Dr. Mike X Cohen is an associate professor at the Radboud University Medical Center and the leader of the research group Synchronization in Neural Systems. His research focuses on using state-of-the-art neuroscience methods to understand the mechanisms and implications of brain circuit dynamics, and has been funded by government agencies in the US, Germany, Netherlands, and Europe; and by private institutions and medical centers.
Mike has been teaching time series analysis, applied mathematics, and scientific programming for almost 20 years. He has published several textbooks on these topics and teaches a variety of "real-life" and online courses, including 13 courses on Udemy (and more to come!). He lives in Amsterdam, has a questionable sense of humor, and enjoys navigating the grit and urban beauty of the city.
Why did you become a Udemy instructor?
I believe that education and knowledge-sharing form the backbone of progress in human civilization. Before coming across Udemy, I had published several textbooks on data analysis and scientific programming. I love writing, but books take a really long time to publish and are set in stone -- once you publish a book, it stays in the exact same form for years, even though the field is developing.
In late 2017 I started thinking about online courses. I looked into several different platforms, and it became clear that Udemy aligned most closely with my desire for flexibility, independence, and global reach. I was initially uncertain whether it would work out, but I figured that the "worst-case scenario" would be that my courses wouldn't gain traction, and then I'd just put them on Youtube and go back to writing books. (I still love writing and I'm currently writing a math book; just much more slowly than in the past.)
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced on your Udemy journey?
The first few months were the hardest. I was putting a ton of time and energy into making my courses, and a voice in the back of my head protested: "Mike, WTF are you doing?!?! This is a waste of time and you're going to look like an idiot and no one will like your courses!" But I pushed through it and made my courses. And that little voice turned out to be wrong. The positive feedback from students and colleagues is incredibly rewarding. There are still challenges, like the days when I have to crank out a video at 6.30 AM or at 10 PM because those are the only times I can squeeze into my schedule. But after the challenge of getting started (let's say the first 9 months and 5 published courses), it's been smooth sailing.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of being a Udemy instructor?
The "most" rewarding aspect changes day to day. But the top three are: (1) Making the courses. I really enjoy planning and filming the videos. Teaching also reveals my own knowledge gaps, and thus is a good way for me to continue learning. (2) Seeing that my students really appreciate my courses and my teaching style. Every week I get students asking me to make more courses on some topic that they are struggling with, ranging from programming to statistics to tensor calculus. I even got a request to make a course on time-management (I politely refused -- I just don't have enough time!). (3) The money. I had very low expectations for my earning potential when I started teaching. But now my Udemy revenue is higher than my salary. Money has never been important to me as long as I can afford a modest lifestyle (for example, the picture of me shows my main mode of transportation), but I do admit that it's been a motivating factor here.
What’s the most impactful thing you’ve learned from another instructor in the community?
What I've learned on the Udemy community is that everyone wants the same thing -- to make great courses, to have a large, loyal, and appreciative student base, and to make money while doing it. But not everyone will have the same success. Some people are natural teachers, some people are making courses in high-demand areas, and some people were in the right place at the right time. Focus on the factors that you can control, and don’t stress about everything else.
Who do you look up to? What inspires you to continue teaching online?
Once I started seeing the numbers on Udemy, I starting thinking about how my "live" teaching has 30-60 university students per course per year, whereas my Udemy courses have many thousands of students from all ages and backgrounds, and from all over the world. I currently have >38,000 students, which is huge compared to my in-person teaching even though it’s a tiny number compared to a lot of other instructors here. That has completely changed my view of how I should be spending my efforts to reach the most number of students as possible.
What did your first filming set-up look like? What’s it like now?
Oh no, please don't make me think about my initial setup 😛 It was two years ago, and I still cringe when I think about it. The mic was too far away, there was no sound attenuation, the font size on my screen was tiny, and I used a crappy free screencapture software that didn't have any good editing capabilities. I made three courses with that shameful setup. The content of the courses was great, and my students were all very kind to evaluate the courses based on educational value rather than on delivery (two of those courses have been best-sellers or top-rated in their categories). With in-person teaching, you don't have to worry about audio-visual issues; you just focus on content. So this was a whole new dimension of course creation for me.
Now my setup is semi-professional. I have a Blue Yeti mic on an arm, two monitors (one for recording, one for notes/scripts), and a "shell" made of sound-attenuating foam that I've built around my desk. And I use Camtasia 9 for screencapture and editing.
I've re-recorded my first two courses, and will soon re-record the third. There's been some discussions on the Udemy community forum about whether re-recording courses is worth the effort, particularly if the course still sells and gets good ratings. To me, it's worth it: I want my courses to look and sound good in addition to having high-value educational material.
What’s your fondest student interaction (online or offline)?
An engineering student enrolled in my courses because he was struggling with the material in his university class. He asked a lot of great questions in the Q&A, and eventually started asking me for help with his masters project about detecting mechanical failures in large complex machines. I gave him feedback and helped with his analyses, and his method was published in an engineering journal. A few months later he told me he decided to switch fields and pursue a PhD in biomedical engineering because he was inspired by my courses and my feedback.
If you could give a first-time instructor some advice, what would you say?
Find that voice in your head telling you that you're a terrible teacher, that you can't do it, and that you're making a fool of yourself by trying. You know the voice I'm talking about; everyone has it.
Many people would tell you to ignore, crush, or suppress that voice. But that's only going to make it stronger. Instead, you should accept that feeling, that insecurity, as a natural part of being human. Just don't let it control you. Use that feeling as inspiration to make a really great course. That voice is wrong, but you can’t just tell it to go away -- you have prove it wrong with consistent hard work.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Top-quality education has been around for thousands of years, but it was limited to a small number of elite aristocrats. The internet is changing that, and you (yes, you!) can now contribute to the spread of knowledge to almost anyone on planet Earth. If that doesn't inspire you to make great and affordable educational content, then perhaps you should consider finding a rock to live under.
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