CAN UDEMY.COM BE YOUR NEW THERAPIST?

So you want improve your confidence, cope with depression or anxiety, or get over an abusive relationship. Instead of trekking to your local psychotherapist, turn on your Ipad and watch one of hundreds self-improvement courses on Udemey.com, one of the most popular online course websites. But is this site just a glorified and expensive version of youtube or a new venue to help the depressed and anxious? I’ll look at the research and give you my review of the site.

Online courses are the latest Internet sensation. You can find trainings on just about anything from computer programming to cooking and self-defense. Although programming courses far outnumber self-improvement on the web, there are a growing number of websites offering their take on Internet therapy. One of the most popular is Udemy.com, which claims to have over 40,000 courses. You’ll find courses on general self-improvement topics (like changing habits, assertiveness, how to influence people, and confidence) to mental health issues (such as, depression, anxiety, and insomnia). But if you have a more serious mental health issue, such as bipolar disorder, PTSD, or major depression, then you’ll have to seek help from your local therapist as Udemy doesn’t cover these conditions.

What a Courses Looks Like

I enrolled in a course on stress management, called Anxiety Boot Camp. The format of the courses fit an ADHD personality. Each course, no matter how many hours, is usually segmented into 2 to 10 minutes videos. Perfect! If a youtube video is the length of your attention span, you’ll feel some accomplishment clicking through these video shorts. The visuals are high quality and rely on screencasting and PowerPoint diagrams and have good graphic design qualities. The handouts of courses, which are usually outlines of additional points from the lecture, are interesting and well illustrated. The text in the slides is always the bare essentials and never over-crowded, like many bad lectures you may have been subjected to in school. Sometimes there are quizzes as well, which tend to be short and simple.

Quick Fixes Are The Promise

The self-help techniques in Anxiety Boot camp are based on cognitive-behavioral therapy, one of the most popular and well-supported techniques in psychotherapy. But the author puts his own unique spin on them and adds his own personal experiences using the techniques, which makes it interesting. However, a lot of other courses make hyped claims that you can double your confidence or change your life through one course. Of course, you’ll find these kinds of claims in books in the self-help section of any bookstore. If you are promised dramatic changes with little work, click the close button immediately

This course, like most of the courses on Udemy, is targeted at beginners. The explanations and ideas in the courses are basic and watered down for the emotionally naïve. Most courses are aimed at helping the slowest pupil in the classroom rather than soaring above their heads. The depth of explanation pales in comparison to a book. If you want to probe the depths of anxiety, it’s physiological, emotional, cultural, and existential roots, you’re going to have a tough time finding it in this site. Look to books like The New Mood Therapy by David Burns, Worry by Edward Hallowell, and Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, which present entertaining, clear, and thorough discussions of how to understand and effectively cope with anxiety. But there are some twelve-hour courses and maybe they cover more in depth.

A lot of courses are based on quick fix techniques, like Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) and Hypnosis. I won’t get into them but suffice it to say that the research doesn’t support the claims that you can just turn your life around in just a few hours or days as is often claimed.

Who Teaches This Stuff?

There are no credentials required to be an instructor. There are some mental health professional and many self-proclaimed experts. However, don’t discount someone just because he or she doesn’t have a degree. Review the material in the course and see if it makes sense to you. Each course publishes a course outline. Another great feature is the ability to freely preview any part of the course for 5 minutes. Some instructors also allow segments of the course to be previewed before purchasing.

How Much Does the Video Add?

Does video really offers you more than the written word or audio alone? While the visuals in PowerPoint and screencasting are sophisticated and well designed, the quality of video of the instructor looks like a bad B movie, usually a monotonous single camera angle – really what does this guy look like from a side profile?

In what I have gleaned from the Udemy courses, the explanations in the videos tend to be more simplistic. These courses rarely rival the length of self-help books or audio books. The site encourages style over depth. In my opinion, the video tends to encourage superficial attention. In all likelihood, you’ll probably retain more information if you read a book or listened to audio.

One advantage to video could be the likelihood of viewers to finish them. If you don’t enjoy reading you may be more likely to watch a video versus reading a self-help book. Despite what I have said earlier, computer interventions can be just as effective as books for self-help. In a 2007 study published in the journal Psychological Medicine, self-help books and computer interventions were just as effective in the treatment of depression. The difference is that the computer interventions, unlike Udemy courses, were designed to replace 8 to 12 sessions of therapy.

The Courses May Break the Bank

Udemy prices itself more like a Mercedes than a Hyundai dealership, with prices between fifty to two hundred dollars, sometimes for a two-hour course. That has to be a hell of a good course for that fee. The list prices, like a car dealership, are inflated. But Udemy frequently offers sales on most of their courses for anywhere from $11 to $24. If you’re patient you can take a course at a deep discount. There are also free courses but they tend to be one hour and so basic that it’s hard to get much out of them.

This Is Not a Guided Intervention

Guided intervention means that there is support in some form from a mental health professional. This can come in the form of email exchanges, phone calls, and even periodic visits with a professional. Research shows that getting help from a professional, e.g., weekly telephone calls for 10 weeks, vastly improves the effectiveness of self-help. In fact, I suspect that most fail to follow through on self-help without some kind of commitment and encouragement from an outside source.

Unfortunately, Udemy courses are not instructor guided. You won’t find an interactive classroom or a support forum. Although it is possible to post comments to the instructor (some even offer office hours on google hangouts), the interactions are limited and not like dialogues. (For an excellent review of Udemy as a course website, see this article by PC Magazine). These exchanges are usually two comment. Courses don’t feel like a classroom and are more like isolated exchanges. Also, it’s unlikely that for a self-improvement course participants will share their life stories or personal problems to the public. Getting comfortable doing so would be more likely in an interactive forum, where people had a chance to get to know each other.

Grade Inflation

Udemy’s course ratings suffer from grade inflation. Almost all courses have 5 star ratings, sometimes from hundreds of students. How? I don’t know. The ratings are generous, especially if you compare the ratings to self-help material found on Amazon.com. The depth of comments are superficial and tend to say things like “Great course!” “Very helpful material.” But rarely do you find a truly informative review that critiques the quality of the content or compares it to other perspectives.

Summary

If you’re looking for a quick overview of mental health techniques, then Udemy.com is a good, if not simplistic, introduction. Don’t pay the full fees. It’s not worth it. Wait for specials, which sometimes pop up in retracking ads (right now google is stalking me with dozens of retracking ads for Udemy) or in periodic specials that Udemy runs. But if you need more help than the basics, find a self-help book that will go into more depth or get therapy. Udemy has potential but psychotherapists aren’t going out of business any time soon.

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Jason Drwal

Jason Drwal

I am a writer, blogger, clinical psychologist, parent, devoted spouse, coffee snob, runner, and connoisseur of exotic foods.

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