by Ross Rubin

Online courses become effective for building technical skills, earning certifications

Apr 26, 2017
CareersIT SkillsTechnology Industry

Lower cost, course variety, schedule flexibility and the optional endorsement of top universities are among the forces driving the wave of online technical education. However, spotty feedback from teachers and follow-through from students can compromise the experience.

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For picking up a quick Excel tip or even a primer on programming, a quick YouTube search may provide the self-starter a push in the right direction. Moving up the sophistication ladder, through, a range of on-demand online programs provide a means for IT professionals to gain new skills or certifications. However, they come with a wide mix of tradeoffs.

Online providers of technical education courses include Udemy, a marketplace in which virtually anyone can offer instruction, and sites such as Coursera, edX and Udacity that partner with universities. New York-based General Assembly, which focuses on technical skills development, offers online companion courses to physical class offerings that can span a weekend or go on for months in one of its immersive programs. It has served more than 350,000 students   

Offering certifications, specializations and degrees is one way that online education companies differentiate their offerings and business models. For example, many of the classes offered through the edX consortium are free, but it charges a fee if you want the certification.

Capitalizing on established education brands is an advantage touted by companies such as Coursera, which has partnered with more than 150 academic institutions. Coursera COO Lila Ibrahim says of the Coursera’s higher ed partners, “They are established institutions. They are regarded by employers and by citizens and government as having the right kind of content. They’re on the leading edge of research.”

Michael Sterling, a New York-based quantitative analyst, notes that the quality of the online experience can vary even within the same degree program. After attending one of the earliest massive online courses in artificial intelligence, he signed up in 2014 for a masters program in Computer Science online course offered by Udacity in partnership with Georgia Tech.

While he’s found the degree has helped his career, the quality of the experience varied from class to class or even by how teaching assistants used different technologies for Q&A. “Sometimes there would be a several-minute delay between when you would ask the question and you would see the video. So if there was even the slightest misunderstanding of your question, it was just hopeless.” Such technical hiccups aside, Sterling praises the flexibility and affordability of the course, which he took with tuition assistance offered by his employer.

Undoubtedly, technical skill-building classes in areas such as software development and web development dominate the online commercial course landscape. General Assembly boasts that 99 percent of the students in its immersive programs who take advantage of it career placement services find jobs within six months, adding that the typical starting salary for a junior developer is between $65,000 and $85,000. It’s an easy investment to justify as long as the domestic developer job market stays frothy.’

But what if the job market crashes? General Assembly’s Tom Ogletree, who leads social impact programs for the company, says, “We really try to be responsive to market demand, period.” The company analyzes job market data from Burning Glass Technologies to make sure its classes are meeting demand. And it claims some protection from tech market bubbles by noting that its alumni are often hired by companies in industries such as insurance, commercial banking and the airlines that are not thought of as tech companies per se but are trying to become like them.

Mike Rose, a Brooklyn-based system engineer, has used training offered by his employer, He says that, while he has found both virtual and in-person classes have had value for helping him achieve certain certifications, the in-person ones make it “easier to filter out the distractions to stay focused on the content.”

Sticking with a class may be easier when it costs thousands of dollars. However, many classes online, including many from Udemy, can be taken for less than $20. Udemy VP of Content Grégory Boutté says that he sees wide variation in terms of motivation. He offers the example of someone who must learn advanced Excel techniques because their boss has asked them to build a model next week versus someone who may have signed up for a yoga class.

He says, “That’s very different from somebody taking a public speaking course or a yoga courses where you’re like, ‘Well, I can do this this week or maybe in two weeks, and maybe in between I’m going to forget.’” Boutté emphasizes that Udemy diligently reminds those who have signed up for courses about their availability. And Rose cites the gentle nagging of the Duolingo language learning app as an effective way to drive attention back to the class.

While proponents of experiential advances such as augmented reality and virtual reality point to the education potential of the dazzling immersive images these technologies can create. Case Western Reserve University, for example, has been using Microsoft’s HoloLens headwear to experiment with three-dimensional virtual images to explain anatomy.

But the near-term impact of technology promises to be less dramatic. General Assembly, for example, points to the impact that it believes artificial intelligence and machine learning will have on personalizing classes for those with different learning styles. The ultimate goal is to get closer to the kind of instant skill development depicted in the film The Matrix. As Rose describes the ideal, “You know you need to scale up on this capability right now. So two hours later, you know kung fu.”