We're living through an incredible moment in the history of learning. Suddenly, anyone with an Internet connection can take courses, for free, from some of the world's top universities. On sites like Coursera, edX, and Khan Academy, you can learn how to run a clinical trial that will satisfy the Food and Drug Administration, study aircraft design, or dive into the basics of environmental law.
The offerings are commonly called MOOCs, for "massive open online courses," and they tend to offer participants certificates of achievement if they finish, as opposed to course credits or grades.
But will taking these online courses at schools like Harvard and Stanford improve your prospects in the job market?
As with many revolutions, Boston has been at the center of the action. In 2002, MIT launched a pilot website for its OpenCourseWare initiative, offering 32 courses. By 2003, Wired Magazine was writing about students in Nashville and Ho Chi Minh city taking MIT classes for free. Last year, MIT and Harvard University decided to work together, creating a new nonprofit called edX.
The Cambridge-based organization now offers courses from McGill University, Georgetown University, Cornell University, CalTech, and Wellesley College, among others. Many include not just recommended readings, but videos, quizzes, and interactive tools like electronic circuit simulators or protein builders.
Some people who have completed MOOCs say they're including them on resumes and LinkedIn profiles. Avi Jacobson, who runs a sustainable energy program at a public agency in Seattle, says he isn't looking for a job, but he posts the courses he has taken at MRUniversity on his LinkedIn page to test "if it adds something positive. I am smarter for taking them."
Geoffrey Horwitz, who works in business development at Boston Children's Hospital, says he is not in the job market either, but plans to eventually include courses he has taken on topics like drug discovery under an "Additional Courses" heading on LinkedIn.
Human resources executives and recruiters tell me they aren't seeing significant numbers of candidates touting the MOOCs they've completed. But those who have seen mentions of MOOCs say it's an indication of commitment to upgrading skills and knowledge.
At Massachusetts General Hospital, recruitment manager Megan Bradley says, "I see these online courses as a form of professional development, like when people take adult ed courses. If a job requires a [specific] educational degree, these courses would not suffice."
Bruce Allen of the Wakefield recruiting firm Point B Search says, "Any initiative that candidates take to update their skill set, acquire new skills, or simply extend their knowledge base will be viewed as positive."
Risa Pecoraro, an executive who hires engineers at Boston-based Homesite, an online insurance agency, says she views MOOCs "as a strong positive, assuming that they can prove through our interview process that the course has been effective." Others point out that listing MOOCs can help you rise to the top if a recruiter is searching the resume database for keywords that match a course you've taken, like "data visualization" or "social media marketing."
Recruiter Adriana Ganos of Rue La La, the Boston-based e-commerce site, says she wouldn't necessarily write off the MOOCs a candidate has taken, but "I value in-person content and communication. I'd rather see someone go and physically attend something and participate in a class at a place like Bocoup Loft or General Assembly or Intelligently." (Those are three local venues that offer continuing education, primarily focused on tech industry workers.)
Gray Chynoweth of Dyn says his company is encouraging its employees to take MOOCs. "Before we figure out how to weigh them when we look at [job] candidates, we want to experience what happens when our employees go through them," says Chynoweth, chief operating officer of the Manchester, N.H., networking and e-mail services firm.
While MOOCs seem like they can only enhance a job candidate's appeal, many people I talked to noted an important shift in the world of hiring. Credentials, whether a MOOC certificate or an MBA degree, are declining in importance, while portfolios are on the rise.
What's a portfolio? Some sort of evidence of your expertise and abilities online, like design work showcased on Dribbble.com, software code on GitHub, a mobile app you've built, or a sales presentation you developed and posted to SlideShare. "Education is becoming less than 10 percent of a candidate's total score when we hire," says Apollo Sinkevicius, managing director at One Mighty Roar, a Boston design and innovation firm. Portfolios and work samples "have the highest weight in my hiring," he says.
"What really carries the weight in hiring today is, have you worked at good companies in the past, and what have you built," says Tom Summit of Catalyst Recruiting in Newburyport, who has been recruiting techies for nearly 25 years.
At Dyn, Chynoweth says, "We want someone to come in and be able to create value for the company quickly. So we're looking for evidence that they can do that."
Free MOOCs are a fantastic thing. But even if you've been a top student, sitting in the virtual front row, employers increasingly want to see what you can create.