How I Take Online Courses for Data Science (Part 1- Note-taking)

Since June of last year, I have completed 27 online courses on various Data Science topics (see my roadmap)  and am in the midst of 3 others. I thought I’d share some of the techniques I’ve refined during this time and hope you find some nuggets that will improve your own self-paced education experience.

Time planning

Once you decide to start learning about Data Science, you soon discover there are vast amounts of resources available. I learned in my first couple of months of this journey that my appetite for knowledge far exceeded the number of hours in a day (let alone the time I had available). So at the beginning of each month, I set aside some time to plan. I create a spreadsheet grid of the courses, books and other activities I intended to pursue that month and spread the work out day-by-day.

Sometimes a task is just to spend x number of minutes on a topic. For specific courses with deadlines, I could be more precise on which lessons to watch, the estimated time to be spent and stay on track with the syllabus. I also block out the days I knew I would be traveling (as I commuted 800 miles between NY and SC!). When a specific task was accomplished, I’d color that cell green.


Yes, this may be more OCD than you’d be willing to sign up for. But in addition to keeping me from getting overloaded, there’s a certain amount of positive reinforcement in watching the green start to fill, giving me that thrill of accomplishment. And it also forces me to be realistic with what can be done that month. I’ve had to pass on courses I would have normally signed up for because I saw it just couldn’t fit into a daily schedule.

Offline videos to Dropbox

The majority of courses I’ve taken have been through Coursera. They don’t have the most elegant online platform I’ve encountered but it’s solid and has served me well this past year. The ability to download all course videos to your local machine is my favorite feature. I much prefer to watch lessons via the VLC Media Player than whatever online streaming video player is offered (regardless of how many features they build into it).

Downloading also allows me to consolidate and organize training videos across all courses and platforms (beyond just Coursera) in a manner I prefer.


Unfortunately with Coursera, each video downloads with the same index.mp4 filename, so you will need to rename each one to something that makes more sense. image


image   image

I save everything to my private Dropbox folder (1 TB cloud storage is well worth the annual fee in my opinion). Once synchronized, these files are available across my two laptops, phone and tablet. This frees me from being forced into using an education-platform specific app in order to watch the videos.

Most of the other platforms I’ve tried (including edX and Udacity) allow for video lecture downloads. Udemy doesn’t easily allow you to save-off videos, but the Android app for Udemy does and you could always copy the downloaded videos from your mobile device back to your laptop.

There’s a good number of courses freely available on YouTube (see Mathematical Monk and Natural Language Processing, for example). Khan Academy also host their entire video library on YouTube. VideoGrabby and SAVEDEO are my two “go-to” sites for downloading YouTube videos locally. Just copy & paste the YouTube URL, select a few simple options and the video downloads without hassle.



imageI use DropBox to store all my videos. But I use GoogleDocs for notetaking.  As a caveat, though, I need to be clear that I’m talking about the browser-based access to GoogleDocs, not the app available for mobile docs. You cannot do half the stuff in the app that you can do in the browser (not being able to copy & paste images kills the mobile app for me). But then again, I’m typically working from my laptop where I have a video playing in one window and a GoogleDoc open in another.

Why take notes in a GoogleDoc rather than with the traditional pencil & notebook? There’s a lot of reasons:

  • Searchability: It’s Google, after all. If I need to look up notes for Linear Discriminant Analysis, I can just pop it into my GoogleDrive Search Bar and before I can blink, all of the documents that contain that phrase are listed. Try THAT with a box of paper notebooks.
  • Copy & paste: I try whenever possible to write up my own notes (if I can put a concept in my own words, I can own it). However, when it comes to sample graphs, images, URLs, etc, you just can’t beat copy & paste. Also, have you noticed how hard it is to follow a web page link from a piece of paper? Helpful hint: use ctrl-shift-V to paste without bringing along the background formatting from the web page, pdf, etc.
  • imageFormula editor: GoogleDocs have a rudimentary formula editor that’s been able to handle most of the formulas that I’ve thrown at it. But lately, I’ve taken to copying & pasting screenshots of formulas as a faster alternative.
  • Table of contents: If you use headings properly, you can have the GoogleDoc insert a hyperlinked table of contents at the top of your document. I have found this to be a handy time-saver when reviewing notes for a quiz.  Helpful hint: Use keyboard shortcuts as you type for the headings. ctrl-alt-1 makes the entire line Heading 1, ctrl-alt-2 for Heading 2, etc. ctrl-alt-0 will set it a normal paragraph style.
  • Auto-saving: With just about every keystroke, GoogleDoc is there saving your work. In fact, there isn’t even a save button.
  • Save to pdf: I have a large collection of pdf-books that I read on my tablet. For some of my more in-depth notes, I like to be able to export them to pdf and include them in my library. Fortunately, GoogleDocs allows you to do that.
  • Sharing: Setting up a document for sharing is a piece of cake. You can control whether you just want the document to be view-only for people you share with or allow for editing collaboration. I’ve been in technology for over 20 years, and I still get a thrill of watching someone else type real-time on a document that I have up on my own screen.


It’s this little screen capture utility that makes the whole process happen with ease. MWSnap is a little free Windows program that hasn’t been updated since 2002. But still, it’s worked great for me from Windows ME (remember that?) to Windows 10.

I use it constantly to capture images from videos, pdf’s, web pages – especially equations. It has easy-to-customize hot-key configurations, so that with a magical key-press (like ctrl-alt-a) MWSnap will freeze the screen in place (stopping any animations or videos) and let you drag a box across the portion of the screen you want to capture. This image is then copied to the clipboard where you can quickly ctrl-v it into a GoogleDoc (or whatever app that can receive it).


imageBefore you copy the image into another application, you can do some rudimentary editing (like rotation or adding a border). But the nicest feature is the ability to add a cursor icon anywhere in the image to highlight a key element.

In addition to note-taking, I use MWSnap and GoogleDocs to capture my answers to course quizzes before submitting in case I need to review the material at a later time or if the quiz gets corrupted and times-out before you submit it (a rare occurrence, but it does happen).


imageEarly on, I took an extremely lazy shortcut of taking screenshots of everything and pasting them in GoogleDocs as notes. However, this was not utilizing GoogleDoc’s innate ability to search text across all documents. Aside from equations and diagrams, I’ve tried to include as much text as possible.

On rare occasion, I’ve had to resort to OCR to grab text from the screen. Capture2Text is the small Windows app that I use for this.  Like MWSnap, it’s highly customizable, allowing you to set your own set of hotkeys that will call the capturing routine in whatever application you’re running. Then you highlight the portion of the screen that contains the text you want to grab and it copies it to the clipboard for pasting elsewhere.

Consider developing a probabilistic model for linear regression

Most of the time it works great – but you’ll definitely want to proofread & correct the text it grabs. Helpful hint: Make sure to run this program in “Administrator mode”. It took me a while to troubleshoot that little trick to make the program work properly.

imageezPDF for Android

Finally, as I mentioned above, I have a large collection of pdfs in my library. I prefer that format over Kindle for any textbook-type documents. I constantly refer to these pdfs on my 10” Android tablet.

There is no better pdf app for Android than ezPDF Reader. There are more features to this app than you can shake a stick at, allowing you to customize your reading experience in many different ways.

I love it mostly for it’s ability to allow you to highlight passages, add your own text boxes and scribble over the document, just like you can with a regular book. It saves your edits into the pdf itself.

While there is always space occupied on my bookshelves with physical books, I can lug around 100’s of e-texts with me in this fashion wherever I go.



Next up

Learning is an iterative process. You learn, you forget. You learn again, you retain it a bit longer before you forget again. In my next blog, I’ll share how I try to retain concepts in Data Science well past the end of a course or book.

Have a study trick or tip of your own? Please feel free to share in the comments section below.


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