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Best Online Classes for Job Skills

Codecademy, Coursera, edX, and Udacity reveal their most popular courses of 2017 and what they think will trend in 2018.
December 29, 2017
Simon Landrein

In 2017, people flocked to online classes about artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency, and data analytics. In 2018, expect more of the same, say leading online-education providers Codecademy, Coursera, edX, and Udacity. In response to a request from MIT Technology Review, they calculated their most popular courses of the past year and revealed which topics they think will lure the most students in the next.

More than 29 million people have registered to take classes at Coursera, an online platform that hosts more than 2,000 courses from universities such as Stanford and Yale. Nikhil Sinha, the company’s chief content officer, says many who enroll are “looking for a leg up in their careers” and gravitate to the platform’s “cutting-edge tech” courses. Their interests helped propel three AI-related classes into Coursera’s top 10, as measured by average daily enrollment: AI expert Andrew Ng’s Machine Learning and Neural Networks and Deep Learning and the University of Toronto’s Neural Networks for Machine Learning.

Curiosity about Bitcoin and the blockchain technology that makes digital currency possible was another 2017 trend. Coursera says Princeton University’s Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technologies class was its fifth most popular in 2017.

Courses on analytical thinking and computer programming were also in demand this year. Stanford University’s Introduction to Mathematical Thinking was No. 4 on Coursera’s 2017 list, while the University of Michigan’s Getting Started with Python was No. 6 and Princeton’s Algorithms, Part I ranked No. 7.

Udacity and edX noticed similar trends. EdX, a nonprofit that offers free online courses from more than 100 institutions including Harvard and MIT, says seven of its top 10 courses in 2017 related to computer science and programming, data analysis, or AI. Standouts included Microsoft’s Introduction to Python for Data Science and Columbia University’s Artificial Intelligence, both of which launched recently yet attracted a number of students this year. The organization also added Blockchain for Business, a course from the Linux Foundation, in 2017.

Udacity, another online-education provider, says its “nanodegree” programs followed a similar trajectory in 2017: its top five nanodegrees all pertained to AI, computer programming, and data analysis (see table). These paid, intensive courses run for several months and are designed in conjunction with corporate partners, such as Amazon and Google, to boost the likelihood that graduates will be able to find jobs.

Increased interest in data science showed up in Codecademy’s most popular courses of 2017 as well. The company’s Learn Python class was its No. 2 course of the year, which CEO Zach Sims attributes to the proliferation of tools that use the language to analyze complex data sets. “People aren’t just applying Python to traditional uses like Web development, but also to data science and analytics,” says Sims.

All these online-education providers expect the trends that dominated 2017 to remain pertinent in 2018. Codecademy and edX predict that data science and computer science will be among their most popular subject areas next year. Udacity says it will build on its existing curriculum in AI and autonomous systems. And Coursera’s Sinha says AI, blockchain, and “anything at the intersection of business and data analytics” will continue to grow in importance.

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