One of the things I'm realizing from Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) -- those online free classes from universities that have seem to sprung up from almost nowhere in the last year and a half -- is that they offer a perfect opportunity to explore outside my field. At first (and this was even before the term MOOC was coined), I took classes there were just outside my field. For instance, I've been in clinical and postmarketing pharmaceutical statistics for over 10 years, and my first two classes were in databases and machine learning. I did this because I was aching to learn something new, but I figured that with a class in databases I could make our database guys in IT sweat a bit just by dropping some terms and showing some understanding of the basics. It worked. In addition, I wanted to understand what this machine learning field was all about, and how it was different from statistics. I accomplished that goal, too.

Since then, I have taken courses in the area of artificial intelligence/machine learning, sociology and networks, scientific computing (separately from statistical computing), and even entrepreneurship. I have also encouraged others to take part in MOOCs, though I don't know the result of that. Finally, I have come back to some classes I've already taken as a community TA, or former student who actively takes part in discussions to help new students take the class.

This is all valuable experience, and I could write several blog entries on the benefits. The main one I'm feeling right now is the feeling that I'm coming up for air, and taking a sampling of other points of view in a low-risk way. For example, though I don't actively use Fourier analysis in my own work, one recent class and one current class both use it to do different things (solve differential equations and process signals). Because these classes involve programming assignments, I've now deepened my understanding of the spectral theorem, which I only studied from a theoretical point of view in graduate school. I'm also thinking about this work from the point of view of time series analysis, which is helping me think about some problems involving longitudinal data at work.

From a completely different standpoint, another class helped me think about salary negotiations in terms of expected payoff (i.e. combination of probability of an offer being accepted vs. salary). This sort of analysis invited further analysis of the value of that job vs. what I would be paid and the insecurity of moving to a different job. In the end, I turned down what would have been a pretty good offer, because I decided it did not compensate for the risks I was incurring. The cool thing is that these were all applying concepts I already understood (expected value, expected payoff), but applied in a different way from what I was already doing.

The best thing about MOOCs is that the risk is low. All that is required is an internet connection and a decent computer. Some math courses may require a better computer to do high-powered math, but I've seen few that require expensive textbooks or expensive software. Even Mathworks is now offering Matlab at student pricing to people who are taking some classes, and Octave remains a free option for people unable to take advantage of it. And, if you are unable to keep up the work, there is now downside. You can simply unenroll.