How to Make the Most of Online Courses to Boost Your Career
Whether you need new skills for a promotion or want a new job entirely, these options make it easy and—in many cases—free to learn something new.
More than 200 million people lost their jobs over the course of the pandemic, and with coronavirus variants on the rise and new Covid cases swelling, it’s possible that businesses that started hiring may cut back or stop hiring in order to follow new guidelines or save money.
While this is certainly a global crisis, it’s also an opportunity for you to close the gap between where you are now and where you want to be, professionally.
“Many job seekers focus on getting degrees that take significant time and money,” says Madeline Mann, a career strategist and founder of Self Made Millennial. “What is better in today’s world is to take online classes for the sake of building highly marketable skills.”
The first step is to create a career roadmap, where you decide what kind of job, promotion, or career you want to pursue. Think about short-term as well as long-term goals. There are no right or wrong answers, and you can always change your mind. Clarity is power, however, so having a desired outcome will help you move in the right direction. Next, research the job market to find out what’s available that matches your interests. After that, explore the qualifications of those positions to identify any gaps in your knowledge and skills. If you need help, this course from FutureLearn can help you build your roadmap, and this one from Coursera can help you learn those skills.
“Skills are the new currency,” says Hari Srinivasan, vice president of product management at LinkedIn talent solutions, which also offers online career training. “So we are addressing the pressing need to re-skill by helping job seekers and students better understand the skills they have and to gain new skills, and by helping companies take new approaches to hiring.”
Every job requires both hard skills—technical things you’ll use on the job—and soft skills like communication and organization. And any new job, promotion, or opportunity you take will require a combination of both.
Hard skills are acquired through classes or professional training. For example, consider courses in search engine optimization, bookkeeping, cybersecurity, quality management, computer programming, video editing, social media management, marketing, computer science and web programming, graphic design, and accounting. Usually these skills are specific for your field of work and are defined by diplomas, certificates, or degrees and can be measured.
In contrast, soft skills are individual traits and personality qualities that are displayed through your reactions, work habits, and relationships. Courses in problem solving, caring for others, creative thinking, decisionmaking, public speaking, effective communication, conflict resolution, critical thinking, stress management, persuasion, leadership skills, emotional intelligence, teamwork, negotiation, and professional networking can help you build them. These skills can’t be easily measured, but they can be taught and learned. Even better, so many of them are available to learn for free, from experts willing to share their experiences.
“Online learning platforms can now provide limitless opportunities that enable professionals to step up in the workforce and progress their careers with greater confidence,” says Justin Cooke, chief content and partnerships officer at online training firm FutureLearn. “It’s all about empowering professionals to recognize the skills they already have and make the move into areas where they can continue to use and develop those skills.”
While FutureLearn, LinkedIn, edX, and Coursera offer classes to anyone who wants to take them, companies like Google and IBM have been developing diverse in-house programs that provide in-demand skills at scale, both for their own employees and anyone interested in becoming one. “The IBM SkillsBuild program is 100 percent free and open to all, offering a large number of classes on both technical and non-technical subjects, it allows people to connect with local job placement agencies, job fairs, networking, and portfolio-building projects,” says Justina Nixon-Saintil, IBM vice president and global head of the company’s corporate social responsibility department.
With online access you can take classes with acclaimed teachers from the top universities and education institutions from all around the world without having to leave your home. Many of those courses are free, and while many have course fees, they’re usually per-class as opposed to an academic term or a timed subscription. Plus, many online training platforms offer the option to take a couple of classes to see if you find them useful, and then you can choose to upgrade to a paid tier with added coursework and a certificate at the end of the course (although how useful that certificate is will depend on your employer).
The beauty of this process is that there is an online class for almost everything. There are courses on how to sleep better, how to play chess, how to train your best friend (your dog,) how to program in Python, and even how to start your own business.
“The pandemic has helped popularize and increase the acceptance of online education globally,” says Aric Rindfleisch, a professor of marketing at the University of Illinois and an instructor with Coursera. For example, on of Rindfleisch’s courses, Marketing in a Digital World, has enrolled more than 500,000 people from 170 countries, he says, with less than 15 percent of them from the US. “I receive messages every day from learners across the world who reveal that this course has helped them enhance their career.”
Once you’ve found a course you’d like to take or a service you’d like to try, consider these tips to make the most of the platform that you sign up for, especially before you hand over your credit card information for a certificate or a certification.
- Search broadly on various platforms for classes related to the skills you want to acquire. Not every platform is the same, and some have courses taught by experts, while others have similar courses taught by volunteers.
- Create a spreadsheet with your findings so that you keep everything in one place.
- Spend time reading the reviews. Student reviews can help you figure out whether you’ll learn what you really need to know or if there’s some element of the course that falls short.
- Contact the faculty and staff with any questions you may have before you enroll. Usually the class will make a syllabus available to read before you sign up, but if you have additional questions, don’t hesitate to reach out.
- Consider enrolling first in courses that are free to see if you like the content and the platform. If you do, then upgrade to get a certificate, specialization, or a degree as it becomes available.
- Take notes! It will help you absorb the information, and don’t assume that because the class is online you don’t need to actually pay attention or study. There’s even a Coursera course on how to learn, if you need help.
- Network with your classmates. Be an active participant, and remember, much of the benefit of online learning is meeting an array of people with different experiences and careers. You never know who you might meet in your classes.
- Connect with classmates and instructors through LinkedIn. Also, if you meet them in class, connect with people that currently hold your desired position. Ask them any questions you may have about their role (if they’re willing to answer!) and inquire about job opportunities before or after taking your online classes.
Once you have the skills necessary to take your career to the next level, it’s time to build or upgrade your résumé and LinkedIn profile with your new skills. Now you are ready to start networking, build your personal brand, and apply for the jobs that fit your bucket list. Then, all that’s left is to prepare for your upcoming interviews or negotiate for that promotion you’ve been wanting.
“Employers are responding to this type of learning, understanding more and more that all that matters is that a candidate has the skills, not how they got them,” LinkedIn’s Srinivasan says, adding that more than 3 million US jobs currently open don’t require a four-year degree (an increase of nearly 40 percent since 2019). “By learning from industry-leading courses that are developed by experts all over the world, people are not only able to boost their own careers but also discover new career paths and find jobs that are in demand.”
“Remote work now also presents an exciting complement to online learning,” says Leah Belsky, chief enterprise officer at Coursera. “The combined force of online learning and remote work presents a tremendous opportunity to provide not only learning but more equitable job opportunities to a much broader group of people.”
Access to free online education can be empowering. After all, you have complete control over how and when you build your skill set and what your desired goals are.
“Life is about experiences,” says Prashan Karunaratne, who teaches the popular Excel Skills for Business course at Macquarie University in Australia. “Learning online is a unique experience. It is not only the content that will transform you—the very act of online learning will transform you with a mindset, skills, and empowerment to help you lead and impact in every sphere of your life.”