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Massive open online courses (MOOCs) can help you achieve the next step in your career

(Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg/for Express)
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Whether you want to learn about bioethics or the letters of the apostle Paul, there’s probably a MOOC for that. In fact, that class on Christian scriptures is one of the courses Andrej Rasevic is considering. He’s already taken several of these massive open online courses — better known by the acronym MOOCs — in subjects including physics, computer science and the humanities.

Some he took out of curiosity. Others related to his studies at the University of Maryland, where he’s finishing his undergraduate degree part time in physics, math and computer science and plans to continue on into graduate school. Although the MOOCs didn’t count toward his degree, they’ve been a resource for his career in the computer software industry, he says.

“They’re a really good resource to get you going [on career development],” says Rasevic, 40. “They may not get you directly to the end result, but they will definitely move you forward.”

Curious about MOOCs? Here are some key things to consider before enrolling.

Know what you’re signing up for

Massive open online courses are free and accessible to anyone over the Internet. As a result, participants can number in the thousands for some MOOCs and come from all over the world.

MOOCs are typically offered by a college or university in conjunction with an online learning platform like Coursera or edX. They can run the gamut from short classes aimed at lifelong learners to more intensive offerings resembling traditional university courses. And while they don’t offer credit toward a degree, they can be a useful tool for career advancement.

“The starting point is to find a course you want to take that’s at the right level for you,” says Ben Bederson, associate provost of learning initiatives and executive director of the Teaching and Learning Transformation Center at the University of Maryland, which offers MOOCs through Coursera. “And think about what you’re trying to get out of it. Students often don’t take MOOCs seriously enough.”

Don’t expect hand-holding

Connecting with thousands of students can be a challenging task for professors, so expect limited interaction with faculty. Many of the courses are self-paced, so you’ll need to have the discipline to complete the work without weekly meetings or firm deadlines.

“This type of learning does requires a certain self-motivation from students,” says Edward Maloney, executive director of the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University, which offers MOOCs through edX. “You’re not paying to be there and it’s not for credit, so it requires a certain kind of commitment.”

Students taking MOOCs on science and technology topics may need to take matters into their own hands if they can’t figure out how to solve an equation or apply a specific formula. “When you get into technical things, if you get stuck you may need to do research or post a question on a forum,” says Rasevic, who also serves as a teaching assistant for U-Md.’s MOOC on Android app development. “You won’t get an instantaneous response like you do in a classroom.”

Be ready to put in the time

Doing some online research about a MOOC you’re interested in can turn up info on its syllabus and professors as well as reviews from past students. Many MOOCs also list the amount of effort per week required for the course to help students assess if it fits in their schedules.

“If it says you need six to eight hours a week, don’t think you can do it in two hours a week,” says Bederson. “If you want to finish the course and learn something to apply to your job and put on your CV, you need to allocate a suitable amount of time.”

Decide how it can help you at work

Enrolling in a MOOC can be a no- or low-cost way to show an employer that you’re interested in continuing education. “Nowadays it seems like every company wants you to have career development,” says Elaine Shuck, president of the U.S. Distance Learning Association. MOOCs can help you obtain new skills, “which could open doors in areas you maybe have not pursued before,” she says.

Look for a MOOC that helps you take your current position further. Some offer tangible skills, such as programming, that might allow you to take on new responsibilities. Others can deepen your knowledge: For example, a course on statistics or globalization could give you new insights on your job. If you’re interested in a career change, a MOOC can be a good first step toward exploration.

Some students pay a fee (often $50 to $100) to get a certificate upon completion of the course. Certificates typically come from the online learning platform a college or university works with to offer a MOOC (like Coursera or edX), not from the university itself.

These official indications of course completion are showing up more and more on people’s LinkedIn profiles. “They wouldn’t do that unless they believed that employers value that,” says Bederson.

And like traditional grad programs, MOOCs offer chances for networking — sometimes with people from all over the world.

“MOOCs are great for a person who works globally,” says Shuck. “They’re great for understanding the diversity of people all over the world and what they have to say.”

A sneak peek at graduate school?

If you’re considering getting a graduate degree, a MOOC (massive open online course) can be one way to check out a university or program. Completing a MOOC can give you an indication of whether you want to enroll in a traditional master’s program. “They can be a great way to find out in a short period of time if that subject interests you or not,” says Elaine Shuck, president of the U.S. Distance Learning Association.

These free online courses help give you an indication of a professor’s teaching style and expertise. “You could get a good sense of what a particular faculty member is like and whether or not it’s someone you want to work with,” says Edward Maloney, executive director of the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University.

But MOOCs are only one element of the research a prospective graduate student should do. “You’re witnessing faculty teaching in a way that’s different than learning on campus,” says Ben Bederson, associate provost of learning initiatives and executive director of the Teaching and Learning Transformation Center at University of Maryland. So in addition to MOOCs, be sure to do a campus visit, and talk with students and alumni about how the degree could help your career.

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