that have cachet in a particular industry,” she says.

But there are also guys like me, who just want to advance their understanding rather than their career. For these people, Klein-Collins recommends what she describes as “user-friendly, low-commitment online options.” [that cover] some basic material.

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I’ve never been a fan of the school, but I prefer ‘minimal engagement’, so I took Klein-Collins’ advice and signed up for Paul Krugman teaches Economics and Society on MasterClass .com. Krugman, for the unknown, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2008 and is an opinion columnist for The New York Times. MasterClass costs $180 for an annual subscription, which gives you access to its extensive bank of courses. (Bill Nye on science and problem solving! Cornel West on philosophy!)

My class led by Krugman consisted of 22 lessons, each about 15 minutes long. Although I fully intended to start from the beginning and watch every session, after day two I started skimming through episodes, moving quickly to the good parts. (How awesome would this trick have been in college?)

Krugman didn’t give me any homework, he didn’t require me to show up at a specific start time, and he didn’t give a single test. Freed from the pressure and restrictions, I found that I was retaining more. I was looking to expand instead of just regurgitate.

And I was surprised to finally be able to understand topics like taxes and the Great Recession of 2008. Maybe MasterClass broke down complex topics into little nuggets. But I couldn’t help but think there was something more important at work: maybe I didn’t have have learn.

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10,000 hours

Whether you’re watching a series of expert-led videos or enrolling in a global online course focused on the topic, that enthusiasm is essential. Research backs it up: A 2021 study found that students participated more, were more engaged, and felt better able to understand complex concepts when their teachers challenged them to learn.

There is also a snowball effect at work. The more you learn, the better you learn, according to the work of Ulrich Boser, the author of learn better. And a lifetime of learning has benefits beyond just knowing things. This can lead to a resilient brain, a stronger social life, a bigger paycheck, and a potential exit to an upcoming higher-paying and/or more fulfilling gig.

After taking Krugman’s MasterClass, I started browsing my local college websites and checking out Coursera. Although I still don’t understand NFTs, I’m ok with that.

Taking a course for fun also made me realize that I don’t need to know everything about everything. For curious “minimal commitment” guys like me, it’s less about knowing who you want to be and more about understanding who you really are. Which, coincidentally, will be the first line of my opening MasterClass session, whenever they decide to enroll me.

A version of this article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of men’s health.

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