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Free Classes to Boost Your Career

Instead of taking on more student debt, continue your education with massive open online courses (or MOOCs).

Lifelong learning is part of many successful careers. But because employers are getting stingier with tuition-reimbursement benefits and graduate programs can leave young workers swamped with debt, higher education may seem hard to come by. Look to the growing crop of free online classes to give you a knowledge boost.

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Known by the unwieldy term "massive open online courses" (or MOOCs, for short), these classes are (mostly) free digital replicas of actual college offerings (sometimes you have to pay a fee if you want a certificate upon completion). While moving the classroom experience online may limit your time with the professor, the digital classes still encourage a high level of interaction with lots of multimedia extras, including forums to chat with classmates, videos and quizzes. Most courses are created and offered by traditional colleges or universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; others come from for-profit Web sites.

MOOCs are helping people earn more money, get promoted and switch careers. In the past, employers were hesitant to take them at face value. (In 2012, I gave free online classes a poor grade as career boosters; "hiring professionals don't care about them," a human resources consultant told me at the time.) But now that some courses are experimenting with accreditation and business partnerships, managers are taking notice. As Knight Kiplinger, editor in chief of Kiplinger's, noted in A College Degree Isn't Enough, once rigorous testing satisfies employers, these classes could mean as much as — or even more than — a conventional degree.

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One MOOC success story, Ryan Hanna, 30, has a million reasons to agree. Just a few years ago, Hanna was a network administrator with limited coding experience. But he wanted to learn a new skill that would boost his annual income and eventually lead to a new career. As a 2012 New Year's resolution, he dove into a free course at Codeacademy. About six days into his lessons, he came up with the idea for Sworkit, a clever fitness app that launched in May 2012 and gained a million free downloads in just 307 days. Thanks to his app's success, Hanna has gotten several job offers and a new career track. Now, he's living in England, developing apps full-time and working with his wife on an education start-up to teach kids robotics and coding.

How MOOCs Work

You can start your own online-learning success story by creating an account on a MOOC Web site. Popular options include Udacity and Coursera. Another option is edX, which was created at MIT and features classes from MIT, Harvard, Georgetown and other esteemed schools. (Keep in mind that the vast majority of MOOCs currently lack accreditation.) Peruse the hundreds of class options, and take your pick.

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Classes run the gamut, from the classic Intro to Statistics to the more advanced Intro to Artificial Intelligence and the professionally focused How to Build a Start-up. The first wave of MOOCs was adept at teaching science and math skills because it was easier to design an online class that gave auto-graded, multiple-choice quizzes. Now MOOCs are getting better at teaching important "soft" skills, including writing, critical thinking and public speaking.

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For example, on Coursera, Matt McGarrity, a professor at the University of Washington, teaches Introduction to Public Speaking — a perfect choice to hone your job-interview skills, especially if you're trying to transition to a different field, says McGarrity. Students upload videos of their speeches onto a private YouTube channel (so you need a video camera or webcam to participate), and classmates review each other's work.

For some classes, you can start whenever you like. Others have specific start and end dates. Either way, without the motivation of in-person classes or the investment of tuition dollars, you may struggle to stay engaged. It's not uncommon for MOOCs to have completion rates in the single digits. The University of Pennsylvania found that its MOOCs have a 2% to 14% completion rate.

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You'll need to schedule at least three hours per week for most classes. Stay engaged by interacting on online forums, tinkering with small projects and promoting your journey on social media.

Brandish Your Badge

Once you finish a MOOC, flaunt your academic accomplishment on your résumé, LinkedIn account and personal Web site. Many MOOCs make it easy to share your success. In addition to digital certificates, some courses award you small icons you can display on LinkedIn.

Those badges matter. They show employers you are actively learning and passionate about certain topics. "The more you can signal to employees what you can do, the better," says Mary Alice McCarthy, a senior education policy analyst at the New America Foundation, a public policy think tank.

Depending on your course of study, you should also aim to make something to show off at the end of your course. Knowledge is invaluable, but tangible evidence of your know-how may be needed to win over employers. It can also deepen your educational experience. Simply "learning to code," for instance, can turn into a dead end. But for Sworkit developer Hanna, setting his sights on building an actual app not only gave him a marketable product at the end of his course, it also provided him added direction throughout his lessons. Instead of memorizing facts, he was solving problems. "I learned more than any additional degree would have taught me," says Hanna. "All with zero new debt and no regrets."

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