School was once something you did before you went out into the working world. But today, as people work longer and reinvent their careers more frequently, lifelong learning has become an essential part of the game. Fortunately, there are now many digital learning options that make it easier to take charge of upgrading your skills.
Being strategic about how to invest your time and money in e-learning often means taking courses with a direct payoff. For example, Deborah Rodrigo, 50, a certified public account based in Alberta, Canada, is currently taking two online taxation classes through Athabasca University, a Canadian-based university that specializes in online distance learning. "I took these classes 30 years ago as part of my degree," she says, but she hadn't used the material for her daily tasks in the intervening decades. Having recently resigned from her job, she's realized that her next position might require them, and she wants to stay fresh.
Margie Anderson, 57, a part-time office manager, recently took an online course on Udemy on how to use Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and is now looking at social media tutorials to help make her skills more marketable. "People over 50 need to understand the [social media lingo] and how important it might be to many new and existing and small businesses," she says.
If you're looking for the best online course for you, first look up the LinkedIn profiles of people in your industry you admire, suggests Anya Kamenetz, lead digital education correspondent for NPR and author of DIY U, a book about the future of higher education. "A lot of times people will put things on their profiles — where they got their skills and certifications," she says. These can be guideposts for what skills and courses you'll need for the next step in your career.
In many cases, free options such as YouTube how-to videos are available, which can be a great starting place. From there, you can seek out specialized for courses for specific skills in your field. Here are some resources that can help:
Khan Academy, a nonprofit, offers free classes in math, science, computer programming, economics and more.
Owned by LinkedIn, Lynda.com features many career-related courses and is useful for those looking to brush up on workplace skills. Leadership, project management, technology courses and more are available for a monthly membership fee. Plans start at $25 per month.
Udemy offers more than 40,000 courses created by experts on topics ranging from technology to photography. Classes start at $12 each and can be viewed on any mobile device.
CreativeLive features video classes on topics of interest to creative entrepreneurs, from photo editing to arts and crafts. While classes typically come with a fee, the site also broadcasts many courses live for free.
Coursera courses are taught by professors from top universities. Putting those university brand names on your LinkedIn profile or résumé can be an added bonus. "We've done a lot of work on our end to make sure the courses are relevant to people doing résumé scans," says Lila Ibrahim, chief business officer at Coursera.
For courses that come with a fee, aim to be a smart consumer before buying. "It's pretty much like anything you purchase online," Kamenetz says. "Look at the reviews, look at the ratings. Make sure that they seem legit and seem realistic."
Once you sign up, set yourself up for success. If it's been a while since you've taken classes, it can be jarring to dive in. Ibrahim has taken accounting and management courses online. "One of my biggest hesitations with my first Coursera course was taking a quiz," she says. "I hadn't taken a quiz in so many years that actually counted toward something." Get yourself mentally prepared to stretch beyond your comfort zone.
She eased these nerves in part by getting together with other learners to support each other, a strategy Kamenetz recommends. "You shouldn't think of it as something you end up going through alone," she says. Join a Facebook group or Meetup group devoted to the class, or find some like-minded people in the comments to create your own small group discussion section.
You can even find a friend who will work through Khan Academy calculus tutorials with you. "The social aspect is going to keep you motivated. It's going to keep you accountable," Kamenetz says.
And finally, realize that like any other form of learning, you have to devote time to your coursework to succeed. "Make it a part of your routine," Kamenetz suggests. "The biggest step is often figuring out that you can be in charge of your own learning."
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