It’s been a year since the first UK lockdown and we’re all still stuck at home. We’ve watched everything on Netflix – twice, lost weight and gained it again, and none of us can bear to see our pals’ faces on Zoom any longer. And no more banana bread, please. To fill the void, people have ditched their culinary endeavours and turned to online courses instead.
Online learning platform Shaw Academy had just over 143,000 people registered for courses in 2019. But in 2020, this figure shot up to a massive 980,000, with photography, graphic design and nutrition the most popular courses. A lot of us are using all this time indoors to learn something new.
At a time when the pandemic has turned many of our lives upside down, working on self-development has given a lot of us a sense of control. “The pandemic immersed us into a world of restrictions and social isolation. For many of us much has seemed out of our control. As human beings we have an inbuilt drive to learn and self-develop,” says Tara Quinn-Cirillo, a chartered psychologist at Horsham Psychology. “Learning could be seen in the context of survival and adaptation to changing demands of our environment and the need to support ourselves and survive.”
There’s a smorgasbord of sites offering up both free and paid online courses targeting different disciplines. You can learn more academic or career-oriented skills like coding or project management, many of which allow you to gain a certificate in your given area, or you could just put your lockdown time toward learning new life skills. Either way, they each have their merits. Keen? Scroll on down for a roundup of our favourite online course platforms.
Learn a craft from the best in the business
MasterClass is the best platform for learning real-world crafts and skills from people at the top of their game and well, a lot of celebrities. Christina Aguilera will teach you how to become a better singer; Helen Mirren and Samuel L. Jackson will teach you how to become a better actor; and Gordon Ramsay will teach you how to cook like a pro. The list goes on and on; they’ve got everyone. But is it useful?
You won’t automatically become an amazing actor or a better cook, but what sets MasterClass courses apart are the tips from famous faces that you won’t ordinarily have access to. We went through Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting class and not only learned a huge amount about the craft, but also how Sorkin himself approaches writing stories for the screen. That’s what you’re paying for here. It’s more about imparting really useful knowledge that you can apply yourselves – we also enjoyed Questlove’s incredible deep dive into music curation and DJing.
On top of the course of videos itself, which last between two to five hours in total, you can access background reading material, worksheets and a community hub where you can chat to other students about the lessons. There’s minimal guidance here so you’ll need to motivate yourself to complete the sessions. MasterClass costs £135 a year for an all-access pass to every class. We think it’s worth identifying three or four courses that you want to try out before you pay so that you get your money’s worth.
Price: £135 per year (£14.17 a month) | MasterClass
The best free site for coding beginners
Once you register for an account, Codeacademy will offer up recommendations based on what you ultimately want to gain from learning how to code, such as being able to develop your own website. Sadly there aren’t any video tutorials, so you’ll have to do a lot of reading, but it still manages to be fun with rewarding challenges and practical exercises. You can earn badges for completing courses and skills.
If you run into any issues on a specific topic, Codeacademy has a user forum where you can discuss the course with other students who might be able to help you out with a bit of code that you’re struggling with.
There’s also a paid plan for £16 a month, which will suit those looking for a bit more guided learning. You’ll get certificates upon completion of courses, access to quizzes, real-world projects and live advisors at your beck and call.
Price: Free/ £16 per month | Codeacademy
The best free platform for all-round learning
Think of a new skill you want to learn and career-oriented educational learning platform Alison will probably have a course on it. It boasts a catalogue of over 2,000 free (ad-supported) online courses on everything from project management, mental health and workplace safety to supply chain management, Excel and world literature.
Lessons are split into individual modules and are delivered by pre-recorded videos with transcripts underneath. At the end of a course, you’ll be able to take an assessment and pay for a certificate to show that you’ve completed it.
For a free product, the platform is decent enough. It is fairly light on content and doesn’t go into much detail, so we’d advise looking into one of the online university course platforms if you want to go really in-depth into a subject.
There’s a monthly fee of £7 if you want to remove the fairly intrusive ads, but because of how light each course is, it’s really not worth spending money on it. The most worthwhile courses are the ones that get you up to scratch on the basics of Excel and similar programs.
Price: Free/ £7 per month | Alison
Courses on business, tech and the creative industries
If you remember reading about a little old online learning platform called LINDA and wondered where it went, you’ll be pleased to know that it didn’t just disappear. LinkedIn acquired it and turned it into LinkedIn Learning. The platform has over 16,000 courses stretching across business, tech and the creative industries, with 50 new courses added every week.
Each course is presented by an expert in the field and is chopped up into short, easy to digest videos. In each course, you can take notes in the little ‘notebook’ tab, ask questions and read a transcript. It’s a bit like the MasterClass of the business industry, providing you with courses on everything you could ever want to know. The ability to go through courses on the mobile app whilst offline is also pretty nifty.
LinkedIn Learning offers you personalised course recommendations and weekly learning goals that you can set yourself to help keep you on track. A nice perk of is that you get access to LinkedIn Premium free if you subscribe to the platform. After finishing a course, LinkedIn will also give you a certificate that will show up on your LinkedIn profile – a lot more useful than a certificate from a platform like Alison, for example.
It costs a hefty £25 a month, but if you want to give it a whirl, then there’s a one-month free trial. You may only want to pay this subscription price if you’re looking to invest in specific career goals, but it’s definitely one of the best online learning platforms out there. LinkedIn is also currently providing users with 1,000 hours of free LinkedIn Learning content for the most in-demand jobs.
Price: £25 per month | LinkedIn Learning
Our alternative pick for learning creative skills
Skillshare is like the cheaper, more focused version of MasterClass. It’s a great platform for learning different crafts, without the celebrity faces. Because the course videos aren’t being fronted by famous people, Skillshare has a much larger catalogue of content.
There are more than 23,000 courses to choose from, but they’re all fairly short and snappy, lasting at minimum ten minutes each. The topics lend itself to the shorter format since they’re all broken up into tip-based tutorials like the fundamentals of ink drawing techniques, branding your own business and ten essential tips on mastering Photoshop.
That said, the quality can vary widely. You don’t know if you’re going to get a great teacher or a lousy one. If you don’t like what you’re watching though, you can always just click off and try something else.
Skillshare also has partnerships with other services like Squarespace, Adobe and Shutterstock. So if you pay for an annual subscription, you’ll also get a discount on the other services – handy. There are ‘free courses’, but what this means in reality is that you’ll get the first lesson free and then have to subscribe to access the rest. A monthly subscription costs £33 a month and an annual membership costs £84.
Price: £33 per month / £84 per year | Skillshare
For learners with a limited amount of time on their hands
San Francisco-based Highbrow is a pretty interesting concept that will appeal to serial dropouts of overly long online courses that last months. The courses skew towards social skills and psychology, but you’ll also find courses on finance and culture. Every morning, you get a new bitesize lesson delivered straight to your inbox.
Each lesson lasts just five minutes, so you won’t be spending hours on a course only to drop it weeks later. Once you’re finished with a course, you can take a quiz to see how much you’ve absorbed.
You won’t become a master in the act of manipulation or negotiation, but you will pick up a few tips on a wide range of different subjects. Are they things you can’t learn by looking them up on Google? Maybe not, but having short segments delivered to your inbox keeps you a little bit more engaged and offers low pressure structure.
Highbrow costs $10 a month or $72 a year. The platform frequently has discounts on its subscriptions, so it’s worth trying to sign up when there’s a half price discount available. The company says that fifty per cent of your subscription goes directly to the teacher.
Price: $10 per month / $72 per year | Highbrow
The largest catalogue of online courses
Unlike other online course platforms, Udemy neatly straddles the line of providing both personal and professional development video courses for people outside their jobs as well as work teams. You’ll find videos on everything from finance to software to health and fitness and lifestyle.
Its model is a little different to the other online learning platforms in that you pay for each individual course rather than paying a subscription fee and having access to every single course. There are a few free courses, but ultimately, you’ll have to pay to access each one.
Like LinkedIn Learning, each course is split into separate video modules that last no more than ten minutes. The course itself can last several hours, however. Some teachers will provide worksheets for you to complete and others will just talk to you in a lecture-style format.
Prices for courses can range from as cheap as £6 to £140, with the instructor setting their own prices. Not every course on the platform is of a great quality, simply because any old Joe can become an instructor. Udemy provides information to instructors on what courses are in demand and how to put together a great one. While the majority of them are of a decent quality, it’s always best to have a look at the reviews to see what other people thought of the course before you take the leap.
Price: From £6 to £140 | Udemy
Online university courses with potential for accreditation
FutureLearn works a lot more like a traditional university online course platform. There are hundreds of different courses on academic subjects from partner university institutions in the UK and abroad. There’s courses on psychology, English literature, programming in Python and statistics. Basically, any course you might take whilst at university.
Compared to a lot of other online course platforms, the videos actually feel professionally made which makes sense considering it’s backed by the Open University. Most courses last between six and ten weeks and they’re all free for the duration of the course. Plus you get an additional two weeks to finish it afterwards. If you want to take the final assessment after it and get a certificate, you have to upgrade your plan which can cost between £24 and £69.
As well as the short courses, FutureLearn even has post-graduate degrees that can lead to accredited certification. Taking a year-long course from the Open University will eventually help lead you to an MBA in business management or similar. These can get expensive depending on the course, but still a lot cheaper than it would be to study a degree at a university institution on campus.
Every course is free, but unlimited access to every single short course without the time limit costs £200 a year and you get a certificate when you finish each one by default. This doesn’t include the degrees, which have separate prices.
Price: Free/ £200 per year all access | Future Learn
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