Nico Marzian currently works as a consultant and designer in Germany. As well as holding a Fine Arts Degree, Nico also has considerable experience of online education including self-paced online courses and MOOCs which he has used to develop both professionally and for personal interest.
Nico also gave a video interview on his practical approach to studying MOOCs which you can view at the bottom of this page.
Carolyn: Nico, can you tell us how you first became involved in online education?
Nico: I would see my first encounter with online education when I visited the United States of America as an exchange student in 1997. There, in my high school’s library, I had the first real contact with the internet and the World Wide Web and quickly could learn about its educational potential also. When I came back to Germany, I immediately took care about upgrading my personal computer and brought it online (still with a slow 56K and – in comparison with today – pretty expensive connection).
At that time I taught myself to work with Photoshop as well as on 3D modelling and animation, but also HTML programming. The internet had to offer many treasures like tutorial websites, specialised forums, news groups, and knowledge bases. And accompanying to my first real job (as a web programmer and administrator) I also participated in an educational programme online that was backed by the European Union, around web technologies and development, online marketing and law, and the like.
During my second studies at Bauhaus University digital learning and educational platforms also enhanced conventional seminars and lectures.
But online education also played a role throughout my career, for example when embedding ways to teach professionals in terms of using the IT platforms that I developed together with my team, or as a part of change management projects.
Carolyn: What was the first MOOC you completed and what were your reasons for taking it?
Nico: My first MOOC was “ChinaX” through edX, by the wonderful Professors Peter Bol and William Kirby and their marvellous team at Harvard University, coming in ten courses (over 18 months in total) on China’s past, present, and future. It was one of the most exciting and rewarding learning experiences that I ever was allowed to have.
My interest in Chinese culture (as well as online learning) had existed before already and even been growing since university. But after reading an enthusiastic article about MOOCs in general, “ChinaX” in particular, and caught by the label “Harvard”, I had to seize that opportunity to learn about China, and to eventually join in a course on a practical level myself. This way I could also get first-hand insight into the field of MOOCs that had been of theoretical interest for my professional everyday anyways.
I started with Part 3 on the Tang Dynasty and joyfully continued the journey. In the summer break I caught up with Parts 1 and 2, as it quickly got clear that I wanted to go the whole way until its very end, with certificates and everything around.
Carolyn: How many MOOCs have you taken in total? Which one(s) stands out for you and why?
Nico: Including the ten courses of “ChinaX” and with ETH Zurich’s “Livable Future Cities” course (edX) that I finished last week, it is nineteen courses, and I supported another one on “Urban Water”, by the University of British Columbia (also through edX), as a Community TA.
In fact, almost all the courses that I took had to offer a lot of new insights, understandings, and inspiration. I am glad that I took each and every one of them for what could be learned in mostly positive ways, and sometimes also based on their weaknesses.
Surely outstanding was “ChinaX”, which by far has been my favourite programme until this very day. An impressively wide overview combined with deepest insights from leading Harvard scholars and their guests, the strong connection to the professors as well as to the large and most dedicated group of fellow learners was exceptionally motivational.
A revised self-paced version is online right now and “ChinaX 2.0” in the making. So the journey goes on, with new things to learn, the community growing (e.g. through a Facebook group initiated by learners) and being as vivid as on the first day.
The two “Future Cities” courses by ETH Zurich would be my Number 2 in terms of the curriculum and what they had and have to provide for both my professional everyday and my personal interest in the development of human habitats in all their complexity.
“Managing the Company of the Future”, by the London Business School via Coursera, with its view on management principles for Generation Y and following generations gave me a lot to think about and to support my own theoretical and practical work.
“Blue is the New Green” and “Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science”, both by the University of British Columbia through edX, were not only highly interesting and educational, but also almost perfect examples for the well-understood benefit of close and mutualistic interaction between teachers and learners, moderation of discussions, and true dedication and engagement by all people involved.
Carolyn: How do you go about choosing a MOOC? What factors do you consider before enrolling?
Nico: First of all MOOCs need to address topics that are either of deep personal interest or of potential meaning and inspiration for my work; ideally all together.
On a regular basis I look through course lists, I read articles on latest programmes, look for certain keywords, and I also take into account what, for example, my closer fellow learners have to recommend, as I know that I can trust their opinion and what to expect based on it.
When the course description and the introduction video speak to me, chances are then high that I give a course a try, when my schedule allows it.
Carolyn: In your opinion, what are the values of online learning and in what way(s) have online courses and MOOCs helped you develop professionally?
Nico: What I see as the greatest values of online learning are a democratised access to (high-class) knowledge sources, integration of and interaction with innumerable people from all walks of life, with diverse personal as well as professional backgrounds and expertise, and coming from different cultures all around the world.
The chances of getting a multifaceted and well-rounded basis to put one’s own understanding onto can be much higher than on purely conventional paths of education, which are still a fundament for MOOCs, of course.
But both worlds of education have their advantages and disadvantages, and it should be the (symbiotic) combination of them that were most promising in terms of learning results.
I benefitted in several ways, but MOOCs gave me insights that might have been out of reach or which I might not have gotten aware of otherwise, at least in that broadness.
I could participate in various educational programmes offered by leading institutions and scholars, which now all add tremendously well to each other. And I got to know many wonderful and interesting, knowledgeable people, both teachers and learners, to learn even more from, and of whom several are now really good virtual friends, already planning real-world meetings. Amongst those friends and fellow ChinaXers is Ankit Khandelwal, who has been interviewed by you before.
Those would be some of the most important aspects from my point of view.
Carolyn: You have studied both self-paced online courses and MOOCs. What is the difference and how do these two types of courses compare?
Nico: Self-paced courses are good for quick learning (e.g. of book knowledge) and practicing (e.g. to write code), whenever there is the need and the time, and when it is enough to read some texts and graphs, watch video clips, go through automated tests, get examples, maybe templates to experiment with, or having another resource at hand to make use of on the fly.
This works as long as the learned does not need to be discussed further and interpreted to really get understood.
MOOCs on the other hand can, should, and often do make use of the factor of interactivity, and discourse. They then benefit from building a collective of diverse backgrounds, perspectives and ideas, as mentioned before. Besides, they let learners come much closer to the feeling of belonging to a group of likeminded peers, not so different from what students can experience at a regular university or other educational institutions.
MOOCs are vivid and often more inspirational than a self-paced course could ever be. When I caught up on Parts 1 and 2 of “ChinaX” I was more or less alone and also felt a little bit detached from the past enthused discussions that in their documented, “historic” form were still to be followed but lacking feedback and the feeling of present life and ongoing “cross-fertilisation”. It is the human and interhuman factor which makes MOOCs so special, while actually other participants are far away and in some sense only existing virtually.
Carolyn: Do you think MOOCs have any advantages over traditional courses? If so, what are they?
Nico: The use of state-of-the-art interactive, supportive media, the potential connection with masses of diverse people from all over our planet and strata of society would be advantages. So would be the lack of all kinds of borders that before kept out most of those people from traditional courses at regular, and even more at elite universities.
It is a clear value added that content and knowledge of countless institutions and disciplines can be directly wired with that of all the others, enriched by different cultural backgrounds and interpretations.
On that very fundament potentially wider and more holistic understanding is made possible, and the experience of mutual learning (learners from professors, professors from experienced learners, and learners from learners), definitely brings progress to what education is and can be about.
Carolyn: How do you see the future of online education?
Nico: Work life and processes already started or are about to change dramatically. Trends like the Internet of Things and especially the so called Industry 4.0 with its digital interconnection of processes and a dramatic shift towards more automation will also change where and how people can and will contribute their capacity, sets of skills and expertise.
Personally, I am convinced that a future human workforce will need new competencies that incrementally address ideation, conception, engineering and creation, or also particular, more advanced, crafts. Interpersonal exchange and collaboration will be another big factor.
And when human labour changes – as do management principles – also the requirements for education will change. The old paths will no longer be able to lead to the outcome that is strongly needed. In my eyes, signs for this happening are clearly there already.
This is why I see it as highly probable that the traditional approaches will increasingly acquire the possibilities of online, networked teaching and learning to adapt to that new situation.
Lifelong learning will become more usual as well, leading on a path of seamless education that much earlier will also connect potential future employees or freelancers with companies or contractors and vice versa. Both sides will relate with and learn from each other sooner and closer.
It might just be a question of time that it will be the rule that companies offer their own MOOCs (or SPOCs), maybe directly connected with real projects in which to make use of the learned, and incentivised with the help of gamification models.
But to make the most of all this it will be essential to invest more time and effort in the moderation of interaction between all contributors.
Carolyn: What are your professional goals at present and how do you plan to achieve them? Will MOOCs be involved in any way?
Nico: At the moment I still work as a consultant and designer and offer strategic, conceptual, realisation, and moderation services, but I am evaluating the possibilities of establishing a new IT-based networking approach for collaboration. When and how far this will happen is not certain yet, though.
But what is absolutely certain is that MOOCs will stay one major source of knowledge for me and also will be one important base for new personal relations to establish and to expand.
Carolyn: Finally, if you were to design and deliver a MOOC yourself, what would it be and how would it be delivered?
Nico: If I were to offer MOOCs one might be about how to train “People in the Middle”. What is meant with that term is a special kind of managers with the mission and ability to build up a wider, more general, also “out-of-the-box” understanding regarding value and supply chains.
They could moderate collaboration and innovation processes and bring together all relevant kinds of disciplines, competencies, and stakeholders – always driven by the aim for win-win and positive synergies.
I think that issues like – for instance – “Cities of the Future”, “Regenerative Sustainability” or “Seamless (Inter)Urban Mobility on Demand” would need a wholly new level of collaboration beyond any borders and also “People in the Middle” for realisation.
Though, I am not yet certain about how to deliver such kind of MOOC. It could be a partnership with providers like edX or Coursera or come together with a new kind of collaboration platform that had to be created first.
Click here to discover other life-changing experiences of learning with MOOCs
Nico Marzian: the practicalities of studying MOOCs