Are Free Online Courses Worth the Time and Effort?

The high cost of college is intimidating, but for many the cost of online courses is suspiciously cheap.

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By John Boitnott

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Udemy, an online course company, has recently come under fire for peddling pirated content. In an ironic twist, one of these pirated courses was a series of lectures on business ethics, which begs the question of whether online courses are valid or thoroughly screened. Udemy maintains that the person who uploaded the course didn't make any money from the course, but the company's seemingly insufficient screening processes bring the entire industry into question.

Oversight in the Digital Age.

There's a lot of content out there, and the stories about fake news swirling around amidst a contentious presidential election have most people questioning the validity of what we read and learn online. As far as online course databases like Udemy are concerned, many rely on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to assure the intellectual integrity of courses. This legislation, signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1998, creates a provision that protects intermediaries, such as Udemy, from copyright infringement actions by individual users.

Many (if not the majority) of the cases of copyright infringement are reported by Udemy's members, according to CEO Dennis Yang. He maintains that the system works, and dedicated copyright and quality assurance teams ensure Udemy members are receiving the best education possible.

Related: Udemy Addresses Criticism Over Its Handling of Pirated Content

A hard look at free (or cheap) online courses.

People hopeful they can boost their resume for free or on the cheap flock to websites like Udemy or Coursera. For example, a popular course on Udemy, comprised of 481 lectures, promises to teach you all about web development for $15. Considering a degree in computer science can cost $30,000 or more, this seems like a pretty good deal.

Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding pirated content shows us that things that seem too good to be true often are. Will paying $15 actually give you a new skill and build your resume, or simply waste 481 hours of your life?

The truth is, you probably can boost your resume by participating in one of these courses… with a caveat or two.

Related: 7 Hobbies Science Says Will Make You Smarter

Is the course worthwhile?

First, know that the Massive Open Online Course market is booming. Ivy League schools like Yale and Harvard are beginning to offer free and open access to select courses in order to make themselves more accessible. Completing one of these courses may show employers that you're motivated and willing to learn. If you're in the final round of interviews, this may set you apart from the others, but this alone won't land you a job.

Like most things, it's not what you know, but how you show what you know that matters. The list of courses on your resume alone might not make you more attractive, but if you can communicate intelligently and openly about what you've learned, it might.

Related: Online Courses May Not Be as Valuable as You Hope

Finding the right courses.

The next question you should be asking yourself is how you know if a course passes academic muster. The Ivy League schools tend to use Coursera and edX as their chosen platforms. EdX, incidentally, was founded as a joint venture between Harvard and MIT. In general, free classes offer no credential, while paid classes provide a certificate upon completion. Though prices vary by discipline, they can run around $1,500. Think carefully about the cost versus the benefits before taking a paid class.

On the other hand, non-credit classes provide an opportunity to learn something new and apply new skills to your job, making you a more valuable employee. Some people even take free courses before launching their own businesses or delving into the world of freelancing. The possibilities are endless, with subjects ranging from finance to fine art.

Related: 10 Free Online Marketing Courses to Try Today (Infographic)

Measuring the benefits.

To assess the efficacy of their programs, Coursera surveyed 52,000 of their users and asked them how taking an online course benefited them. The majority (over 60 percent) said the move helped them develop skills in their new position. Forty percent reported that they believed it improved their candidacy for a new job. Only 25 percent, however, said that they found a new job, and less than 5 percent received a raise.

The final takeaway is this: free online courses can improve your current skill set and make you a better employee. It also shows initiative, which managers like. But it won't necessarily land you a dream job.

John Boitnott

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Journalist, Digital Media Consultant and Investor

John Boitnott is a longtime digital media consultant and journalist living in San Francisco. He's written for Venturebeat, USA Today and FastCompany.

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