Through our hundreds of conversations with employers and students over the past few months, one thing that’s become abundantly clear is that there is a disconnect between what employers are looking for and that with which high schools and colleges are equipping students. Traditional higher ed isn’t moving quickly to address this disconnect, and on-the-job training is becoming a thing of the past. We know how frustrating it can be for a recent grad to discover that their investment of time and money hasn’t secured them adequate job prospects. We’re here to help, with a series on ways to better yourself and gain directly marketable skills for less time and money. For part one, we’ve rounded up the best free online learning platforms.
Maybe you’re looking for something productive to do now that the initial luster of summer break has worn off.
Perhaps you want some more education but don’t want to pay the sticker price for traditional college.
Maybe you want to build a new skill to open yourself up to new job opportunities.
Or you’d like to shift roles to something else within the same company.
Maybe you just love learning.
No matter what the reasoning, the free online education space has grown large enough to have something valuable for everyone.
Learn a foreign language
Aside from the direct professional advantage that knowing a second or third language provides in working with international companies and customers, it also can help you look like a more interesting, well-rounded person, which can help you get in the door even for jobs that don’t require or need it. Aside from professional advantages, it is obviously valuable for traveling, connecting with people of different backgrounds, and it can actually stimulate brain growth, improve attention, and stave off Alzheimer’s.
But there’s no reason to break the bank to do it:
Duolingo is our favorite for free language learning. It offers a game-like lesson structure, which makes it somewhat addictive (which is a good thing for any learning platform). It offers 19 languages (including English). You can learn at your own pace, but the learning is anything but tedious, and it is set up to circle back to words you miss so you can’t really advance without learning. They’ll send you daily motivational reminders and track your progress.
Busuu is another available language-learning option, which has both a free and a premium service. The free option has flashcards, writing exercises, and corrections from native speakers. Premium includes a mobile quiz app, additional grammar exercises, and vocabulary trainers. For the paid version, you can get a 6 month membership for $48, or a 24 month membership for $96.
Livemocha was another fascinating platform for interested learners of a language to be paired with a native speaker, to teach each other their language. Unfortunately it was bought out by Rosetta Stone and shut down in April.
Broaden your knowledge or gain a skill with MOOCs
“MOOC”s – massive online open courses – have gained in popularity in recent years (the term was coined in 2008). Online college courses in the past required enrolling at a college, paying tuition, and taking only specific classes aimed at online students. MOOCs gained momentum as prestigious universities (The Ivies, Stanford, MIT, etc) that didn’t offer online classes began uploading materials and lectures from their actual, on-campus classes for all to partake. The industry has taken many different paths, and there are now more options than ever before for free online learning.
Originally, they seemed to be best fit for the retired lifelong-learner type—the type you’d find in the back row auditing a college lecture anyway. But with their ever-increasing options and the rising cost of traditional higher ed, they’re growing in popularity as supplements to, refreshers of, or even replacements of traditional college classes.
Here’s a quick rundown of the top providers:
Coursera – Incredible selection of courses, from a wide variety of universities, including some of the top universities in the world. Some classes are run on a “freemium” model –It’s free to access the basic course materials and lectures, but graded assignments, as well as grades, feedback, and a “shareable certificate” require that you purchase the course. You can also buy “specialization” tracks—series of courses in a related topic, often with a capstone project at the end, that result in a certificate.
Many classes are done in conjunction with an in-person class at a university. However, afterward, course materials will remain so you can take classes from previous years on your own time.
Coursera has mobile apps for Android, iOS, and Amazon Fire.
EdX is another large MOOC provider. It started as a collaboration between MIT and Harvard professors and has grown to include courses from many universities, as well as some by tech companies and other third parties. EdX is a nonprofit, unlike Udacity and Coursera, and runs on open-source software. It has tons of excellent course offerings, and now has its own mobile app too so you can learn on the go.
Futurelearn is similar to EdX or Coursera. It is UK-based, so it tends toward more classes from international, especially UK-based, institutions. Certificates for completion can be bought. Some highly practical (less academic) courses are available, such as 3 week, 3 hour/week courses on writing job applications or on interviewing.
Udacity is an online university “by Silicon Valley”, offering classes endorsed by often created by industry employers, designed to teach the specific skills they are looking for. It has almost exclusively tech-based classes. Many classes are “built by” tech companies like Google, Facebook, or AT&T. They offer free classes as well as “nanodegree” tracks of several classes (which cost money and end in a certification).
IBM Big Data University is an IBM initiative to spread knowledge and skills related to “Big Data.” It has classes created by experts on data science, analytic techniques, and various computer languages and platforms, with hands-on exercises and interactive videos. They offer classes on R, SQL, NoSQL, Hadoop, Spark, as well as various data science and data analytics material, and everything is free.
MIT OpenCourseWare “makes the materials used in the teaching of MIT’s subjects available on the Web.” – It has materials from a couple thousand MIT courses from the last 15 years, all available for free. They have varying degrees of content, but many include lecture videos as well as assignments, exams, and solutions. It’s a great resource with excellent content, especially in science and engineering courses.
Khan Academy is mainly focused on primary and secondary school content rather than college content. It has excellent course materials with lots of video content.
Udemy – Rather than offering classes run by institutions and professors, Udemy’s courses can be taught by anyone who is an expert of a topic. Its focus is therefore more on practical skills than academic subjects. Billed as a “learning marketplace”—anyone can apply to teach a class on something they are an expert of, and then earn money if they choose to charge for the class. Many courses are free.
Codecademy is a free interactive platform to learn to code. It offers many different languages/platforms and starting levels, and everything is done in your browser, at your own pace. Newly released Codecademy Pro is available for a monthly fee, which includes an individual learning plan, additional content, and access to advisors, but the free version itself is excellent.
ALISON stands for “advanced learning interactive systems online” – is a platform for online learning that “follows industry standards” and offers its own certifications. It is designed specifically to help close workforce skill gaps It is often marketed to companies and organizations to use for their employees’ continuing education.
Overwhelmed by the choices? Start with an aggregator:
Coursetalk.com – With all these different options and each one having so much content, it can be a little overwhelming. Coursetalk is an easy to use aggregator of MOOC (massive open online courses) options.
Start with broad field, then choose more specific subfield, then you can see an array of classes from a number of sources, along with their length, time commitment, and cost.
Open Education Database is another database of online courses available from many different sources. It’s easy to browse or search by subject or by school.
Academic Earth is another aggregator, with a very simple layout and direct click-throughs to hundreds of courses from a variety of sources and schools.
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