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The Present

Coursera offers 3,800 free online classes for unemployed workers

The coronavirus pandemic offers online education companies a chance to prove themselves.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

Key Takeaways
  • Coursera is allowing federal, state, and local agencies that serve the unemployed to enroll in the free program until September 30.
  • Typically costing $399 per year, workers will be able to access free online classes by going through unemployment agencies that have enrolled. Subjects range from cloud computing and computer science, to business and art.
  • As workers begin retraining and school districts turn to virtual learning, online education companies stand to gain.

The online education company Coursera is offering free courses to workers who are unemployed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Unemployed workers will have access to Coursera’s full catalog of 3,800 online classes across 400 specializations, which range from digital marketing and data science, to deep-learning and self-driving cars. Enrollment normally costs $399 per year. To gain access, workers must go through a local, state or federal unemployment agency — each of which has until September 30 to enroll in the program. Agencies that do enroll will be able to provide workers with free access until the end of the year.

Coursera’s Workforce Recovery Initiative is an extension of its Coursera for Government program, which helps government employees re-train and learn new professional skills. By completing classes, workers may be able to receive college credits or professional certifications.


“Coursera, along with its community of partners, is ready to serve the millions of workers who have lost their jobs and are going to have a hard time returning in a slow economy,” Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda told Forbes. “We are honored to help U.S. states and countries around the world in their efforts to alleviate the impact on communities hardest hit by the pandemic.”

The first U.S. states to offer the program will be Illinois, Arizona, and Oklahoma, while national governments like Colombia, Costa Rica, Greece, Malaysia, Panama, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan have also enrolled. Coursera anticipates that other U.S. states will enroll, and the company says it’s looking into offering free access to private organizations “on a case-by-case basis.”

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Online education’s big moment

It’s no wonder Coursera and rival companies like Kaplan and Udacity have begun offering free online courses. For one, the unemployment rate in the U.S. last week topped 20 percent, meaning there’s more than 33 million Americans without jobs. Many of these workers may need to retrain for new jobs, or could otherwise benefit by boosting their skills.

Beyond that, online learning companies are likely hoping that workers who enroll in the free program will continue using the platform when the offer expires in 2021. After all, the pandemic is likely to reshape many aspects of modern life, and it may accelerate a broad transition from in-classroom education to online learning.

The pandemic has already closed public schools across the U.S., forcing some 55 million American schoolchildren to attend class virtually, if at all. This shift has been fraught with technical, logistical, and psychological problems. But if online learning can be more successfully integrated into society, companies like Coursera could win big.

As Chip Paucek, chief executive of the educational technology company 2U Inc., told MarketWatch: “This is online education’s moment” to prove itself in front of a big audience.


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