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February 20, 2014
By Lisa Dare


As an IT professional, you probably wonder how long your current skills will remain relevant. Taking courses and earning new certifications can help, but how will you pay for them? Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, may be your answer. These online courses offer many benefits: they’re free or very cheap, have open admission and don’t require you to travel to class.

MOOCs are not revolutionary in their delivery method, but when prestigious universities like MIT, Stanford and Harvard got into the game and let students take the same classes their students pay big bucks for, the idea of free online courses took off.

Recent advances have enriched the online experience. Graded quizzes, peer grading and other interactive features make MOOCs more engaging, while new verification processes are helping them add professional credibility. And computer science subjects are uniquely positioned to take advantage of special computer-based projects like coding challenges that receive automated feedback.

But there are a few factors to consider first.

Does the course offer certification?

Accreditation is critical for people using the courses to advance their careers—the main driver of adult education. Many courses offer levels of certification from letters of completion all the way to grades and college credit. One of the main providers, Coursera, offers a verified track for $39—a bargain considering how much you’d have to pay for a course and the value it could add to your resume.

Are you self-motivated?

Completion rates for MOOCs tend to be much lower than for traditional classroom learning—around 10 percent. This might reflect the lower sense engagement offered by online courses or people failing to consider the time demands. The people who complete MOOCs tend to be highly motivated, post-graduate students.

Are there hidden costs?

Pay close attention to the course reading requirements. While some courses offer free online textbooks or the relevant extracts, some require you to purchase expensive materials.

What IT MOOCs are available?

Chances are there’s a course to match your interest. A tiny sampling of current or near-future courses at Coursera and edX (founded by MIT and Harvard) gives a sense of the depth and breadth of the courses offered: Software as a ServiceInformation Security and Risk Management in ContextPattern-Oriented Software Architectures: Programming Mobile Services for Android Handheld SystemsGeneral Game Playing; and An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python.

Many universities offer courses through their own systems, and finding the right one can be challenging. Mooc-list.com offers a pretty comprehensive searchable database of courses.

Tips for making the most of MOOCs:

Select carefully. Would you pay for the course? While the course may not cost money, it does take something just as important: your time and effort. Don’t waste them those taking courses you won’t finish.

Find a friend to take the course with you. Many people miss the human connection of the classroom, but taking the course with a friend can help alleviate that. Make sure to schedule time every week to discuss the ideas you learn in class.    

Make a friend. If you can’t persuade your friends to take the course, use the online forums to find some. MOOC classes offer a virtual connection for those willing to take advantage. Pose questions to other students or engage with ones in the forum. Avoid the trolling or dead air that can plague large forums by establishing meaningful connections with one or two other students. Some even offer Meetups in various cities. Career bonus: this can also be a great way to network.

Add MOOC badges directly to your LinkedIn profile. The biggest providers, including Coursera, EdX and Udacity, work directly with LinkedIn, and their badges offer proof to employers of course completion. You can also include them in your resume under a Professional Development header. Include details about the learning institution hosting the course, especially if it’s a recognizable university. Even if the MOOCs you take don't directly relate to the position you seek or offer certification, they can help you demonstrate both intellectual curiosity and self-discipline—traits every employer likes to see. 



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