The lid is off the Pandora’s box of open education. Khan Academy, MITx, P2PU, Open Badges, Udacity, Coursera. The providers of free online education are springing up left and right, and hundreds of thousands of people from nearly every country in the world are jumping at the chance to educate themselves. And though knowledge is an end in itself, it’s only natural that students of these free courses would want to apply their newly acquired skills in promoting themselves in the job market.
Trouble is, this revolution in education is bound to be met with skepticism and intransigence, as revolutions often are. We are not yet to the point where a free, self-directed Internet course is given the same respect as a course from a traditional university, even if it’s identical in every way. Employers might need some help seeing the light, and that requires you to do some selling. We’ve come up with a few ideas on how to do that.
- Emphasize the aspect of self-motivation:
Instead of seeing the lack of interaction with a teacher in a self-directed course as a weakness, turn it into a strength and sell it as such to your employer. Neither traditional brick-and-mortar schools nor paid online schools can claim to require the level of self-motivation needed by students to undertake and finish a self-education course. There’s no threat of expulsion due to failure, no danger of wasted tuition money, and no teacher constantly checking up on you. There’s just you, driving yourself to learn for learning’s sake.
- Keep your LinkedIn profile updated:
LinkedIn makes it possible for you to brag 24/7 about all those courses you’ve taken of your own volition. It’s probably not advisable to list them under “Education,” as you don’t want to invoke any negative reactions in employers who don’t yet see self-education as legitimate education. Instead, under the “Edit Profile” tab you’ll find an option to “Add sections to reflect achievements and experiences.” Click the icon then select “Courses” from the drop-down menu. Now every course you complete will be listed under its own special “Courses” section, listed by job for which it applies.
- Do everything you can to lend credibility to your coursework:
If you can demonstrate to an employer exactly what steps you took to make your self-education as legitimate as possible, you make your job of selling that education that much easier. For example, Udacity offers the option of taking exams in officially administered testing centers through a partnership with Pearson VUE. So before you spend a bunch of time on a course, first make sure that you will have such a way of proving you were the one who took the test and passed.
- Compare your course to a similar one at a brick-and-mortar institution:
With a bit of research, you can most likely find a syllabus online for a class at a traditional university that closely resembles the course you took. In some cases, like MITx’s 6.002x Circuits & Electronics class, the free course is exactly the same and just as hard as the course offered on campus. Bring both syllabi to your interview in case the employer asks to see them.
- Show them your class portfolio:
Since you’re already bringing in the syllabus, go ahead and bring all the work you did for your open education class to your interview: homework, exams, projects, everything. Put the icing on the cake by also including in your portfolio projects you completed after the course was concluded using the knowledge you gleaned from the class. There is no better proof that the course was legitimate and benefited you than by being able to show any interested person what you can now do as a result of taking the class.
- Invite them to take a test run:
The beauty of open education is … it’s open. Before your interview, print off the directions for signing up for an account with Udacity, Khan Academy, or whatever resource you used for your classes. Give these directions to your potential employers and urge them to check out the class themselves. If they’ve been writing off your class as a joke or an easy A, they’ll change their tune once they see what you went through, or even better, when they try some of the questions and they can’t answer them.
- Put yourself to the test:
To get your interview discussion away from the semantics of what exactly defines education and into the cold, hard realities of whether you can do the job, request a test. When you set up the interview you can ask the interviewer to prepare a little quiz for you to prove your skills when you meet, or if you want to make it a bit more subtle you can throw out the idea of a test when the subject of your self-education arises in the interview. If the latter puts him too much on the spot, offer to come back to take it. After all, a second meeting is never a bad thing.
- Dispel the myths:
Verbal and nonverbal communication skills are important for all job candidates, not just ones with self-education experience. Your interviewer may entertain some of the same biases that are sometimes applied against online degree holders, that they’re somehow strange, or can’t communicate face-to-face, or don’t know how to present themselves in an office environment. Some of the best selling you can do is to go out of your way to dress presentably, be personable, make eye contact, and generally make a good name for students of self-education everywhere.
- Name names:
One of the most tried and true sales techniques is the endorsement: tying a well-known, trusted source to a new, untested product to lend it reliability by association. In this case, your self-education is the unknown product. The endorsements you’ll want to highlight to employers are the partnerships with top-quality American universities and companies. Udacity was founded partly by Google VP and Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun. Coursera has partnered with Caltech, Duke, Princeton, Rice, and more. The major name behind MITx is obvious. Such associations give people something to hold onto to reassure them and make them confident in the skills you learned from self-education.
What we mean by this is, don’t apologize for the fact that some of your education was free of charge and self-directed. In all likelihood, you took more away from it than some of your college courses because you took it when you were older and wiser and more dedicated to bettering yourself. If that’s the case, say it! Say something like, “It was the best money I ever spent!” It’s all about changing attitudes, and if you believe strongly in the power of self-education, you can make others believe in it, too.