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Online courses can help you get ahead, if you’re smart about how you use them.

This article originally appeared on the blog of the MOOC platform edX

 

It’s official. Your MOOC coursework can improve your career. Last year, the Harvard Business Review reported on a survey of MOOC learners. Over 30% of those surveyed had experienced tangible career improvement as a result of their coursework, with 26% reporting that they had gotten a new job as a result of studying by MOOC. Others reported promotions, pay increases, and starting their own businesses.  A whopping 85% of respondents said that they had experienced some kind of career benefit from having taken one or more MOOCs.

I’m not surprised by these results, as I am among both those who have been promoted and those who have started a business as a result of a MOOC education. I’m also the facilitator of a community of independent business students and have worked with a number of professionals who have used MOOCs for career advancement. I’ve also spoken with recruiters, who are increasingly seeing MOOCs on candidates’ resumes. Based on these conversations and experiences, here are five strategies for using your MOOC education to get ahead.

Five Strategies for Turning a MOOC Education for Career Advancement

 

Strategy #1: Develop skills and savvy across a range of subjects.

MOOCs are an excellent way to develop a wide range of skills and knowledge that may come in handy on the job. For students and early-career learners in particular, MOOCs are a good way to explore new areas while you’re figuring out how your career will take shape. This strategy is particularly useful if you are interested in working in a startup, on a small team, or in a small company where a broad range of skills may be required.

One exceptional learner, Joris Schut, took over 140 MOOCs over a two-year period, while simultaneously studying as a full-time master’s student. Joris formally studied Educational Science and Technology as well as Information and Library Science (he holds a master’s degree in each) and used MOOCs to supplement his education with topics like business strategy and R coding.  After finishing his studies, Joris landed a job in a small design unit within Capgemini, a large IT/consulting firm in the Netherlands. He describes the work in his unit as “like running a startup inside a big organization.” As in any startup, versatility is required. “I can do strategy in the morning, chase down project managers at lunch, and code in R to automate sales reporting in the afternoon. A lot of what I learned through MOOCs, I apply here,” he says.

 

Strategy #2: Build and signal targeted skills.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a MOOC education can be an excellent  way to learn and demonstrate targeted skills. The recruiters I’ve spoken with are most positive about the resume-boosting benefits of skill-based courses. Learn to do data analysis in Hadoop, become an Excel whiz, or study supply chain logistics. Earn a certificate and build a portfolio of work to highlight on your resume, and this strategy just might make the difference between you and another candidate.

“Listing the course made the difference between her and other candidates. She got the job.”

Roberto Hernandez, founder of the recruiting agency Stffng, Inc., says that MOOC coursework is especially valuable when it builds concrete skills. For example, he tells of a candidate applying for a Sales Manager position whose resume included an online course on a particular software, which the employer relied upon heavily. “Listing the course made the difference between her and other candidates,” Hernandez says. “She got the job.” edX student Akshay Kulkarny employed the same strategy, using edX courses to build skills in Python programming and SaaS. His self-directed learning ultimately landed him a job at Microsoft. 

 

Strategy #3: Accelerate along your current track.

 

 

These days, good career management requires continual learning and development. MOOCs not only keep your skills and knowledge fresh, they may also help you move up more quickly. Many MOOC students say that their coursework has boosted their confidence at work. That confidence can translate into new opportunities and may ultimately lead to promotion.

While it may be hard to quantify, I know this strategy works since it’s the one I used to score a promotion within my current organization in the field of international development. My MOOC coursework on business strategy, entrepreneurship, and finance helped me see increased scope to engage with private sector businesses interested in poverty reduction. I became a better representative of my organization was able to raise our profile with potential partners. My work ultimately earned me a promotion and a sizable raise. To get started with this strategy, simply search for courses related to your field and sign up for one or two that look interesting. With just a couple of MOOCs under your belt, you may be surprised by the opportunities you start to see.

Strategy #4: Learn the language of a new industry to prepare for a lateral move.

 

 

If you have significant industry experience and have long occupied a certain kind of role, a MOOC education can help you take that experience into a similar role in a different industry. For example, let’s say your functional expertise is in communications. You’d like to make a move from the corporate world to the nonprofit sector. MOOCs on environmental issues, business ethics, sustainability, and global poverty can help you better understand the issues and terminology you will encounter and help you make that shift.

One learner I work with is a physician who is orchestrating a move from clinical care to product development in a fast-growing healthcare startup. Courses in entrepreneurship and human-centered design taught him the language and worldview of startups. In job interviews, he has wowed interviewers with his unique combination of medical expertise and business acumen. He now has his pick of positions with several of the hottest startups in the industry.

Strategy #5: Build experience outside your current role, a.k.a. Job Jiu-Jitsu

 

While all the recruiters I’ve talked with express a positive attitude towards MOOCs, multiple have commented that work experience is best. Direct experience performing tasks that are similar to what will be expected in a future position, they say, is far more valuable than even a traditional university degree. If you’d like to orchestrate a big move in the mid- to long-term future, a MOOC education can help you with a strategic play that I like to call “Job Jiu-Jitsu.”

Here’s how Job Jiu-Jitsu works:  Start by talking with your supervisor about your interest in taking on projects outside of your regular role. Explain that you are taking courses that have prepared you to do new kinds of work. Next, be on the lookout for projects that use your new skills, and volunteer when they come up. (Note that you can also take on special projects on a volunteer basis, outside of your place of employment.) Then, do an incredible job on the new work, making sure to produce outcomes that you can discuss in future job interviews. Finally, when you’re ready to make your move, highlight your work experience on your resume. You can choose to mention your MOOC coursework or not; your achievements are what matter most.

Whether you’re exploring your options, seeking targeted skills, or planning for a career transition, at least one of these strategies is likely to help you get ahead. Be sure to comment below if you’ve already seen career benefits from using one of these techniques!

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