The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a level of change few could have imagined a year ago. From lockdowns to massive unemployment to social distancing, none of us saw it coming. And none of us knows when it will end.

On the upside, human beings are enterprising. We’re quick to see how extremity can create opportunity, as evidenced by the surge this year in demand for online-education courses, many aimed at job-skills training.

Expanding one’s work-related skills can be a wise investment—during tough times especially. In some cases, having an up-to-date skillset may make holding on to a job more likely. It certainly makes it easier to find a new one.

Online learning platforms have been around since the 1990s, but 2020 seems to be the year that web-based education has reached critical mass. Course offerings are abundant, and students now number in the tens of millions.

Remote-learning courses typically involve a mix of video lectures, readings, and projects/homework. Generally speaking, course offerings can be divided into three categories: classes that focus on particular work-related skills; courses related to degree programs; and classes for “auditors” who simply want to learn and have no desire to earn a degree or a certification.

Learning from the comfort of home is convenient, to be sure, but many online classes offer another attractive aspect: the price. Some courses are free. Others carry a minimal price tag—often less than $50 for a short job-skills course. Or a class itself may be free while a fee is charged to receive a certificate, credential, or transferable credit. (For courses with a cost, an employer or a state job-training agency may offer financial aid if the online class adds to or improves one’s job-related skills.)

Some courses focus on “hard skills” (job-specific) while others teach “soft skills” (applicable to many jobs). Soft skills include such things as effective negotiation, strategic thinking, and dealing productively with difficult people.

Where to find courses

Here is a listing of six of the most popular online-learning platforms, with some details about each.

  • Coursera:
    One of the broadest online-education platforms, with more than 4,300 courses. Coursera’s educational partners include nearly 200 universities, as well as Google, IBM, and Salesforce. Besides offering courses that lead to bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the Coursera platform features short-term classes that lead to professional certifications in fields ranging from Business Analytics to Social Work.
     
  • edX:
    A platform similar to Coursera in that it provides professional-certification classes as well as degree-related courses from many colleges and universities. Users also can work at their own pace in “MicroBachelors” or “MicroMasters” programs that allow credits to be transferred to participating schools.
     
  • Udacity:
    This platform focuses on tech-related vocational courses, with offerings such as Digital Marketing and Data Visualization. Udacity also has modules on preparing for job interviews.
     
  • Udemy:
    This site offers “the world’s largest selection of courses.” Unlike the platforms listed above, Udemy doesn’t offer courses affiliated with universities. Instead, courses are created by entrepreneurial instructors who earn money by teaching online. Offerings include classes in Business, Design, Information Technology, Marketing, Photography, and Personal Development.
     
  • LinkedIn Learning: (formerly Lynda):
    Owned by Microsoft and connected with its job-networking site LinkedIn, LinkedIn Learning offers more than 13,000 courses, including classes on mastering popular software applications such as Excel, Photoshop, and InDesign. Many of the platform’s classes are available free via local libraries (online access requires a library card). And from now until March 31, 2021, LinkedIn Learning offers specific “learning paths” at no cost for those who lost jobs due to the pandemic.
     
  • ed2go:
    This platform, owned by the educational publishing firm Cengage, has 750 courses “designed to meet workforce demand” and offered in partnership with local colleges and universities throughout North America and overseas. Subject areas include Arts and Design, Business, Construction and Trades, Hospitality, Writing, and more. Most classes can be completed in six months or less. Many are as short as six weeks.

Other options

Some colleges and universities run their own remote-learning platforms, such as Penn State World Campus, MIT OpenLearning, and Stanford Online.

In addition, many Christian schools offer bachelor’s, master’s, and certificate programs online — including Liberty University, LeTourneau University, and Mississippi College.

An education boon

Just as high-speed internet and other advances in technology have made investing easier and cheaper, online education is more convenient, robust, and cost-effective than ever. That’s good news for the education consumer. Whether you want to update your job skills, learn new ones, acquire a professional credential, or even earn an entire degree, you probably can find what you’re seeking online.

Check each of the platforms for specific offerings, pricing details, and information about time commitments and any prerequisites.