Find out what online learning can do for you

Online classes provided useful distractions for lifelong learners stuck at home during the peak of the pandemic, but the learning hasn’t stopped now that people are getting back out.

You can take courses on your smartphones, computers, tablets and streaming TVs on a world of topics. Learn a foreign language, play the piano, pursue hobbies, explore activities you’ve always been curious about, or acquire skills that may help you advance in your career later in life.

Even better, many courses are free, although you’ll likely have to pay to earn certificates, or “micro-credentials,” tied to in-demand skills.

“If you want [a class] Evaluated with feedback, there will be some sort of fee for the service,” says Curt Bonk, a professor of learning, design, and technology at Indiana University who hosts the Silver Lining for Learning podcast.

On-demand learning has transformed the industry

The pandemic has had a significant impact on online learning, and not just for your college-age children and grandchildren. Online education company Coursera reports that it had 46 million learners on its platform at the end of 2019. Then 30 million people joined its ranks in 2020 alone. Their total has now exceeded 118 million.

Some courses across the e-learning spectrum are offered in real-time, but most are available on demand, many in partnership with reputable colleges and universities, as well as experienced trainers in large companies.

Massive open online courses, commonly referred to as MOOCs, have given millions of people worldwide access to curriculum once reserved for students paying expensive tuition. Courses number in the thousands and range from artificial intelligence to digital photography.

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Each course typically has a video of the instructor speaking, related reading, quizzes, and an online discussion forum. The number and duration of the courses varies.

You can search for accounting or data science courses on MOOC.org, an extension of an online course platform called edX.org. If you want to understand blockchain technology, you can take a free three-week IBM course with three hours per week of self-paced study through edX. If you want to study the use of machine learning in the Python programming language instead, Harvard offers a seven-week, 10-30 hour-per-week course on the subject through edX, also free and self-paced.

Tuition is ‘less and less free’

In the early days, massive open online courses were mostly free. Large groups of participants attended the courses together – hence the terms “open” and “massive” in the nickname. But the courses have evolved.

Although video lectures are usually free to watch, certain elements, such as access to quizzes and grading of assignments, may be behind a paywall. For an additional fee, some providers offer credentials, certificates, or even a full degree.

“They become less and less free. That is [a] clear trend and obviously one that is badly needed,” says Fiona Hollands, Founder and CEO of EdResearcher. Your independent research company looks at educational programs, policies and practices.

Her reason: “You can’t offer a good education for free.” Online courses vary in quality, she says.