[Updated] A guide to finding the best free online courses available to South Africans.
You don’t have to go to university or college to educate yourself anymore, and you don’t even have to spend any money. There are many free online courses available to South African students. Yes, you read that properly, we said “free”.
How this whole thing works
Okay, online courses basically work like this:
- There are a bunch of online platforms, with websites you can register on and browse courses
- The courses on those platforms are usually developed by universities, expert individuals or by collaborative arrangements between tertiary institutions and individuals. These are the ‘course creators’. They develop these courses for a variety of reasons, including a) they want to get their expert knowledge out there into the world as quickly and cheaply as possible, b) they want to make some money, and opening up their course to the whole world is a great way to get volume, and c) creating a great online course is a good way to get your university’s name or your own name out into the world.
- The course creators publish their courses on these online platforms, where you as a consumer can register for them. In some cases, you pay up front. In other cases, you can do the course for free (and therefore get the knowledge), but if you want the certificate to use as proof in applying for a job, you pay for the certificate.
Either way, online course platforms have made education much more accessible, partly because they can access so many people that they can lower the costs overall.
Best online course providers
There are lots of online course providers, and to be honest they’re all pretty great. Here’s a list of the providers we most recommend:
These courses are completely free, but you will have to pay for an official certificate:
These courses are also free, and they offer you the opportunity to download your student record or give you a certificate of participation:
The following provider has both free and paid-for online courses that you can complete. However, they do not offer certificates unless you complete a Nanodegree which you will have to pay for online with your credit card.
Also, an honourable mention (and my personal favourite) – you can usually find specials for most courses here for as little as ZAR180:
We strongly recommend taking a look at all of these options before starting your first online course. They all have pros and cons. Some, like edX, provide the benefit of having a prestigious name behind the course (like a university). Others, like Udemy, give you the benefit of being able to start and work through the course at your own pace.
How to pick a provider (and a course)
With so many providers and courses to choose from, it’s hard to pick one and just get started. Here’s a few tips:
- Pick prestige if your field requires prestige
If you’re in a field like finance, for example, and you want to work at a financial institution, then you need to be realistic about the expectations of employers in your field. Financial institutions, like banks and investment brokers, tend to value prestigious MBA degrees and recognised institutions. So you probably want to look at course options on Coursera or edX that have a recognised university brand name behind them.
You can also apply this principle to localised fields. For example, if you are looking for education in geological engineering, and you want to get a job working at an oil company drilling off the east coast of South Africa, then you might want to look at courses that were created by a university/expert in Africa. Your future employer is more likely to know of that university/expert, and it suggests that you have a more specific knowledge of the area where you’re going to work.
- Pick specific skills if you’re in a technical space
If you’re in a field like user experience design, for example, and you want to work as a freelancer or at a small design agency, then you should probably focus on acquiring the specific skills you need rather than paying extra to get a certificate from a recognised institution. Companies that hire freelance designers, and small design agencies, generally don’t care about the pedigree of your education. All they care about is whether or not you’re good at design!
So if you’re in a field like this, then you probably want to look for courses that offer precisely what you want to learn, because in your case it’s more about the knowledge and expertise you will gain, rather than the piece of paper that says you did it.
- Generalise, and then specialise (and design a study program!)
I’m sure many of you just want to do one or two online courses. But for those of you that really want to get a full-blown education online, and spend very little if any money to do so, then you need to follow this strategy: generalise, then specialise. Let me explain…
Let’s say you want to learn to be a motion graphics animator, and you want to work as a freelancer running your own animation studio. If you do a bit of a market analysis, you might find that there are lots of potential clients looking for help animating their company data. So things like animated pie charts and line graphs and stuff like that.
So, first, you would want to do a few courses in the general field of motion graphics, to show that you have general competence in your field. Then you might want to look for very specific courses in data visualisation. It may even help at this point to look for courses with some prestige, like a course designed by an institution that is well-recognised for is data-related courses.
This will help you not only get the education you need, but also carve out a niche for yourself in the workplace, as you become seen as the ‘expert’ in your specialised field (data visualisation motion graphics).
- Regardless of your choice, finish it
There’s nothing worse than checking out someone’s LinkedIn profile and seeing 8 courses they’ve ‘been working on’ but are each only 12% complete. It sends the opposite message to what you were looking for when you started the courses. Yes, some courses you start won’t be exactly to your liking. But finishing them shows just as much about you as not finishing them!
Our top picks for online courses
Depending on what you want to study online, there are literally 1000’s of choices. But most online course providers have just a few very popular areas. Here’s a few that we really recommend, if they fit into your chosen fields:
Udemy Illustrator Course:
An introductory course for anyone looking to get into Design. Adobe Illustrator is the natural starting point, and this is a great course. Also an honourable mention for Daniel Walter Scott – anyone wanting to study design should check out his courses on Udemy.
edX MBA Course:
Okay, this one will set you back a hefty USD1,350. But it’s a full MBA! That would typically cost 10 times that amount, or more.
What do you need to get started?
While universities and colleges have strict requirements for accepting students into their courses, online education providers do not! In fact, most online courses require nothing more from you than:
- A stable internet connection
- A computer to work on
More advanced courses might require you to have previous knowledge of certain fundamental skills. But, this is just so that they can be sure you will understand the content of the course. While researching courses that interest you, make sure you check if any previous skills are required. It is a requirement for a reason – you might not be able to actually complete the course without it.
The most important requirement for an online course is that you are interested and driven to complete the course. Without complete commitment, it can be really easy to let your studies fall by the wayside.
Are free online courses better or worse than paid-for education?
1. Free online courses are typically developed by professional institutions, universities, and lecturers – just like traditional tertiary education.
2. All official online courses appeal to international and industry standards, so these courses offer comparable qualifications to universities/colleges.
3. Courses are available in various disciplines, from computer science to photography.
1. Free online courses require distance learning as they usually do not have a campus or formal classes.
2. There are no strict admission requirements for most courses – anyone can study something they are interested in!
3. Universities and colleges award you a proof of your qualification by means of a certificate or degree. However, online courses often ask you to pay for the final certificate to prove that you’ve finished the course.
The main difference between formal tertiary education and free online courses is that you will not always get a free certificate to prove that you’ve completed the course. However, some courses award you a certificate of participation or allow you to download your academic record. If you use these documents, as well as a portfolio of the work you did during the course, you can use them as proof that you have studied the relevant skills.
So, what are you waiting for? Getting an education is literally a click away. Your future doesn’t have to rely on how much money you have right now. Take your education into your own hands – make your future great!
“The best way to predict your future is to create it.”
~ Abraham Lincoln
Online Courses are fast becoming cheaper, easier and in some cases a better option than taking a university course. Find out why you should consider taking online courses.