Taking a MOOC During Coronavirus Pandemic: What to Know

As the U.S. economy continues to suffer the consequences of the spread of the novel coronavirus, Tim Lewis is keeping his skills sharp through a series of massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

When Lewis left his job in November, the former associate director of engagement and strategic partnerships for the NCAA in Indianapolis thought he’d wait until after the holidays before searching for another full-time job. After spending several months consulting, he was ready to jump back into a full-time job search, just as the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now Lewis, who already holds multiple advanced degrees including a doctorate, is hoping the MOOCs will help his chances when the job market recovers.

As the U.S. faces record unemployment, Lewis isn’t alone.

A new study by the nonprofit Strada Education Network found 55% of Americans have either lost jobs or had their hours or income reduced, and two-thirds of Americans are worried that they may lose their jobs. Approximately one-third of Americans believe that if they were to be laid off, they would need more education to find a similar job. Gen Xers and millennials reported feeling the most pressure to gain more education.

[See: 10 Ways College Students Can Navigate the Coronavirus Outbreak.]

But with the coronavirus causing vast economic hardship, continuing education might seem out of reach to many. That’s where MOOCs, which are often either free or low-cost, can help bridge the gap.

According to a December 2019 report by Class Central, a website that provides a listing of online courses, MOOCs had 110 million students around the world excluding China, which was left out of the analysis for data reasons. More than 900 universities offered 13,500 of these courses. Class Central also found that there were a total of 820 microcredentials, which are digital certifications that indicate competence in a specific skill or set of skills, and 50 MOOC-based degrees.

And that was before a global pandemic.

According to Shravan Goli, chief product officer for the MOOC provider Coursera, between March 17 and April 16, overall U.S. enrollments have increased by 2,692% from the same period last year, with the greatest increase in enrollments in public health; social science, arts and humanities; and personal development courses.

Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, another popular MOOC provider, couldn’t answer questions about MOOC usage during the coronavirus, except to note the site has seen additional traffic in the past few weeks, and wouldn’t speculate as to the cause.

Many MOOC platforms have now made many of their offerings available for free during the pandemic, including Coursera, which is offering free courses through May 31 in everything from public health — including classes on COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus — to mental health and wellness; Spanish; and career development.

Coursera is also making its entire campus catalog available for free to any college or university in the world affected by COVID-19; schools may enroll students in 3,800 courses through July 31 and students can complete them through Sept. 30, but extensions may be available.

[Read: What College Applicants Should Know About MOOCs.]

Meanwhile, MOOC provider Udacity, which has both free courses and paid programs, is offering what it calls a “quarantine special”: free access for one month to its microcredentials programs, which focus on developing job skills and normally cost $399 per month.

Udacity saw a 44.8% increase in weekly active users in the four-week period from March 9 to April 6, according to a spokesperson. Over the same time period, the platform saw a 73.3% increase in new enrollments.

Class Central has also compiled a list of more than 400 free Ivy League courses available as MOOCs, some leading to certification. The Ivy League is made up of Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University and Yale University.

“It’s not surprising that people would be looking at MOOCs or microcredentialing while they’re at home now,” says Reggie Smith III, executive director of the nonprofit United States Distance Learning Association. “If you’ve lost your job, or worried you’re about to, they can be an affordable way to keep your skills sharp, especially the self-paced ones, which can be done after the kids have gone to bed or around other commitments.”

For Lewis, MOOCs are providing something besides professional credentialing: a much-needed distraction.

“I’m a constant learner,” Lewis says. “I may be in quarantine, but my brain is still going.”

Lewis has taken a series of online courses over the years, including a Google Analytics for Beginners course, and even completed his doctorate in global sport leadership entirely online through East Tennessee State University while also working full time. His current endeavor is a MOOC through Coursera titled, Brand Management: Aligning Business, Brand and Behaviour, taught by an instructor from London Business School.

“The companies that are going to survive this shutdown are the ones that have really strong brands, and have the greatest relations with their customers and consumers,” Lewis says, “Looking at the job market, and where the job market could be when this is all over, I know this is really important going forward.”

The class is free to audit, but Lewis says he’ll pay the $49 at the end to get a certificate of completion. When he’s completed this MOOC, he’s likely to do another. And maybe another one after that.

[Read: 5 Reasons to Consider Paying for a MOOC Verified Certificate.]

“I think that is such a great value for the quality of education you’re getting,” Lewis says. “As someone who has plenty of degrees, I think the relatively low cost of the certificate, especially given the quality of the education, is a great investment.”

For people across the country who are unemployed or worried they’re about to be; college students whose education has been disrupted; or graduating high schoolers now worried their college dreams might be put off due to financial worries, MOOCs and microcredentials can be a great way to continue learning, keep skills sharp or learn new ones, and showcase those accomplishments on LinkedIn profiles or resumes, experts say.

And during a time when so many people are feeling extreme financial pressure, they can serve as free or inexpensive reminders that there will be a time, in the not-so-distant future, when there will be a job market to return to — even if it’s not quite clear when that will be or what it will look like when it arrives.

Until it does, however, Lewis is going to keep taking online courses.

“I am done with the formal degrees. Done!” he says. “It’s all about the certificates and certifications in the most financially responsible way.”

Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.

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Taking a MOOC During Coronavirus Pandemic: What to Know originally appeared on usnews.com

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