What Are MOOCs? Free Online Courses That Can Help You Snare the Job

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We’re all looking for more ways to expand our repertoire and get educated without going back to school. The truth is, cognitive skills and self-management are two qualities employers look for in their new hires. If they see that you’ve chosen to take on additional self-edification on top of your regular work, that will certainly make you stand out.

So what is this amazing school-but-not-quite-school that we speak of? We’re talking about MOOCS, or massive open online courses, which are online courses open to anyone and affording you access to some of the best instructors in the country.

Maybe you just want to learn more about world religions from a Harvard professor or the science of happiness from someone at the University of California Berkeley. Or perhaps you want to add a skill to your arsenal, like financial accounting taught by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology buff or strategic brand management.

How to Pick a Class

The key is choosing which course will best serve your career and not just what sounds the most interesting, depending on your intent. MOOC.org is a good place to start. Browse through courses based on subject matter and university, drilling down into the actual coursework, reviews of the professor and even professional certificates that you might be able to earn.

Whatever MOOC you choose, experts urge you to remember that soft skills often have more longevity than something overly niche.

“(Hard skills) are always going to change if they’re overly technical,” said Ben Brooks, CEO and founder of Pilot, a New York career improvement company. That’s why he champions soft skills.

In 2022, job-seeking site Monster Intelligence surveyed employers on what they looked for in a potential candidate. 63% of employers said they were willing to hire someone with transferable skills and train them. In soft skills, they most often looked for teamwork, communication and problem solving.

The 10 Best Free MOOCs for Career Advancement

  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Working in Diverse Environments
  • Storytelling and Communication
  • Personal Branding and Social Media Literacy
  • Second Language Learning
  • How to Be a Manager
  • Sharpen Mental Tools
  • The Art of Negotiation
  • Time Management
  • Discover Hidden Potential

How We Selected These Courses

We’ve put together a list of the best MOOC courses that will teach you the soft skills you need in the workplace from some noteworthy universities. The best thing about these classes is that they will be useful for employees from any background and in any industry. Before we get started, here’s a few important points about each MOOC on this list:

  • Each course is done entirely online.
  • Not all courses are completely autonomous or self-paced. Many require student engagement in discussion forums.
  • After enrolling in your online course, you’ll be placed into a group with other students and assigned a teaching assistant for additional guidance.
  • With the exception of Duolingo, which is less a class and more a collection of gamified study materials, the free online courses have suggested start dates and syllabi to keep you on track.
  • Online class materials are typically broken up into weekly sections. Take notes because each section has a quiz at the end.
  • Don’t sweat it if you need to take extra time. There’s no penalty if you work at your own pace.

While many online classes are free to take in some capacity, which means auditing and observing. Auditing a class means that you can listen to the lectures and read the material, but you won’t have your work assessed.

Obtaining professional certificates can run on the expensive side. The options we surveyed ranged from less than $300 to more than $1,500. Depending on the skill, your company could offer to pay for it. Plus, many MOOC course providers, like Coursera and EdX, offer financial aid. Applications for aid must be completed on a course-by-course basis and unfortunately are not always available for every class.

On our suggestions, we’ve paired an important soft skill with a related MOOC. All of the free online courses offer certificates upon completion. Some are traditional university courses, which will also give you academic credit. The next time a prospective interviewer asks what makes you unique, you’ll have a no-fail answer.

1. Emotional Intelligence

Taught by the faculty of the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, “Empathy and Emotional Intelligence at Work” is all about building trust, cooperation, empathy and conflict resolution skills.

Combined, these skills make up your emotional intelligence, or “EQ.”

But it’s not just about being a better co-worker. Learning your EQ through this free online course can also help you learn more about yourself by increasing self-awareness and stress management.

Course: Empathy and Emotional Intelligence at Work

Provider: edX

Estimated completion time: 8 hours

Bragging rights: Course certificate (For a full certificate in “The Science of Happiness at Work,” the fee is around $540. For a certificate that just shows completion of the emotional intelligence course, the cost is around $200. The course can be audited for free)

2. Working in Diverse Environments

People of color make up over one-third of the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But just being in a diverse environment doesn’t mean you have the proper skills to navigate it. That requires self-awareness and effort.

Experts on diversity and inclusion from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business lead “Foundations of Diversity and Inclusion at Work Teachout,” on Coursera. The class is designed for employees on every rung of the corporate ladder: from those trying to identify and counteract inequity in their companies to those aiming to convince leaders to embody diversity and inclusion and even managers who want to address inequity in a more effective way.

CourseFoundations of Diversity and Inclusion at Work Teachout

Provider: University of Virginia

Estimated completion time: 6 hours

Bragging rights: A certificate may be available, but will have to be paid for by the participant.

3. Storytelling and Communication

Storytelling is in our DNA, but not everyone is good at it.

Think of it this way: Even if you’re the most qualified job candidate, not being able to articulate your skills and accomplishments will hold you back professionally.

“A recruiter, or more likely a machine, is going to determine if you’re roughly qualified. That’ll get you an interview, but that won’t get you a job,” Brooks said. “It’s all about the stories and narrative you have.”

We tell stories all the time in emails, meetings and presentations. With “Storytelling in the Workplace,” you’ll be able to better sell yourself to employers and also spice up day-to-day workplace communication.

Andrea Hickerson, former director of the School of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology, will teach you how to hone your voice to best connect with various audiences.

Course: Storytelling in the Workplace

Provider: edX

Estimated completion time: 12 to 18 hours

Bragging rights: Audit the course for free or earn a course certificate for $199.

4. Personal Branding and Social Media Literacy

Figuring out how to use social media is one thing, but leveraging those platforms to create an online persona that will land you a job is another.

“It’s critical to have a personal brand,” said Robin Colner, who is the founder and CEO of DigiStar Media, her own digital marketing and social communications agency. “That goes for everyone in business today.”

Through Coursera, the University of Virginia offers “Introduction to Personal Branding,” a course that helps you navigate the cluttered social media world. It helps with everything from crafting a mission statement for your personal brand to maintaining your presence on at least three social media platforms.

Even if personal branding doesn’t appeal to you, holistic social media skills are essential, says Colner.

People may think they know all of what social media entails, “but they’re not getting the full picture,” Colner said. “It’s important to see how all these pieces fit together. That’s what a (certification) program can help with.”

Course: Introduction to Personal Branding

Provider: Coursera

Estimated completion time: Roughly 7 hours

Bragging rights: A certificate is available but must be purchased.

5. Second Language Learning

Learning a second language can be super practical. Bilingual workers generally earn 5% to 20% more per hour than their monolingual counterparts, according to Salary.com.

And as the job market continues to globalize, nothing says “나를 고용해요! (Hire me!)” like second-language skills.

Duolingo, a free platform for language learners, has more than 500 million users worldwide. The website offers courses in Spanish, French, Chinese and many others (even High Valyrian, a language found in “Game of Thrones,” and Klingon, of “Star Trek” fame). Lessons are broken down into segments using a combination of gamified exercises, discussion questions and leaderboards to keep you motivated.

Course: Languages offered include Spanish, French, Chinese and Korean

Provider: Duolingo

Estimated completion time: Learning a language is a lifetime endeavor.

Bragging rights: English language learners can take an English test and receive an online certificate (for $49) accepted by more than 3,500 institutions.

6. How To Be a Manager

Course: Leading High-Performing Teams

A manager’s style can make a big difference between employees who stay and employees who go. In fact, in surveys of employee satisfaction, managers account for about 70% of variation across scores, according to a Gallup estimate.

On the list of traits of innovative business leaders from the Harvard Business Review are creating a climate of reciprocal trust and being candid in communication, among other characteristics. But these skills don’t always come naturally and have to be taught.

That’s why this course, led by a professor of management from the University of Queensland in Australia, can be such an asset. The syllabus discusses motivating and engaging people, managing work relationships and leading teams to solve problems.

Course: Leading High-Performing Teams

Provider: EdX

Estimated completion time: 80 to 100 hours

Bragging rights: With the price of $325, you’ll get a course certificate.

7. Sharpen Mental Tools

Employers don’t necessarily want the employee who knows everything — they want the employee who can learn anything. But when it comes to a difficult subject, that can be easier said than done.

Luckily, this Coursera course, taught by two highly-rated instructors of neurobiology and engineering, will get you there by breaking down exactly how to teach your brain to take in information and then retain it. The class will cover topics like chunking — or breaking large amounts of information into “chunks” you can process — and avoiding “imposter syndrome.”

Letting a future employer know that you’ve taken this class will be a great ice-breaker that will first interest them and then impress them.

Course: Learning how to learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects

Provider: Coursera

Estimated completion time: 15 hours

Bragging rights: A certificate is available upon completion for purchase.

8. The Art of Negotiation

Business professors agree that negotiation is one of the most important qualities anyone can have in the workplace, not just to make a company better but to make their own lives better. Harvard Law School has an entire program dedicated to negotiation.

Some of the most important ways to use negotiation include determining your role at work and trying to secure the deal. Those are just some of the reasons why employers might be excited to learn that you’ve taken a whole course dedicated to the art of negotiation.

Taught by a Yale professor of management, this class will show you the ins and outs of the psychology of negotiation. You’ll learn the theories and the practices that make up a good deal. You’ll emerge so prepared that you’ll be able to handle your next negotiation with your eyes closed.

Course: Introduction to Negotiation

Provider: Coursera

Estimated completion time: 33 hours

Bragging rights: A certificate is available for purchase.

9. Time Management

Who among us hasn’t procrastinated an important work project or put off a deadline in favor of watching one last episode of our favorite TV show? Procrastination isn’t always a product of laziness but a psychological breakdown.

Employers know that, but they also want employees who turn their work in on time and can be depended upon when the going gets tough. Some say dependability is the most important skill employers look for in the workplace.

This Coursera course promises to teach you how to plan effectively to achieve your goals, recognize and overcome barriers to successful time management and learn to manage expectations. One reviewer said the course helped them stop “self-sabotaging habits” and “start getting things done.”

Course: Work smarter, not harder: Time management for personal & professional productivity

Provider: Coursera

Estimated completion time: 10 hours

Bragging rights: A certificate is available for purchase.

10. Discover Hidden Potential

When you’re not busy procrastinating, it’s easy to feel that the echo chamber of social media and the outside world can swallow you up. Being a professional in the modern world often yields more questions than answers. What’s the best path to follow? How can I get from point A to point B? How do I network? These questions can go on and on in a dizzying way.

But this class, taught by the same professors as our favorite course on quick learning, will teach you all about how to silence those thoughts and become the best worker you can be. It’s all about a mindset shift.

This class is especially geared toward lifelong learners who want to make a career change or explore a different side of their potential later in life. There may be fear associated with doing that, but this Coursera class will show you that it’s possible!

Course: Mindshift: Break through obstacles to learning and discover your hidden potential

Provider: Coursera

Estimated completion time: 11 hours

Bragging rights: A certificate is available for purchase.

Display Your Massive Open Online Course Cred

If none of these online classes fit your timeline, there are several MOOC platforms to choose from that always have upcoming courses. Top universities and other course providers offer many courses through distance education that can benefit working professionals.

Once you’ve mastered each skill, don’t just throw a few new bullet points on your resume and move on. If you completed a course with one of the leading universities, include that with any other degrees in the higher education section of your resume. Attach the certification to your LinkedIn profile.

“At the end of the day, people look at your resume for about seven seconds,” Brooks said. “LinkedIn or your online portfolio is so much more important than a resume.”

These MOOC certifications aren’t only useful on the job hunt. They’re valuable in current jobs and overall career development, too. That’s because certifications show employers initiative and ambition, according to Colner.

“It shows a desire and an understanding of the marketplace, which every employer wants,” Colner said. In this new age of remote work, it also shows you know how to adapt to online learning environments.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About MOOCs

There are lots of questions about MOOC certifications and we’ve rounded up the answers to the most commonly asked.

What Are MOOCs?

Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) are free (for the most part) online courses open to the general public on topics as technical as learning HTML and as open-ended as making a mindset shift. These classes are generally taught by professors at leading universities and allow students to go at their own pace.

Are MOOC Courses Good?

It’s a hard question to answer, because it depends on what outcome you’re hoping to get out of the course. While MOOCs are likely not a substitute for a degree or an outside certification earned from a school, they can be an important way to stand out in a sea of applicants. It’s often less about what the actual MOOC teaches and more about what kind of person would take a MOOC to begin with — a self-starter who wants to continuously learn, qualities employers love.

What Is an Example of MOOC?

Sites like EdX and Coursera are some of the biggest providers of MOOCs and offer a primer on the broad selection of topics available. But to give a typical example, let’s start with one of the most popular: Storytelling for Social Change. Taught by a professor of theater and drama at the University of Michigan, this course emphasizes how to craft stories and messages intended to spur a revolution — or at least some kind of change.

Which MOOC Is the Best?

MOOCs sites organize their courses by popularity as well as topic. If you have a sense of the type of class you want to take and the subject you want to focus on, then you can use the popular courses or filter by the top-rated instructors to find the best option for you.

Writer Elizabeth Djinis is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder, often writing about selling goods online through social platforms. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Smithsonian Magazine and the Tampa Bay Times. Former staff writer Adam Hardy contributed to this report.