With the proliferation of distance learning resources and the popularity of massive open online courses (MOOCs), just about anyone with a computer can take advantage of training to learn a new skill, topic, discipline, or even a certificate or degree. However, not all online courses are made alike. What many folks are finding out is that while there are plenty of opportunities to learn, some courses are bit a shabby in substance. Some courses are costly, and some teach a lot but aren’t recognized by anyone in terms of formal education accomplishment or career advancement. Here’s our filter of the jungle out there and what to pay attention to.
Colleges and Universities – Traditionally, higher institutions of learning have long been recognized has formal methods of training and earning degrees in subjects, as well as being recognized academically and professionally. And just about every institution today is offering online courses. At the bottom rung are the most affordable, junior colleges. Moving up are the colleges and universities with bachelor degree programs. And then there are the graduate programs for post-grad certificates, masters degrees, and even some online PhDs. However, getting beyond the junior college level, the real barrier for many is cost – college still costs and arm and a leg, and distance learning doesn’t make much of a difference at least with domestic institutions in the U.S.
Other Degree Programs – Here is where things get a bit fuzzy. Programs like EDx’s Micromasters, Udacity, Google/Coursera, IBM, and similar all offer “degree” or professional certification that is recognized within specific industries. Some programs are valued more than others. Again, these online learning resources are quite popular, seem very structured and valid, but they cost sizable fees for a student as well. A typical professional course path could easily run $1,000 or more.
MOOC Hybrids – As a newer approach, hybrids are a marketing play between the Internet MOOC course design and a regular university degree path. They are expensive but offer a seemingly “easier” path to a recognized degree online through a MOOC-style course path. When one looks closely, most of these programs are well over $15,000 to complete.
Outright MOOC Learning – The MOOC portfolio is where anyone can choose any course, complete the requirements and earn a digital badge or certificate (Coursera, EDx, FutureLearn, Udemy). There are no official standards that make one MOOC harder than the other, and most were originally designed just for the love of learning from a university program style course.
Since then, many folks have taken such courses and tried to leverage their accomplishment as a new skill proof at work. In some cases, these courses are beneficial, and people can prove via an accepted test or independent certification they have a new skill.
The tech industry is heavy in this area with formal certification testing separate from such online classes, and the criteria are rigorous. However, the MOOCs themselves are only as easy or as hard as the trainers make them. And that makes MOOC courses very weak in terms of value as a skill-training accomplishment.
Open-University Free MOOCs – Being the original purpose of the online open university free MOOCs are just that, open learning material. MIT is the best-known provider for supporting this model.
So, What Should One Do, Especially if On a Budget?
For the cost-conscious, the best bang for the buck is online community college classes reinforced with an industry certification exam passage. Again, the skill certification is essentially a required path for the tech industry, for example. On the other hand, if you just want to learn a topic for personal improvement, knowledge gain, and learning, the MOOCs are great because most of them can be taken for free if you don’t want a certificate or badge at the end. Some of these classes are really informative and at the same level as in-person college courses.
The professional courses that are not through a traditional institution are questionable; some are very well designed, but their value for career pursuits has not been proven, and their newness may still be ignored by hiring managers. Before paying thousands of dollars for these courses, find out for sure if they are recognized at all in the industry you want to work in.