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Kostas Sar
Kostas Sar

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Books vs Online Courses

I'm about to start a project on data mining and statistics and the recommended tools are Python and R. As I have never before used R I want to learn about the language before tampering with any of the project code. Also the main structure is already made by someone else and I was asked to add more features.

So that's when this question came to me. Should I get a couple of books on the topic? Am I going to be fine after taking an online course (free or paid) plus some tests and exercises in hackerrank for example? Or do these methods compliment each other so it's best to do both?

What is your opinion? How do you usually get started with programming languages and new concepts?

P.S: If you have any good recommendations on where to start with R it would be much appreciated! But the main topic of the post is still the comparison of the two methods.

Thank you!

Top comments (53)

cotcotcoder profile image

(General response, not specific to R)

I choose books because:

  • Subject is a freezed domain (evolve slowly like SQL, Unix, protocols, design, ... )
  • I don't need to write code or I can do it later (I love to read outdoor)
  • Nice overwiew of complex topic (I love A book Apart collection)
  • I would like to read it again in 2 or 3 years, for topic like team management/scrum/clean code ... (you don't forget a physical book)
  • I want to share it with my coworkers
  • Difficult topic (I can read the line twice easily, it's sometimes difficult with video-player)

I choose online-courses because:

  • Subject is "deprecated tomorrow" (Ecmascript, VueJs...)
  • No book on the topic (very new topic)
  • I need just an introduction of the topic (curiosity)
  • I can learn "handless" (while washing dishes, eating...)
  • Weight & size (small flat, frequent moves)

I look if the author(writer/speaker) is reputed for this domain. If he is in the development team, he can explain the "why it's working this way?" and it's something awesome to learn with the vision of the topic (langage or software).

kostassar profile image
Kostas Sar • Edited

Would you use a book to learn the basics on a fast-developing tool / language? And then maybe videos for the more complex and high-level concepts.

rosberg_guedes profile image
Rosber Guedes

I use real books to search, digital books to learn the basics and videos for contents complex.

bgadrian profile image
Adrian B.G.

I see them as complementary sources,

  1. Books - layout the foundations. Learn statistics, R, and basic concepts
  2. Courses - practice with real projects, fill in the gaps (that you haven't grasp from the books), learn the new developments (usually books are not up to date).
ghost profile image


pavonz profile image
Andrea Pavoni

I must confess I never use video courses. I usually buy printed books, and sometimes ebooks.

My first problem with videos is the language barrier (I'm italian): I can read/write english very decently, but I struggle with real time listening. So, if I'm learning/studying something new, I still go with books.

genta profile image
Fabio Russo • Edited

Just start with It... can be hard for some hours... but It will teach you english understanding and will give you access to a different learning approach

  • use subtitles
  • train your understanding slowing down videos...
  • Learn to code and english language...

Prendi due piccioni con una fava

adambrandizzi profile image
Adam Brandizzi • Edited

That is a problem to me, too! OTOH most instructors have a very good pronunciation, so it ends up being a point in favor of courses to me, a good opportunity to practice English. Sure, it only works if I'm not totally alien to the subject but I rather read books for studying new domains anyway.

desolosubhumus profile image
Desolo Sub Humus 🌎🌍

I can understand that. I've used videos, but only if literally nothing else comes up after weeks of internet searching. Even then, I sometimes have to bring up the transcriptions, even though I'm a native English speaker. Extremely thick accents coupled with broken English can be hard to understand, especially when the code is broken and you have to cross-reference and rewrite it to make it work.

gameoverwill profile image
Wilfredo Pérez • Edited

In my case I ussually do some steps when I'm learning somethin new:

1.) I start to learn from a video course, try to follow everything. As other people says in other comments is pretty usefull to improve your english and for me is more easy to understand. I can recommend you web pages like, Udemy, Udacity or Pluralsight.

2.) When I complete the course, I look for some book that I could read and learn / understand the most dificult parts. I think that video course in most cases doesn't cover the advanced parts, so I look for a book that can cover this parts.

3.) Create a project that help me to practice everything that I've learned, besides doing that a lot of doubts will come to you so you'll need to research, read, and aks about.

This is my recipe that I'm using for several years and It is still working for me. I hope that can help you.

PS: right now I'm learning python from they are offering for now free courses by IBM. Also there they have a path about R, you should check it.

kostassar profile image
Kostas Sar

Thank you! I will check it out!

What I used to learn the basics of python was Learn Python the Hard Way. The author has some humour and there is some repetition in the exercises so you won't forget instantly what you learned after you pass each chapter.

gameoverwill profile image
Wilfredo Pérez

Thank you I'll check it :)

erikthered profile image
Erik Nelson

Typically I like to start with the official docs for whatever I'm trying to learn. I like having everything in text so I can scan more quickly and jump around/search for whatever I'm trying to find. I think for this reason I've never had much success trying to learn from videos/screencasts. Official docs are usually the most up-to-date resource available which is certainly a positive.

For something fairly well established/stable I think books can be good, but it's hard to recommend them for a newer or quickly changing technology.

Online courses can be good but I think it depends on the format and quality can vary wildly. I think getting recommendations from a community (such as or a programming subreddit) is a good way to filter for quality options.

kostassar profile image
Kostas Sar

By official docs you mean tutorials made by the same team or the actual manual? Because the latter one is a bit hard to follow when you are not familiar with the subject.

erikthered profile image
Erik Nelson

Ideally, something like the Vue.js guide or Kotlin Reference.

I know you mentioned you're trying to learn R, I looked up their official docs and they look dense to say the least. The quality of these type of documents certainly varies a lot depending on the project.

edezacas profile image
Edu Deza • Edited

If I want to learn a new language I read the documentation and if it has a guide I do it. In this way I have a first approach. After depending on the context I search some book with a good reputation author, usually I use safarybooks. In the end if I a need more specific info I use online courses.

kostassar profile image
Kostas Sar

Isn't documentation a bit overwhelming as a first step?

edezacas profile image
Edu Deza

Maybe if we deeping into documentation yes, but ususally we’ve a reference or guide that contain a general vision. For example, few months ago I wanted to learn Kotlin, so first I went to read reference for its web. Of course is a good way for me but hasn’t to be for each one else

davidhackro profile image
David Hackro

I have two opinions, the opinion how student and how instructor/teacher.

  • INSTRUCTOR : Its complicated create content, for example "Course of Android" but why?
    its complicate for 2 reason

    • Create short content (because a long course it's difficult what the student the completed )
    • Create content interesting for beggin student and same time interesting for developers with experience.

  • STUDENT: If i need to learn Android topic deeply, i prefer buy a book

In internet you can found a lot of content but the problem is what most is oriented for begginners, maybe for this reason i prefer buy books.

P.D. Sorry for my grammar errors XD

kostassar profile image
Kostas Sar

Haha I am quite far from teaching. Not that experienced yet to feel confident.

Thank you for your answer!

kylegalbraith profile image
Kyle Galbraith

My general view of the world, not specific to any one topic:

  • Books are one of my favorite ways to get introduced to a topic and learn the concepts/terminology around it.
  • Courses like my, learn AWS one, are in addition to the book. Like taking the book's concepts and showing how they work in the real world.

So I view them as going hand in hand really. But I think the main takeaway is that when you are learning something new it is important to understand the problem it is trying to solve. Once you know that, dive in and start using it as that is how you will learn even more in a short amount of time.

genta profile image
Fabio Russo • Edited

That's pretty complex...
Everyone is different, in everything... in learning too.

For me, videos are bad... can't stand how fast people use to teach through videos.
An example... Wes Bos... It's pretty useless for me.
Too fast
Explaining while doing, without any theory or real explanations
So cool, so useless!
(he's really good with his work... he's nice and a good developer)

But it's all a matter of preferences.
I love to learn theory while doing work and we all need TO BUILD!

Most of the books without any exercise at the end of every chapter, are not well done books.

(Keep in mind that books are expensive sometimes... and subjects are really fast changing nowadays. Books won't get updated!)

If you've to learn something to get the work done, in some days... you need to learn the needed subject or library, and that can be complicated with books.
You need to skip most of the theory and go straight to the core of what you need.
In this case, videos can be very good.
But still you're memorizing and not really learning.
(I use an online Code school that I really like to learn... but of course, they're not going to cover every possible subject)

kostassar profile image
Kostas Sar

I agree with you! The most important aspect is building, breaking and fixing projects.

For short uni projects videos do the job but this time I need to get more in-depth.

genta profile image
Fabio Russo


you've to go both.

Learning from books and code a lot.
Videos are good tools not only for tutorials, but also for coding video, where you can check how good coders work.

flaviocopes profile image
flavio ⚡️🔥

Mixed opinions - but the last topic I decided to learn deeply I bought an ebook and an online course, and I use both. I get tired of watching videos after a while and the book is a great reference to go and find things I forgot.

aswathm78 profile image
Aswath KNM

I took many online video based courses. Some of them are very specific and some udemy courses are just rip off of famous resources out there.

My suggestion is start with book.

Once you feel comfortable using R, then you can move on to advanced courses and projects

kostassar profile image
Kostas Sar

Video based courses are much easier to follow, I usually go for them too! Plus they fit in any schedule! No matter how much time you can invest.

Thanks for the recommendation, I'll check it out!

slick3gz_ profile image

I dropped out of CS in 1997. I would pickup books every now and then to try and learn a different programming language or framework. I remember learning HTML 4.01 from a "Dummies" book. I recently decided to jump back into software development. I've read a few Amazon Kindle books, but the bulk of my learning has come from online courses. I think the online courses help me understand topics better because I can follow along typing code as it's being explained, and getting a chance to see the code in action on the instructor's machine as well as mine. I also think instructors that don't edit out their mistakes are very helpful. Understanding error codes is a big help.

chiangs profile image
Stephen Chiang

In general, my experience is that basic level courses are not really worth it on online format compared to the value of the book. However a complete practical guide that includes advanced topics are really worth it.

kip13 profile image
kip • Edited

I like books, because you can navigate throught it easy and read again many times and is more in-depth.

The blogs are very useful when you had a certain expierence with new language or tool(after read the book?), you can get good topics/guides that other people with more expierence that wrote for their self and everybody.

I think the talks are more good when you have some knowledge in this new lang/tool.

I dont like so much videotutorials/videocourse because my english is only good for read, is very difficult sometimes follow the video, maybe with subtitles....

But is better get a mixin of them, books and videos, this is because I have an account on Safari Books Online, in there you have books(digital), videos and online trainings, is very useful !

Other good site is Packt, good resources !

Finally exist Leanpub is an amazing site of books and courses where anybody can create a course or write/publish a book, is for this that you can get some unique books from people (also they write good blogs ?) that not have an editorial or something like that (fix me if I'm wrong on this).

Of course exists other free stuffs, but if you have some money I think is good give the correct price to this amazing people that have the time to share their knowledge.

kostassar profile image
Kostas Sar

Thank you very much! I'll check the links!

As commented in other answers, these kind of videos can help you improve your English. If you can enable subtitles, adjust the speed to your comfort and listen to people who speak clearly you can benefit. On top of that you also learn the point of the video provided it is in a programming context.

juankortiz profile image

For me, the main concern about online courses (and video tutorials) is that the quality depends on the instructor, so is not a solution for every scenario. On the other side, you can't use a book from 2010 for learning modern web development or other evolving technologies.

So I guess it depends on what is your main concern. No matter what you choose, make sure to take 10 minutes to do research about the author/publisher/contents of the book/course.