Weekend went. I just finished yet another online course in data science. I felt that I had achieved something. Still, anyone will feel that he has become a true data specialist, having “successfully completed” 5 different courses and received “certificates” for each of them. That’s exactly what I thought.
But online courses are a fun thing. Most of them have colorful descriptions, a long list of topics that they cover, promises to make you an expert in one or several areas, and if you are lucky, then reviews of people who have already completed the course. Usually reviews write about how this course saved someone from imminent death or made him / her the absolute champion in the subject area. Although, of course, most of us came here for another – a certificate of completion. This vivid digital document containing our name is what plays a decisive role for most participants. And then, one fine day, we sit in a room opposite our potential employer and understand that, contrary to our expectations, few of them were impressed with certificates. Some do not even consider it necessary to respect the time spent on obtaining these certificates. They immediately get down to business and say: “These certificates are useless if you have not worked on any project.” Naturally, it’s very unpleasant to hear this. Moreover, if our hopes that this interview will be successful were first of all placed on the online courses we had completed. We invested in them our money, time and effort. Our main weapon was defeated even before the start of the competitive selection – this would weaken anyone’s self-confidence.
You can believe me. I found myself in such a situation when I was a second-year student with 2 copies of a minimalistic resume, 5 different certificates and the great hope that I would be lucky to have at least one of the 7 interviews with different companies that took place in college during the annual internship job fairs. In the first six, I started the same song, “I have certificates from these courses …” At the interview with the sixth company, I was knocked out with the phrase “Listen, of course, it’s great that you attended these courses. But you did not work with real projects. You do not have an account on Github. We cannot evaluate your capabilities. So … We are very sorry. “
Heck! This hit the patient himself. I felt my throat tighten, preventing me from speaking clearly, this often happens to me when I experience strong emotions. But it’s definitely not their fault. They showed me a reality that I always closed my eyes to.
Everyone has a moment in life when someone else picks up a mirror and puts it in front of our eyes. This is exactly what happened to me at that interview.
It is up to us to close our eyes or keep them open when such a moment comes. I decided to keep them open, and it played a decisive role. Therefore, I decided to write this article.
Why work on projects
The reason we are all so interested in taking courses is because we see the online course as a positive addition to our academic degree, something that will be favorably received by employers. Since in some organizations higher education is a prerequisite for getting a job, we would like to consider that the online course will be assessed in the same way as having a diploma and be considered as “additional education”. Yes, without a doubt, it would have been appreciated.
However, given the amount of information that the Internet provides to everyone, the online course is available to everyone. Therefore, even if we take the course, we will not have much advantage over those who have done the same. Companies compare candidates because this is their only way to easily choose who they think will fit their needs. Competition is at the core of everything we do. Thus, the only way to stand out from others is to work on projects.
Another reason to work on projects is training. Online courses, of course, carry a lot of useful information, but they are limited by the same that prevents teachers from transferring all their knowledge and experience to students in the classroom – a curriculum. Online courses must be planned, and everything that needs to be planned will be shortened and condensed, so it will not be able to cover all possible aspects of the topic under discussion.
On the other hand, if we are working on a project, each of our steps will be an impetus for learning something new. The mistakes we make will be more serious than the mistakes that we make during the online course. However, if we are ready to learn from our mistakes, the knowledge we receive will be much more extensive and more useful.
Transitioning from idea to project-based learning
After they let me down from heaven to earth at that interview, I returned home determined to start working on real projects, and not just rely on my certificates. However, probably the most difficult part was waiting for me: the transition from internal determination to real practice.
I read several articles on how to apply data science and work on projects. Then I several times unobtrusively raised this issue in a conversation with my classmates. To be honest, because of these conversations, I was a little depressed. Not that my classmates were bad interlocutors, just some of them seemed much smarter than me. They seemed to be doing very cool things. Some people even created an unmanned aircraft like this, and I saw an unmanned aircraft only once – on TV. It’s funny, but I wanted to join their work as soon as I heard that they were creating a drone. But I did not want to ask if I could work with them. It seemed to me that I was not a good specialist to deal with such cool projects. Alas, we all make mistakes …
But the biggest difficulty for me was that I got used to the courses where my progress was determined by weekly assignments. The rating system was formalized, and someone evaluated me. The situation was different with the draft. I myself had to give an assessment of my actions. And I didn’t succeed. I couldn’t be the one who values me.
Sometimes it’s too easy for us to force control over our lives into the wrong hands. And the force that makes us do this is often our own inability to understand our strengths and weaknesses.
I realized that I needed to learn to evaluate myself better than anyone else could. Here’s what I did: I sat down and drafted my idea for the project, even set goals that should be achieved on time. In fact, in the end I overdue all the deadlines, but before approaching the deadline, I always checked that I managed to finish at least 80% of what I decided to do.
The whiteboard hanging in my room witnessed my daily planning of the “weekend”, how I study new concepts, try to rethink them, or how I draw my favorite flowcharts. My first project was analysis of the ratings of chocolate bars. Pure water research data analysis – this project gave me my first experience on a project that I myself chose. I worked on it because I was interested to know more about the ratings of chocolate bars around the world.
It is easy for us to work on a project if we feel somehow interested in its topic. Therefore, in order for you to be able to finish your project accurately, it is important to feel that you are emotionally attached to the project, that you are really interested in what its result will be. This is much more important than what tools you used.
But why project-based learning is not easy
I often switched between college lectures, took a piece of paper, and began feverishly writing down ideas that had just crossed my mind. Many of these ideas were never implemented because they seemed not worthwhile enough. I felt that these ideas would not help me become a cool analytics expert. The desire to be a cool expert was too ambitious, given the fact that I was very far from being called an expert at all (I still am not one). Nevertheless, the obsession with working only on the steep ones kept me magnetized to the pole of illogicality. Unconsciously, I was looking for my drone.
Even the bar analysis project was initially rejected by me because it didn’t sound cool enough. Thank god I changed my mind. Most of us reject project ideas because they look worse than other projects. Frankly, this is a self-destructive thought. We do not understand that person A and person B will never have the same past, the same abilities. Therefore, it is wrong to expect that we will be as good as the other person, or we will be better than him, regardless of the circumstances. We can only try. The outcome is actually not in our hands. Those who work on complex projects probably know much more about this than we do.
You cannot be sure that we will succeed if we do not know the buoyancy properties. It would be foolish to hope so.
Do we want to be stupid? I guess not.
There is no perfect way to work on educational projects. This is mainly due to the fact that each student has his own approach to working on projects. Some do it for grades, some for learning, and some for both. Some see projects as a way to work without leaving their comfort zone, while others see projects as a way to learn new concepts. The combinations and approaches to working on educational projects are numerous. Nevertheless, I noticed several important points during my studies in engineering of control systems, and with them I want to complete this article.
- Projects cannot be reduced to the level of a simple comparison of ideas. The meaning of each project is in training, and in our hands to look at the pros, not the cons of the project.
- An open discussion of ideas and topics is always useful for our growth. But it is equally important to be receptive to good reviews.
- We need to monitor the progress of the project ourselves, because in the real world no one will help us with this.
- And finally, if you reward yourself even for small achievements, you will never lose the motivation to continue.
In the end, I want to add that I do not question the benefits of online courses. Some certificates are indeed important for employers. In addition, courses are a great way to learn specific skills. Some of them are conducted by highly qualified practitioners and may well come in handy. Moreover, I took my first steps in data science thanks to the wonderful Datacamp. But theoretical knowledge alone will never make you a good specialist.
This wonderful article by Sanyam Bhutani gives an excellent idea of the right ways to take any online course or, as he would rather say, of the wrong ways to never take an online course.
So what are you waiting for? Choose a topic for the project, start working on it and see for yourself the magical effect of the knowledge applied in practice.
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