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Upgrade Your Skills and Knowledge: A Grad Student’s Guide to MOOCs

MOOC platforms are on the rise in the education space, allowing college students of all levels to explore classes outside their major, gain new skills, boost their resumes, and even take actual credit-worthy college courses. With so much potential, there are endless ways that graduate students can take advantage of these courses and enhance their degree. Use this guide as a jumping-off point to begin exploring this mode of learning.

Author: Mikala Lugen

Editor: Staff Editor

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Four colleagues discussing around a table in a bright office, sharing a cheerful moment with books and a laptop visible. two women and two men, engaged in a friendly conversation.

Think taking college classes is the only way to level up your skills in a specific area of expertise? Think again. Enter MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — a catalog of thousands of free and low-cost online courses from world-leading universities and educational platforms. MOOCs are a great way to advance your career, as they’re increasingly recognized by employers as a valid way to gain skills. In fact, over 200 million people around the world have enhanced their education through MOOCs.

Maybe you’re working on obtaining your master’s degree and want to supplement your learning with other marketable skills that’ll set you apart from your peers. MOOCs allow you to learn new skills valuable to prospective employers, and best yet, you can do so at your own pace. This guide will give you an insider perspective on MOOCs and how they can complement your master’s degree and boost your resume. Ready to learn more about how MOOCs can help you? Let’s dive in!

What the Heck is a MOOC?

Since the launch of MOOCs in 2008, online learning has never been the same. While enrolling in paid coursework through an accredited university will guarantee you a degree and skills in a specific field, MOOCs allow people the freedom to explore thousands of free open online courses without an admission requirement. Because of this, MOOCs are very appealing to learners who want to gain a new skill quickly, easily, and without breaking the bank. Here are some of the main reasons MOOCs are so awesomely accessible.

No or Low-Cost

As the name implies, MOOCs offer open access — which means they’re widely available to learners for free or a small fee. Even if you opt for a low-cost course, it’s a fraction of what tuition would cost for a single class at an accredited university. This opens many doors to exploring new skills and interests without adding to the burden of tuition costs.

Available Entirely Online

If you’re a grad student, you likely enjoy the benefits of online learning. In fact, according to The University of Texas at El Paso, 22% of graduate students in the United States exclusively study online. With MOOCs, graduate students can take advantage of this attractive online learning mode — but through courses that span thousands of different skills and interest sectors and can be completed at your own pace. This means that you can take a MOOC anywhere in the world, on your own terms!

Flexible Learning Structure/Flexible Pacing

What makes MOOCs so attractive for millions of people around the world can be summarized in one word: flexibility. Whereas a traditional online program or school will likely offer a class in a specific learning mode, MOOCs allow you the freedom to choose your optimal style and pace. Most are asynchronous, meaning you can complete work when it’s convenient for you. However, it’s important to note that some are synchronous because they sync with traditional semesters at higher-level institutions such as MIT or Harvard for college credit, so be sure to do your research to ensure the learning structure and pacing are right for you.

No Application Needed

One of the best things about MOOCs is that they are open to anyone. While universities have to adhere to a strict admission process for degrees and programs, MOOCs are available worldwide to anyone with an internet connection. Additionally, there are no prerequisites, test scores or minimum GPAs needed to start a MOOC — just the desire to learn or expand your knowledge.

Start Right Away

While you need to apply and enroll in specific semesters at a university, many MOOCs are asynchronous and allow learners to sign up and start any time. Some MOOCs may have assessments with deadlines, but they’ll often allow learners the flexibility to move through the course at their own pace. It’s important to note that every program is different, and there are a variety of options to suit individual preferences.

Taught by Experts or Professors from Colleges & Universities

Some of the earliest MOOCs were offered by universities like Stanford, MIT, and Harvard, where professors opened up access to anyone who wanted to join the class. And still today, many courses are taught by the same professors who teach on-ground and online college classes, and their curriculum closely mirrors the course materials provided to enrolled students at a university.

You May Be Able to Earn College Credit

While most MOOCs are free and don’t offer college credit, some MOOCs are specifically designed to allow you to earn academic credit after completing the course. Oftentimes, this requires a fee to enroll in the MOOC, and sometimes a fee to also enroll in a degree program at the university through which it’s offered. Some MOOC platforms — like edX — have partnered with universities to offer credit pathways into degree programs, allowing high school, undergraduate, and graduate students to translate these courses into college credit toward their degree.

Skills & Knowledge Gained but No Degree Is Earned

As a graduate student, you’re focused on earning a master’s degree in your desired field. MOOCs allow you to supplement your education, meaning you can explore other marketable skills and interests without the pressure or burden of meeting strict degree requirements. You’ll walk away from MOOCs with new knowledge — and perhaps piqued interest in new areas — but you won’t be burdened with minimum credits or a thesis defense on the horizon.

Endless Variety of Subjects

The topics taught through MOOCs are only limited by the instructors’ imaginations. When you enroll in a traditional academic program, there are only so many subjects that can be expertly taught and a finite number of ways to organize the information into a degree path for enrolled students. Because MOOCs are taught by a global community of experts across every topic and field using personalized coursework and lectures, students can explore an endless variety of subjects.

MOOC Platforms to Consider for Building Your Skills

The benefits of MOOCs are clear, but it’s important to note that not all MOOCs are created equally. So now it’s time to explore platforms. Throughout the years, several providers have partnered with universities and pioneered the path toward enhanced educational opportunity through college credit. These include Udacity — which was launched by Stanford professors — where students can take a variety of technical courses like data science, programming, and artificial intelligence. There’s also edX, with its educational partners that include Harvard and MIT and its 4,000 courses ranging from the financial risks of climate change, strategies for online teaching and learning, storytelling in the workplace, and more. Others – like Skillshare – don’t offer college-level courses but share valuable skill-building classes taught by experts. Let’s dive into MOOC platforms and learn how they can expand your skills.

Canvas

As an “open space for educators to share, experiment, analyze, and create,” Canvas Network hopes to promote openness, innovation, and experimentation in education through its catalog of free courses. Anyone with an email address can enroll in a course on Canvas Network, and students are able to complete learning activities at their own convenience and time. All courses on Canvas are free and offered from universities, schools, and organizations around the world, including Integrating STEM: From Beginning To End, Advanced TESOL Certification (Language Teachers Training), and more.

Carnegie Mellon University Open Learning Initiative

The Carnegie Mellon University Open Learning Initiative (OLI) offers globally trusted courses as textbook replacements as well as supplemental learning material for its users. Any user can browse and take any of its free online courses anywhere in the world. OLI courses are categorized in three ways:

1. Academic, or when a university instructor is leading a roster of students;

2. Independent Paid, for independent learners around the globe who want to learn from OLI materials on their own time;

3. Open & Free, providing top-quality educational materials available to anyone in the world, such as Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analysis, and General Chemistry 2.

Coursera

As the largest MOOC provider, Coursera boasts a whopping global community made up of 124 million learners. The platform offers over 5,800 courses from over 275 world-class universities and companies, allowing users a wide range of learning coursework. Along with its catalog of free courses delivering in-demand skills like English for Career Development, Financial Markets, and Introduction to Psychology, Coursera also offers many low-cost paid programs, such as Google Cybersecurity. Due to its partnership with universities, Coursera also gives users the option to earn accredited bachelor’s or master’s degrees completely online, including University Of Illinois’ Master of Business Administration and University of North Texas’ Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences.

Cognitive Class

You’ll get top-notch knowledge in leading-edge technology through Cognitive Class’ catalog of free courses. Users can select a learning path and then select courses that help them achieve their desired outcomes. The platform also uses a badge reward system, allowing users to showcase their completed courses on their profile. From Enhancing Applications With Embeddable AI, Reactive Architecture Foundations, to Data Science With Python, Cognitive Class gives users free tools to help build their technical career skills.

edX

Created by Harvard and MIT, edX offers more than 4,000 courses recognized for their career-relevant learning outcomes. The platform has partnered with more than 250 leading higher education institutions worldwide, giving users access to college-level coursework for free or at a fraction of the cost. edX has various pathways for each user’s personalized education goals, including intensive, hands-on boot camps, expert-led executive education, professional certificates, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, MicroMasters programs, and one-off courses, including The Science of Happiness, Remote Work Revolution For Everyone, Analyzing Data With Excel, and more.

Kadenze

Kadenze allows people from around the world to find creative courses that spark inspiration. With art and creative technology courses led by some of the world’s leading universities, brands, and institutions, the platform gives users access to a community of self-paced learning where you can collaborate and showcase your work. Additionally, for a $20 monthly fee, members gain access to exclusive benefits, including the ability to take certain courses for college credit. From Visual Storytelling For Film and Video Games, Inside the Music & Video Tech Industry, to its bite-sized Teaching Adult Piano micro-course, there’s something for everyone.

Khan Academy

Khan Academy is an established non-profit MOOC provider with the mission to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. Through its online learning format, students practice at their own pace through a catalog of trusted, standard-aligned lessons ranging from K-12 to college-level grammar, science, history, AP & SAT prep, and more. And Khan Academy has global audiences, as its resources are being translated into more than 36 languages in addition to the Spanish, French, and Brazilian Portuguese versions of its site.

MIT OpenCourseWare

Ever dreamed of learning at MIT? Thanks to MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW), now you can make that dream a reality. Since 2001, MIT OCW has provided free and open collections of material, including lecture notes, exams, and videos, from thousands of MIT courses — though the program doesn’t offer credit or certification to users. Additionally, MIT OCW works alongside its partner MIT Open Learning Library, featuring free courses with interactive content, including Introduction to Experimental Chemistry, How To Build An Animal: Cell Fate and Identity in Development and Disease, Nonlinear Dynamics: Chaos, and more.

Skillshare

Skillshare is an online learning community offering more than 34,000 hands-on, creative classes across a variety of interest topics for curious minds. Unlike many MOOC platforms, Skillshare is a membership-based community, meaning you’ll have to pay for a yearly membership to get access to its catalog of courses across illustration, design, photography, video, writing, and more. New members can get a free, seven-day trial to test out courses before signing up and paying for a membership.

Udacity

Founded by two Stanford professors, Udacity helps motivated learners achieve and excel in job-ready digital skills. It features nearly 17 million registered users across 240 countries, with 73% of course graduates reporting a favorable career change in the first year of course completion. The platform’s exclusive content is co-created and continually refined with industry leaders, including tech-oriented heavy hitters like Microsoft, Amazon, and GitHub. Udacity offers a wide variety of programs — most paid, but some free — ranging from Introduction To Programming, Business Analytics, Artificial Intelligence For Trading, and more.

Udemy

Like Skillshare, Udemy is a paid education community boasting 62 million users that gives learners access to over 210,000 top-rated courses in tech, business, personal development, photography, drawing, and more. Interested students can pay as little as $9.99 per course or subscribe to a membership plan that unlocks over 8,000 courses for around $17 per month. Bestselling and popular topics include courses offering deep dives into Python, Excel, ChatGPT, Web Development, and more.

How Can Online Students Benefit from MOOCs?

Since their inception over a decade ago, MOOCs have offered valuable educational opportunities to millions of people throughout the world — both to students of all levels and to employees looking to augment their skillsets. In fact, according to a panel participating in the Council of Graduate Schools 2013 Global Summit, MOOCs pose “…a promising medium for professional development or transferable skills courses for students during and following graduate study.” If you’re a graduate student enrolled in an accredited program, there are many benefits of utilizing MOOCs to help enhance your studies.

Test Out Grad-level Classes

Thinking about enrolling in a program but unsure if you’ll enjoy the content? MOOCs are a great way to test out grad-level classes for free (or for far less than typical tuition) before you enroll in an expensive grad school program. This allows you to freely explore your interests and see what ignites a passion with far less risk and pressure. So think outside of the box and dip your toes into new fields of interest without a scary commitment!

Learn a New Skill for Free

You’re already studying and earning credits towards your graduate degree; why not try your hand at learning something totally different? Through MOOCs, you can brainstorm topics that’ll make you more employable — and that often are leading-edge skills that your college may not even be considering yet. Interested in artificial intelligence, for example? Many MOOCs are tackling the topic, even before colleges are able to add courses to existing programs. No matter what you’re studying in graduate school, you can level up your resume for free with marketable skills offered by top MOOC platforms.

Use it to Learn Work-related "Soft Skills"

The U.S. Department of Labor says soft skills offer a “competitive edge,” adding that employers rate them as “even more important to work readiness” than the technical skills necessary to perform a job. Examples of soft skills include networking, teamwork, interpersonal communication, virtual presentation skills, people management, and other facets of emotional intelligence and workplace dynamics. While these aren’t always part of a curriculum in your graduate program, MOOCs can fill in those gaps. edX offers free soft skills courses that can complement the hard skills learned in your graduate studies, while it also offers a six-course certificate program in partnership with Rochester Institute of Technology that will help boost your resume.

Learn in a Diverse Classroom

When taking graduate courses, you’ll often be studying alongside a small subset of students and professors. The cost and proximity limits imposed by a graduate program often mean you’ll have fewer chances to collaborate with students from diverse backgrounds. Because MOOCs are widely accessible throughout the world — like this Case Western Reserve University MOOC that had students from 215 countries, 60% from outside the U.S. — you’ll open the doors to learning in an extremely diverse classroom full of new ideas and fresh perspectives.

Get a Head Start on Your Degree

Graduate degree programs require you to gain a lot of knowledge in a compressed amount of time. By enrolling in MOOCs either before or during your master’s study, you can learn many of the skills ahead of time that you’ll be tackling down the road. If you know, for example, that you’ll need to tackle a statistics class for your thesis, you can enroll in an online MOOC beforehand to learn the basics before you’re taking the course for credit. Further, some MOOCs can offer you college credit for these courses, meaning you’ll end up taking less time to earn your degree.

Test Out a New Mode of Learning

Maybe your undergraduate years were all spent on campus in a traditional university setting, but you’re looking at flexible online courses for your graduate degree. MOOCs are a great way for students to test out the online learning format before you commit to enrolling in an expensive program. See if you have the self-discipline, organizational skills, and time management aptitudes necessary for virtual learning — before investing in a serious commitment of time and money.

Resources to Help You Make the Most of MOOCs

Interested in doing your own research into the robust world of MOOCs? Let’s dive into helpful resources where you can see for yourself just how impactful they can be on your education and your career. Below, you’ll find blogs, books, podcasts, websites, and organizations that offer additional information and insight.

  • “11 Benefits of MOOCs”: This article on the student network Plexuss outlines the many advantages of MOOCs. There, you’ll also find links to other helpful resources and research in support of this variety of education.
  • A Beginner’s Guide to MOOCs: Class Central, an aggregator of educational content, offers this comprehensive guide to frequently asked questions about MOOCs and how they serve to benefit students.
  • “Advancing Your Career With MOOCs”: The Career Center, established by the East Baton Rouge Parish Library, offers tips to help you gain recognition from your employer when you take courses from MOOCs.
  • BUE Library Guides: The British University in Egypt (BUE) compiled this list of free videos, articles, websites, and other educational offerings provided by MOOCs and other open educational resources.
  • Class Central: Aggregates a variety of free courses from many providers. Allows users to find courses, review completed courses, follow universities, subjects and courses to receive personalized updates, and plan and track learning outcomes.
  • CourseBuffet: Deemed “the most organized online course catalog,” students can find and compare hundreds of free MOOCs from over 250 universities on this site.
  • De-MOOC-ifying Online Learning: This panel discussion, presented on the University of Oxford podcast, examines online learning through comparing the MOOC format with traditional online strategies.
  • edX Blog: Interested in reading first-hand accounts of the benefits of MOOCs from their users? Check out this collection of learner stories from edX’s successful students.
  • Free Online Courses (MOOCs) Facebook Group: This public group is a community of current and prospective learners. There, they offer discussions and insight on the current free online courses organized by renowned universities and institutions worldwide.
  • MOOC.org: As an extension of edX, MOOC.org offers thousands of online learning options.
  • MOOC List: Use this directory of MOOCs to search for a free online course. You can search by provider/platform, category, university, instructor, country, language, subject, and more.
  • MOOCs Addicts: Coursera, Udemy, Udacity et al Facebook Group: A community of MOOCs learners discussing online education experiences.
  • “MOOCs” (MIT Press Essential Knowledge series): In this book, educational researcher Jonathan Haber provides an engaging, straightforward explanation of the education innovation known as MOOCs.
  • MyMooc: This website allows users to make an account and freely browse over 10,000 peer-reviewed MOOCs available from 550 prestigious organizations.
  • Online Education (MOOCs) – New York Times: Browse this list of articles published by The New York Times about MOOCs and online learning.
  • PodMOOCs: If you’d prefer an audio MOOC experience to an online one, check out this podcast on all things MOOC, which includes auditory open-resource courses.
  • “The 78 Best Online Courses That Can Give Your Resume a Major Boost”: LinkedIn created a list of the five most in-demand hard skills in the job market — including software development, project management, data analysis, and more — and Business Insider created a list of online classes from LinkedIn Learning, Udemy, Coursera, edX, and Codecademy where you can learn them.
  • “Thinking About an Online Degree? Advice and Reviews From Our Online Learners”: A compilation of advice, reviews, and words of encouragement from edX’s 21 million+ online learners who have successfully completed programs and advanced skills in disciplines from data science to marketing.

An Expert Weighs in on the Value of MOOCs

Troy Portillo

Troy Portillo is the Director of Operations of Studypool , an online learning platform dedicated to helping millions of students all over the globe with their studies. Here he draws from experience working in the MOOCs space to answer our burning questions about MOOCs and how they can help Graduate Students increase their skills or earn their degree.

How can MOOCs enhance students' skills in their field of study?

Well-respected MOOCs tend to be an ideal way to pick up basic skills in a discipline. Things like learning a programming language or practicing data analysis are well-suited to the MOOC model. MOOCs are also excellent networking opportunities, since you’ll have a chance to interact with beginners and experts in your field of study from all over the world.

What are some of the benefits of taking MOOCs while pursuing a graduate degree?

Though a college degree is an essential credential for gaining access to prestigious careers while also providing you with important skills, it’s also an expensive investment. If you have the choice between taking a 3-credit course for hundreds or thousands of dollars and taking a MOOC for free in order to shore up some of your skills, the MOOC can be a favorable option.

Can MOOCs help students specialize in a particular area of their field?

MOOCs are a great way to add an extra niche or specialty to a general field of study. You’ll generally want to do more than simply a single MOOC if you want to make that specialty into a career path, but a MOOC is a good start.

How can MOOCs supplement students' coursework in graduate school?

For grad school programs that haven’t necessarily updated their curriculum to incorporate new best practices in an industry, a MOOC can be a great alternative.

How can students find MOOCs that are relevant to their graduate program?

The best MOOCs tend to be large and well-established, and most of them are available on platforms like Coursera. This is a good place to start your search, but you should also reach out to classmates and professors in your degree program for tips.

How can MOOCs help students stand out in the job market after graduation?

Recent graduates always struggle when it comes to having relevant experience to put on their resumes. A MOOC isn’t quite as valuable as an internship or part-time job in this respect, but it’s something that will help you to stand out against a competitor who only has a degree.

Can MOOCs provide access to resources and expertise that may not be available at students' institution?

Yes, definitely. Especially for students who are attending smaller schools, MOOCs can be an excellent supplement to the available curriculum.