Exploring Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for Professional Growth

By Suporn Chenhansa

New & Innovative Formats

MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, include online classes offered by accredited universities at little or no cost, and are open to anyone. Though MOOCs have been around for years, recently, the offerings have exploded. There are thousands of classes on everything (from cryptography to finance to the socially responsible use of antibiotics) fromeverywhere(Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley, Stanford...), and available for a nominal or no cost to everyone with online access. While many MOOCs are credit-less, some MOOCs offer professional recognition. For example, teachers successfully completing Stanford’s “How to Learn Math” MOOC can earn 15 credit hours accepted by their school districts.


For those seeking to learn and grow their skill sets for personal or professional growth, MOOCs can provide an excellent, convenient, and (mostly) free opportunity to advance knowledge and skills. These courses can be an effective professional development activity for clients to stay current on industry topics or to develop skills for a particular job. They also provide a fantastic option for those currently unemployed or in-between opportunities to avoid stagnancy and keep active.


As an example of how these courses can be utilized, a former career center client is developing new skills and knowledge in database and web programming through MOOCs and other venues. She has used skills gained through MOOCs to successfully execute work-related projects. “Don’t be afraid to try a few classes,” she advises, “you might not like the first (class) but that could be just that class. Try more than one - you might find some that you like and learn something.” She especially recommends MOOCs designed with highly interactive lessons.


Setting-up for Success

Though MOOCs are readily available and accessible, many individuals are often overwhelmed by how to start given the hundreds of institutions, thousands of topics, and hundreds of thousands of potential classmates available at any one time. The choices are exciting and endless. But these courses can have a sobering 90% dropout rate.


While MOOCs offer a great opportunity to try something new and curiosity can be satisfied without an entire course, professional development is best displayed through successfully completed work and/or training. To make a commitment to completeMOOC(s), start with calming breaths, then evaluate choices and narrow options. To help make the MOOC selection process less intimidating and more productive for career development professionals and for clients, using the following three strategies can improve motivation and MOOC success from the start.


Get inspired. As mentioned, MOOCs cover numerous topics by countless institutions. Find a topic that you find fascinating and never had the time to pursue. Pick a university that you are interested in yet never had the opportunity or money to attend. Or vice versa. Choose a MOOC that inspires you through content and environment, and you will be excitedly looking forward to it, be more willing to prioritize the required time commitment, and be more likely to complete the course successfully.


Get real. MOOCs can be months long or ‘at your own pace.’ They can be basic courses or can require extensive background, with workloads ranging from 1 to 12 (or more) hours per week. They can be free or cost a fee. So consider your time and resources. There is no need to nosedive into the 5-month long “A Brief History of Humankind,” nor into a topic like “Computational Methods for Data Analysis” which expects 10-12 hours/week and a “solid background in ODEs and familiarity with PDEs and MATLAB” (unless you find this inspiring). For your first MOOC, consider taking a short free inspiring/interesting course with a manageable weekly load. A shorter course also makes it less likely your MOOC will cross potential ‘interruptions’ like family vacations, unexpected work projects, health issues, and other challenges that may impact your schedule.


Get going. Finally, after exploring your options, choose a MOOC that best fits your needs and sign up. Don’t keep waiting for the ‘perfect’ class or the ‘perfect’ time. If you discover a more suitable MOOC for your interests/schedule, have serious second thoughts, or something happens to alter your schedule or availability, clicking on the ‘unregister’ button costs you nothing. But at least take the plunge. Get going. Go learn something.


Though not for everyone, MOOCs offer a great low-risk avenue for expanding a specific skill set, filling a knowledge gap, and/or deepening expertise in a particular field. They can be free, flexible, and professionally rewarding. So, go on … go learn something.


For more information and to get started, below are a few of the many online options currently available, in no particular order:








The CCK08 MOOC – Connectivism Course. http://davecormier.com/edblog/2008/10/02/the-cck08-mooc-connectivism-course-14-way/. Accessed June 8, 2013

Coursera takes a nuanced view of MOOC dropout rates. http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/coursera-takes-a-nuanced-view-of-mooc-dropout-rates/43341. Accessed June 3, 2013.

Year of the MOOC. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/education/edlife/massive-open-online-courses-are-multiplying-at-a-rapid-pace.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1& Accessed August 8, 2013



Suporn Chenhansa is always learning. After graduate programs in Linguistics and in Engineering, she is continuing to explore, learn and grow. Currently working at the non-profit Tri-Cities One-Stop Career Center in Newark, CA, she thrives on exploring different and new educational venues, and on encouraging others to keep learning. She can be reached through sup4one@gmail.com or through http://www.linkedin.com/in/schenhansa.