41 Tips to Make the Most from Online Openware Courses


Once, students had to pay a pretty penny to get access to Ivy League courses and top-tier educational resources. Those days are long gone, as there are now thousands of free online learning opportunities available from some of the biggest names in education and business in the world. As these resources have grown in number and the list of institutions providing them has become ever more prestigious, free online courses are gaining legitimacy with employers as a method of learning valuable job skills. While there’s still a long way to go in terms of acceptance, more and more employers are recognizing the value of cheap, effective educational programs that can keep employees up-to-date and engaged in their field without spending a dime. Whether you’re looking to online education for personal reasons or to get ahead in your career, use these tips to help you get more out of open courses and use what you learn to market yourself, improve your performance, and stand out on the job.

  1. Treat them like real classes.

    If you really want to take away a lot from a free online course, then don’t treat it any differently than you would a course you’ve paid to take. Regarding a free course as a lesser educational experience is a self-fulfilling prophecy, so instead of pushing coursework aside or failing to concentrate on it, give it your full attention. You’ll get much better results and learn some valuable time management skills in the process.

  2. Choose courses that have real-world applications.

    While learning just about anything is a noble pursuit, there are certainly some online courses that have more direct applications to your career and everyday life than others. When choosing courses, carefully select those which will offer you the best chance of learning things you can really use on the job or in your personal life.

  3. Take advantage of badges and certifications.

    To date, the majority of free opencourseware learning opportunities won’t garner students any kind of certification or credit for completing them, but that doesn’t mean things can’t change. A number of free learning sites are beginning to create ways for students to prove that they’ve satisfactorily completed a course, which can be an asset in a job hunt or on a resume.

  4. Pinpoint your learning gaps.

    Before you choose an online course, it’s smart to assess what you don’t know and what you’d like to learn more about, especially with regard to the things you do day in and day out at your job. Once you know where your biggest learning gaps lie, you can make more informed decisions about which online courses would serve you the best.

  5. Ask questions online.

    Open courses offer a lot to students, but they lack the support of faculty and the opportunity to ask questions in real time. While there’s no substitute for one-on-one interactions with professors, there may be others out there who can answer your questions and help you understand key concepts. Seek them out on professional forums or social sites that cater to education to get the support you need to keep making progress in your free courses.

  6. Do the reading.

    Reading assignments for courses, online or off, are rarely ever just suggestions; they’re requirements for the course and can play a big role in how much a student learns and takes away from the experience. Reading assignments can count for even more when you’re taking a course through open courseware, so don’t ignore them. Instead, make them a big part of your study and preparation.

  7. Supplement or prepare for a for-credit course.

    While open courses can be great, sometimes you need a certificate or diploma in order to advance in your career. That doesn’t mean that you have to give up on taking online courses, however. These courses can provide excellent support for traditional coursework, providing alternative perspectives, helping students brush up on concepts, and even offering additional reading material and media.

  8. Work with others.

    You may not get built-in classmates when you decide to take an open course, but that doesn’t mean you can find your own. Working through course materials with a learning buddy can help both of you get more out of the experience, stay motivated, and puzzles through the most difficult parts of the course.

  9. Bolster basic skills.

    While open courses can be useful for learning advanced skills, they’re also really great for helping improve basic skills that you use every day. Consider taking writing courses, basic math, communication, or even courses that teach fundamental computer skills. While they’re not as big-picture as other courses, you may find they get the most use on a daily basis out of these basic courses.

  10. Explore career alternatives.

    Been considering a career change? Open courses are a smart way to get a taste of what working in another field entails so you can decide if you really want to take the leap or if you’re better off staying where you are.

  11. Utilize open course career help.

    If you’re taking online courses as a way to get ahead in your career, then make sure that you take advantage of all of the opportunities afforded by the institutions offering the courses. For example, Udacity offers to hand out student resume to their partner companies at no cost. Depending on the type of work you’re interested in doing, that could be an asset in finding a job.

  12. Put your coursework on your resume.

    While it may not have garnered you a degree, there’s no reason not to include open courses on your resume in a section dedicated to training. It shows that you have a commitment to learning and are willing to put in extra work to get ahead.

  13. Collect examples of your work from the courses.

    Many online courses will help you to hone skills that you can use to produce work for a portfolio. Choose your best writing, apps, business plans, or computer programs to showcase in a portfolio you can show to prospective employers.

  14. Develop management and business skills.

    No matter what type of work you’re in, gaining skills and expertise in business and management are surefire ways to help yourself work up the ladder. It’s even better when you can work on these things for free with the help of open courses, so don’t miss out.

  15. Demonstrate what you’ve learned.

    One way to show your boss or a potential employer the value of open courses is to demonstrate what you’ve learned. Show off your new skills and don’t be afraid to share where you learned them.

  16. Be choosy.

    There are thousands of free courses out there to choose from, so you can afford to be choosy when selecting one (or more) to take. Evaluate the materials, the school that’s offering the course, and what it can teach you before diving in to ensure you get the best educational experience possible.

  17. Choose hot topics.

    Certain skills and knowledge sets are hot with employers right now, and luckily, there are more than a few open courses that tackle these subjects. Taking free courses in app programming, Spanish, social networking, green design, and educational technology can help give a wide range of careers a boost.

  18. Take your time.

    While you don’t want to be lazy when taking an open course, there’s also no reason to rush. The learn-at-your-own-pace model gives you plenty of time to go back and review lectures if you’re feeling lost or need to review key concepts before moving forward.

  19. Create notes you can use on the job.

    If you’re taking courses that apply directly to your current career, then it’s a smart idea to create some notes and resource guides for yourself during your coursework that can be used at work as references as you’re applying new skills. If they work well for you, share them with coworkers to give everyone in the office a boost.

  20. Find a real-world mentor.

    Taking online courses, whether you pay for them or enjoy open courseware, can be a bit of a solitary endeavor. It can be a big help to find someone you can talk to in person who can act as a mentor, guiding you through your lessons, answering questions, and helping you see new ways to apply your skills. Look for mentors through your work, professional associations, or even your alumni network.

  21. Contact the professor who created the materials.

    While you can’t reach out to the professor who created the course materials every time you have a question or concern (online courses aren’t supported in that way), it wouldn’t be out of line to email a professor if you’d like some ideas on how to learn more or would like to share some feedback on the course. These kinds of interactions can be beneficial to you and the professor and can really enrich the open courseware experience.

  22. Understand the pros and cons of free courses.

    When taking advantage of open courseware, it’s important to be honest with yourself about the pros and cons they entail. On one hand, they’re a great way to learn new things without shelling out big bucks. On the other, they won’t give you a degree or certification that other programs will, and for those who need a lot of guidance, they may not be a good match. Once you acknowledge those things, you can adjust your expectations for the course and what you’ll get from it.

  23. Seek out other lectures and resources.

    You can supplement your open courses with other online materials, including talks and online textbooks. Don’t be afraid to seek out additional material if you find something interesting or just need a little extra help.

  24. Find a source of motivation.

    Since you’ll be working on your own without a professor checking in on you or a bad grade looming over you, it can be hard to get motivated to push yourself in open courses. You simply have to find a source of motivation for yourself, whether that’s as simple as learning a new skill or something much bigger like pushing forward your career.

  25. Research the skills you need to get ahead in your field.

    Not sure which open course is right for you? Do a bit of research about trends in your fields, skills that are in demand, and what it takes to get ahead. Once you know where you want to go, you can choose online courses that support that goal.

  26. Take advantage of computer courses.

    There are few fields out there today where knowing about computers, from how to make a spreadsheet to building a website, isn’t a huge asset. If you’re not sure what to take, start with online computer courses and work from there.

  27. Share your experience with others.

    Skills you learn in an online course can make you a resource to others who work in your field, especially those who may be interested in learning the same skills. You can share what you’ve learned, help them find courses to take, and even act as a mentor for coworkers who are taking their own open courseware journeys. If that doesn’t make you look good to your boss, nothing will.

  28. Cater to your learning needs.

    We all have different likes and dislikes when it comes to learning that make things more interesting, boring, easy, or hard for us. Use your own learning preferences to make smart choices about what open courses you take. For instance, if you dislike reading-focused courses, offerings that are centered around lectures, media, and hands on activities might be best.

  29. Survey a class before beginning.

    Online courses may be free, but that doesn’t mean they don’t require a fairly serious investment. Your time is a valuable thing so to ensure that you’re not wasting it, review course materials before starting a class to make sure that the course is the appropriate level and covers material you’ll actually find interesting and useful.

  30. Log your progress.

    It’s easy to start feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by course material that’s challenging. Logging your progress can help to motivate and keep you on track, so keep a journal of your experiences as you go.

  31. Go through all of the course content.

    Think you can just skim over course content and rush through an open course? Not if you want to actually learn something. Open courses won’t offer much of anything if you don’t put in the effort to do readings, listen to lectures, and go through all, yes ALL, of the course content.

  32. Do your research.

    Not all free online education programs are created equal. Some are of higher quality and offer better educational experiences and resources than others. Before choosing what to focus your energies on, do a bit of research on which online experiences would offer you the best results.

  33. Identify a skill that will help you to stand out.

    In a sea of applicants, what will make you stand out? Sometimes, something as simple as speaking another language or knowing how to design a website can make you stand out from other potential candidates. Even better, open courses can help you to develop these skills if you choose them wisely.

  34. Emphasize the potential benefit versus the investment.

    Trying to sell the value of your open courseware education to your boss, coworkers, potential employer, or even yourself? The math is pretty simple, actually. Provided you’re learning something useful from the courses, open courseware is an amazing opportunity to quite literally get something for nothing.

  35. Use learning to enrich your own ideas.

    Have an amazing idea for a business? Developing a product that could revolutionize green energy? Open courses can help you to fill in the gaps in your knowledge of just how to do these things, from helping you to understand chemistry to showing you how to build a better business plan.

  36. Embrace anonymity.

    It’s not always bad to be anonymous. Anonymity in an open course can give you the confidence to take risks, ask questions, and review material in ways that you might not do in a traditional course. Since there’s no way to fail, there’s no real wrong way to learn, grow, or explore within the course. That’s incredibly empowering and can help you get a lot out of open courses.

  37. Spend time studying.

    Yes, you actually have to study, even if you’re not getting a grade. If the goal of taking an open course is to learn something new, then you do have to review materials, do readings, and even work on problem sets to make that happen.

  38. Make online learning daily habit.

    One of the easiest ways to ensure that you get the most out of an online courseware experience is to simply make online learning a part of your daily routine. Eventually, taking time out to study, listen to lectures, and do homework will feel like second nature to you.

  39. Refresh your degree.

    Just because you have a degree in a field doesn’t make you an expert in it for life. You have to keep updating your knowledge and learning about new trends, ideas, and opportunities, no matter what your profession. Open courses are pretty much a perfect way to do this, giving you a refresher in what you know and helping you stay abreast of the newest ideas in your field at the same time.

  40. Use online resources.

    There are a lot of online resources out there that can help support you as you take your open courses. They can chart your progress, help you store resources for reading, and even give you answers to questions when you have them. Make use of these supporting tools and you’re likely to stick with your open ed experience and to get more out of it.

  41. Be confident.

    Ultimately, the success of your online openware experience will depend on how confident you are in the open courseware model. If you don’t think you’ll learn much, you probably won’t. If you push yourself, acknowledge the limitations of the method, and use resources at your disposal, there’s no reason you can’t learn as much as you would through any other method.

Posted on 10/18/12 | by Staff Writers | in Resources, Technology | No Comments »

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