Free online courses abound to help you bone up on Linux, SDN and more

MOOCs seen as valuable educational complement to hands-on work

Massive open online courses offer IT professionals the opportunity to learn about some of the tech industry's most in-demand and current topics for free. Available to anyone with a Web connection, MOOCs cover a range of hot tech topics including software defined networking, cloud computing, security, drone development, artificial intelligence and mobile programming.

Popular MOOC platforms include edX, a venture developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, and Coursera, which was founded by two Stanford University professors. Course material mostly comes from academic institutions that adapt the material taught in classrooms for online learning. Cornell University, the University of California Berkeley and Caltech are just some of the schools that have made content available on MOOC platforms.

Nonacademic institutions are also becoming interested in offering professional development material as a MOOC. EdX recently added the Linux Foundation’s introductory Linux development course to help address the need for programmers who know the open-source operating system.

"Many of our students are looking for courses on topics that enable them to get a better job or bridge skill gaps, and Linux is one example [of that]," said Anant Agarwal, president of edX, at the time of the announcement. "A verified certificate from the Linux Foundation would have a lot of credibility in the marketplace."

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MOOC educations are gaining traction among tech employers. Hiring managers focus on how workers have used their tech skills to help a business, not whether they learned them online or in a classroom.

"We're not theorists here. We're actually buildings things," said Chad Morris, product lead at Mandrill, the transactional email service from MailChimp. "We're really looking at what it is you've actually done.

The computer science skills Tyler Kresch learned from edX’s cloud computing classes helped him transition from a sales position to a junior developer role at Procore Technologies, a Santa Barbara, Calif., startup that makes cloud-based construction management software.

"I created a small app to help with the really tricky part of the account setup," said Kresch, whose long-term career goal involves starting a tech company. "It used to take an hour of our account manager's time to close every new account. We now use my tool and that saves us that hour."

Kresch’s experience illustrates the caveat to a MOOC education: People need projects that show hiring managers how they've used the tech skills they learned online. Opportunities to gain this experience include contributing code to an open source project or volunteering to work on a nonprofit's tech projects.

"There's this big trend toward people moving away from evaluating a brick-and-mortar education and really valuing the experience," he said. "These days your résumé -- more often than not -- is your online presence. It's your list of projects that you've done. It's not courses that you've taken."

Here are some tech-focused MOOCs, listed by platform, that can help an IT worker professionally.

edX

Coursera

Fred O'Connor writes about IT careers and health IT for The IDG News Service. Follow Fred on Twitter at @fredjoconnor. Fred's e-mail address is fred_o'connor@idg.com

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