This feature first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge advocate of IT certifications. Big cheese certifications, small potatoes certifications — it doesn't matter, I love them all and think the world would be a better place if every IT pro had a few.
What happens, however, when you want to study a subject in even greater depth than a certification allows? Or what do you do when the IT subject area where you want to sharpen your skills doesn't even have a certification? What if your job is leading you into unfamiliar new territory right now?
If you find yourself in any of these circumstances, then it may be the right time to look into the world of online education.
A new educational age
Once upon a time, online courses were viewed by most with a skeptical eye. You don't have to go back in time very many years to see that the legitimacy of many an online course was deemed questionable at best.
Fortunately for all of us in IT, things have gotten better as both academic institutions and independent enterprises have poured a rapidly increasing amount of resources into online learning. Course content has been beefed up substantially, and (among other benefits) successful completion of many courses now confers college credit.
There are now hundreds, if not thousands, of online courses to choose from. You can study almost any subject, especially when it comes to information technology. You can learn your IT fare from sites like LinkedIn, through their premium membership.
You can learn about any topic you want — as well as do some teaching yourself — at sites like Udemy and edX. You can even study topics as specialized as biostatistics, with content from Ivy League schools, via sites like Coursera.
There are numerous advantages to taking online courses, and good reasons why their value, in some cases, surpasses even that of a certification. Most certifications offer more than just the bare minimum. You can generally expect to go above and beyond mastery of the subject.
Still, there are things that certifications don't cover, and a large pool of reasons why online courses are an asset to any tech career. Let's examine some of those reasons more closely:
Variety of courses
A quick glance at Udemy's front page lets me see that, for a measly $15, I can take a class on how to draw comics — or on Android programing. You might be hard-pressed to find a certification in either subject (especially comics creation), but the online class is right there, at your fingertips.
The same applies to Coursera, although Coursera has offerings from even more reputable schools and professors. For example, I recently took a nine-week finance class taught by a tenured Yale professor. Ordinarily, I wouldn't stand a chance of enrolling at that fine institution, but because I signed up online, I arguably got the same lessons as a full-time student on their campus. (And for a whole lot less money.)
As I mentioned above, Udemy charges a measly 15 bucks for many courses. The Yale professor talking to me in my living room cost me just $90 a month. With prices like these, there really isn't any reason to not pursue absolutely anything you might want to learn.
Don't like the class? No problem! Just stop logging on and pick something else to study. For the price of a few McDonald's Happy Meals, you can bone up on any subject that you think may interest you.
The class location and times are the best you could hope to find. Do you want to take the class in your pajamas at 3 a.m.? Go ahead. If that is the environment you find most conducive to learning, then no one will judge you. You can take the classes anywhere, anytime, in any setting that makes you feel good.
There is no reason not to take full advantage of this. For me, sitting on my couch (or in my man cave) brings me peace. Peace is what I need to concentrate, to achieve focus. This focus puts my mind in a state of full absorption. So, pick a class, find your spot and take full advantage of your own ability to focus.
Career and personal development
Say you want to stay abreast of the latest trends in your profession, but struggle to read books, magazines and manuals. Take an online class. Maybe your boss needs to backfill a position, or maybe you've decided that you want a raise. Take an online class.
There's no stress, no commute and the time commitment is based on your personal schedule and availability. The combination of all these factors makes online learning a win-win for anyone looking to improve career prospects, or simply get more knowledge.
Many online classes count toward college graduation, or continuing education. For a certification buff like me, I need a healthy supply of continuing education credits to keep my credentials current. The online courses really add to my stack — even more when I teach the class, than when I take it as a student.
If you're working on completing an unfinished degree, then relatively inexpensive college credits can be a godsend. Be sure to determine whether a given class will be accepted at your school, and then take the ones that interest you. The possibilities are endless.
Learn one-on-one ...
This may seem trivial, but when I'm sitting in a class for a master's degree, and there are 13 other people in the room competing for the teacher's attention, it gets frustrating. I know others want to learn and are paying for it — just like me — but it's hard not to let a little selfishness slip in.
With online courses, you get a one-on-one feel that is hard to match elsewhere, and allows you to not have to talk over 13 other people, all wanting to make their opinions heard and their intellects noticed.
... or meet and interact with others
Although the traditional classroom format is missing, you are still being instructed, and the blog-type feedback for the class makes interaction both engaging and manageable. You can participate only up to your level of comfort.
Don't want to talk to anyone? You don't have to. Feel like a full-on discussion of the meaning of life with the teacher? Book a meeting and get into it. The format of online classes is subjective, and moves at your speed of communication. Introvert or extrovert, there are classes that are right for you.
The future of learning
Online courses have revolutionized the learning market. This billion-dollar industry may soon make traveling, meeting in classrooms, and many other aspects of traditional schooling obsolete. Whether you are simply brushing up your existing tech skills, taking aim at a promotion, or just learning for the joy of learning, get on board (and online) today.