Want to find a new job or start a business? Try an online course

A new study from the Harvard Business Review shows that most people who took a free massive open online course saw positive career results

By Bloomberg News

Sep 23, 2015 @ 5:46 pm EST

For all their problems, free online classes may have a net positive effect on your career. A new study shows that most people who took a free massive open online course, or MOOC, say it helped their careers, including by getting them a new job or helping them start a business.

“This type of research illustrates the possibilities MOOCs offer to change the educational landscape,” write the authors of the study, published Tuesday in the Harvard Business Review.

The study was conducted by researchers at Coursera, an online education platform, and professors at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Washington, who have taught MOOCs. They surveyed 52,000 people around the world who have taken these courses. Seventy-two percent said their online class helped them professionally. Among that group, a quarter of respondents cited the classes as a reason they found a new job. Nine percent credited their MOOC with aiding them in starting a business.

(Chart: The career benefits of MOOCs)

Free, virtual classes have been something of a letdown for education tech companies, which initially marketed the offerings as a weapon against unequal access to learning. Research shows that almost everyone who enrolls in a MOOC never finishes it. The vast majority of MOOC customers turned out to be well-educated, employed people, rather than the underprivileged strivers the companies were theoretically helping.

“Are MOOCs merely an intellectual diversion for the well educated and well-off?” asks the study, summing up the skepticism that has trailed the MOOC industry for years.

The authors, who admit that they have a dog in this particular fight, gamely offer some evidence to contradict the despair. MOOC students from developing countries were more likely to say the courses boosted their professional life in tangible ways than people from developed countries, the study showed. Within the developing world, lower-income students were the most upbeat about the career impact of the courses. In general, the courses seem to have the biggest career impact for people who have not finished college.

Of course, 80% of MOOC customers already have a bachelor's degree, and 60% come from developed countries, the study acknowledges. That would suggest the people most likely to benefit from free online classes are not the ones taking them.

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