How to advance your career with online courses

Online courses are a great way to develop new skills, learn more about a topic and move your career in the right direction.

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Online courses skyrocketed in popularity with university students as a result of the coronavirus pandemic due to their flexibility and CV-friendly nature. That doesn't mean they should fade into the background upon the return of 'normal' student life, though, only to be returned to in the event of more coronavirus-related restrictions. Online courses will remain an easy and convenient way for students to develop their skills and knowledge. Here's everything you need to know about where to find the right online course for you, how to get the most out of the course and, importantly, how to add it to your CV.

If, having read this, you're keen to get more inspiration for how you might use your spare time constructively, you could take a look at our articles on career-friendly activities you can do from home and learning a language independently .

What types of online courses are there?

  1. Short courses and moocs (massively open online courses) are what a lot of people have been completing during lockdown. They range from lasting two hours, to three days, to four weeks.
  2. If you want to commit to a sustained period of more in-depth learning on a particular topic, you could consider a longer course or microcredential, which could last 10 to 12 weeks, for example.
  3. And, of course, you can study for an entire degree online.

Are online courses free?

Short courses and moocs are typically free for anyone to enrol. You'll usually have to pay a course fee for longer courses and microcredentials. Some of the courses we've seen cost between £450 and £1,500. Online degrees definitely aren't free!

Some course providers made a larger number of courses free of charge to help support people through the uncertainty of the pandemic and enable them to develop their skills set. While some of these courses may have returned to being paid for, many online course providers have continued to offer at least some free courses. For example, FastFutures launched in July 2020 and is a free, 12-week online course in partnership with employers including AstraZeneca, Barclays, BT, Legal & General, the NHS and more.

‘The programme is open to anybody aged between 18 and 24 who can spare 10 hours a week. It can even be completed alongside university studies, says Simon Hamilton, senior marketing manager at Avado, the professional academy behind FastFutures. ‘It covers modules such as marketing, finance and data, and is delivered through online classes, virtual site visits, a live group project on a real business case and mentoring sessions.’

Where can I find online courses?

There are a number of online course providers, such as:

  • Coursera – free courses alongside some paid-for degrees and certificates
  • FutureLearn – free short online courses and longer, paid-for microcredentials and programmes
  • OpenLearn – free online courses
  • LinkedIn Learning – one-month free trial, then £24.98 a month or an annual subscription of £14.99 a month
  • UK Learns (Pearson) – several free-of-charge courses alongside paid-for courses
  • The Inspiring Digital Enterprise Award (iDEA) – free mini courses, with bronze, silver and gold awards
  • edX – free short courses and longer paid-for programmes
  • Alison – free courses.

Universities partner with some of the above providers to offer courses. They are joined by organisations such as Accenture, the British Film Institute, Cancer Research, Goldman Sachs, Health Education England, Microsoft, PwC, the Raspberry Pi Foundation and UNESCO.

Some large employers run free courses on their own platforms, such as Amazon’s AWS Educate, Google's Digital Garage and Rolls-Royce's Digital Academy.

What subjects do online courses cover?

You can find an online course on practically anything these days.

As an example, FutureLearn splits its courses into 14 subjects: business and management; creative arts and media; healthcare and medicine; history; IT and computer science; language; law; literature; nature and environment; politics and society; psychology and mental health; science, engineering and maths; study skills; and teaching.

Meanwhile, examples of specific courses on LinkedIn Learning include SEO for social media, Excel tips and tricks and learning Python.

What should I find out about a course before signing up?

Whether the course you’re interested in is going to take two days or ten weeks, it’s a good idea to double check:

  • who is running the course (is it somebody who has experience or expertise in the field the course is on?)
  • what content and modules will be covered (and therefore will it touch on what you want to learn?)
  • whether there are any entry requirements or you'll be expected to have prior knowledge (this often isn't the case for short courses and moocs)
  • if there is a deadline to apply for a place or enrol on the course
  • if the course is beginner, intermediate or advanced (and therefore if it’s going to be pitched at the right level for you)
  • how long the course is and how much time you will need to commit
  • if you can complete it at any time or if there is a set start and end date
  • if there’s any cost attached – such as an upfront course cost, a fee for a certificate at the end or required learning materials (all moocs are free to enrol)
  • what form the course takes eg videos, reading, quizzes, weekly assignments
  • whether learning will be completely independent or if there’s any support/collaboration
  • if there’s an assessment of some sort at the end or throughout the course
  • if you’ll get a certificate or other form of recognition on completion.

Should I mention online courses on my CV?

Yes. Adding online courses to your CV will help show that you’re genuinely enthusiastic about a subject. And you should definitely add the course to your CV if it’s run by the employer you’re applying to. It will go a long way in showing that you’re interested in them.

The easiest place to add online courses to your CV is the ‘Education’ section. Provide key details such as the title of the course, its duration and the date(s) you completed it. If the course is relevant to the position you’re applying for, you could include a couple of bullet points detailing what you learned.

How can I do well at online courses?

To help you hit the ground running, we asked Simon for his top tips for students completing an online course:

  • ‘Before you sign up, make sure you can comfortably spare the time needed to commit to the course. For FastFutures, it is 10 hours a week. Don’t overestimate your ability to “squeeze it in”, as that is not the way to get the most out of the experience.
  • Always engage with the live sessions. We record and post everything online for students afterwards, but the value is in attending the live sessions and fully participating. Remember to prepare some questions for Q&A sessions.
  • If the course offers mentoring, like FastFutures, think about what you want to get from your mentor. Do you want them to look at your CV? What questions do you want answering? For example, if you’re an aspiring entrepreneur and want to set up your own business, what do you want to know? Your mentor will be somebody who has 10, 15 or even 30 years’ experience so don’t let the opportunity slip through your fingers.’

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