Popularity of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

How to Use Free Online Educational Courses to Become a Specialized Translator

I’ve talked previously about how one of the ways to make more money as a translator is to specialize.

Choosing the right language combination and choosing an in-demand area of expertise are the two most important things you can do to make it as a successful freelance translator.

There are problems, though.

Attending College is Not Always the Right Answer

Translators often complain that the only way that they can specialize is by going to a university and earning a degree in something that’s interesting to them, such as finance, law, or medicine.

The problem, though, is that attending college is not very convenient for most people.

Sure it works or 18-year old kids just out of high school who aren’t saddled with other commitments such as family or work, but for someone who is trying to enter the translation industry later in life, college life is not practical.

Besides that, college in general is not geared towards giving you the knowledge you need to succeed as a translator.

Most colleges don’t offer a translation degree.

On top of that, even if the school has a translation degree-granting program, there is simply not enough time in four years to also earn a degree in another discipline.

So what do you do? Spend five or six years in college earning two degrees when all you want to do is translate?

Sounds like a racket for the universities to me.

Most Clients Don’t Care About Degrees

In over 20 years in the translation industry, no client has ever asked me about my college degrees.

Experience is what matters.

If you have experience in the material the client needs translated and have experience doing translation work, that’s all you need most of the time to get the job.

Don’t fall for the trap that a specialized degree is going to automatically open doors for you in the translation world.

For example, let me describe two different translators’ experience/education. Look at them from the perspective of a potential client and you tell me who you would rather hire.

Translator 1 – Attended a four-year university and got a BA degree in finance and is just starting out in the translation industry.

Translator 2 – Got an AA degree at a local community college but has been translating finance-related documents for the past four years for prestigious clients who are willing to provide glowing references.

I would choose Translator 2 every time. No question.

Another problem with the traditional route taken by the majority of translators who attend college to get a speciality is that once they choose that speciality, they’re stuck.

What if you want to translate in a different area? Does that mean you have to go back to school for another four years to get another degree?

What a waste of time.

Or does that mean you just have to stick with what you know and never try new things?

What a waste of your life.

There’s got to be a better way, right?

Luckily, there is.

Welcome to the World of MOOCs

The best kept secret (despite attempts to bring them to the masses) for learning in our digital environment today are Massive Open Online Courses, otherwise known as MOOCs.

Maybe you’ve heard of them, maybe you haven’t.

But even if you’ve heard of them, it’s unlikely that you’ve taken advantage of them to further your translation career.

But that’s not to say that they are unpopular.

In fact, in 2014, the growth of the number of classes offered by MOOCs shot up to over 2,400, according to Class Central.

Popularity of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)
Popularity of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

There’s also no sign that the number of courses is going to decrease anytime soon.

In addition, the number of universities offering these types of classes and offerings is only increasing.

So what is a MOOC?

Massive Open Online Courses are simply distance study courses made available online to a massive group of people who are usually geographically dispersed. More importantly, these courses are free.

Some MOOCs can be used towards university-granting degree programs, while many cannot.

These advantages make MOOCs ideal for people who want to learn about a subject, but does not have the money or convenience to attend in-person university courses.

In addition, they are ideal for students who want to learn about something without feeling the need to prove their knowledge with a university degree.

Can anyone say “perfect for translators?”

MOOCs are a great option for translators looking to gain knowledge in other areas. They can then use to improve their translation business by offering translation services in those areas of specialization that they have studied on their own time.

How MOOCs Work

One of the great things about MOOcs is that they are easy to sign up for and easy to use which makes them very convenient for busy professionals.

The first thing to do after deciding that you want to take advantage of a MOOC is to decide what you want to learn.

What subject do you want to know more about?

Finance? Horticulture? Aviation?

Once you decide what you want to learn, then it’s time to find the relevant courses.

There are a number of MOOC platforms that offer these courses, as well as a number of top universities across the country and globe that offer free university classes.

A great place to start is the top three, in terms of number of courses offered.




Each of these learning platforms offer their own type of learning environment and different courses, so it’s best to check all of them when trying to find courses to match your area of interest.

The best way to learn is by example, so let me take you on a tour of what it’s like to sign up for a class on one of these platforms.

Let’s say that I want to learn about gaming. I’ve heard it’s becoming more popular and translators are needed more and more to translate games and platforms into other languages.

Plus, I’m super interested in gaming in general and would like to learn more about that.

1. Sign up for an account on Coursera.org

After you sign up (which you can do with a Facebook account or with your email and a password) you get taken to a page where you can set your preferences for the kinds of classes and courses that you’re interested in.

Coursera preferences page
Coursera preferences page

2. Choose your interests

Instead of choosing one or more of the various options presented, I chose to instead search for something else in the search bar located at the top of the page.

I typed in the word gaming.

Once I hit enter, I was presented with a list of classes:

A sampling of "gaming" classes from Coursera
A sampling of “gaming” classes from Coursera

In total, there were 73 classes offered that had something to do with gaming.

3. Apply your filters

Coursera gives you the option to filter the classes that fit your criteria based on four different options:

  1. Availability – This option allows you to choose between courses that are available now and those that are offered at specific times in the future. Courses are starting all the time, so if a certain course you find interesting isn’t offered currently, be sure to still check it out. It’s likely that it will be offered sometime in the near future.
  2. By Topic – The term gaming is somewhat general and can be approached from a wide variety of angles. For example, scanning through the 73 offerings, I see that while most of the gaming classes are taught from a computer science perspective, there are some courses that are taught from a business angle. Depending on what I’m interested, classes from both perspectives would probably be valuable to me as a translator looking to specialize in game translation.
  3. Languages – Most of the courses you come across are taught in English. However, there are more and more MOOC platforms that are starting to offer courses in languages other than English. For example, MiriadaX is a MOOC that offers courses from universities in Spain. All the courses are taught in Spanish. If you are an English/Spanish translator, this is an excellent way to learn about a subject in Spanish.
  4. Language Subtitles – Some courses have language subtitles in other languages, although many don’t.

Other MOOCs will have different filters you can use to limit your options. For example, one of the things I like about Udacity is that you can filter your results based on skill level.

So if your gaming knowledge is a bit weak, you can focus on the beginning classes, and then move on to the more advanced ones once you get some knowledge under your belt.

4. Choose your class

Once you’ve narrowed down your results, it’s time to figure out if any of the classes are what you’re looking for in order to get a foundational knowledge of gaming that you can then leverage to find translation clients.

To choose a class, just click on it.

In this case, I chose a course from Michigan State University called Principles of Game Design. After I click, I get to the course web page:

Coursera class page
Class page for Coursera course on gaming

On this page I can read about the course, look at the various modules that are offered, see when the course is offered, ready about the instructor, and then enroll in the course.

Now with this particular course, it actually costs money to enroll because it is part of what Coursera calls a specialization. If I wanted to earn a certificate of Specialization for all four courses in this series, it would cost me $355.

That would be fine if that’s what I needed, but as I mentioned above, degrees don’t really mean much for clients who are interested in whether or not translators can adequately translate their material.

So instead of officially enrolling in the course and paying money, I can audit the class by clicking on the Audit Course link on the lefthand side of the page.

5. Start Learning

Once you hit the Audit Course link, you get sent to a page where you can access the course content.

Audit Course Page for Coursera
Audit Course Page for Coursera

You have access to all the videos, lectures, and documentation that are available in the paid version. The only thing you don’t have access to are the quizzes and some assignments.

(And really, nobody needs more quizzes in their life.)

That’s really all there is to signing up for a course in Coursera. Most of the other MOOC platforms are the same with a few differences, but easy enough to figure out.

Potential Downsides to MOOCs

While MOOCs present a huge opportunity for translators and language professionals to learn about subjects outside their original areas of specialization, there are some potential downsides to MOOCs.

For one, most of the subjects available on MOOC platforms are technical in nature. There aren’t many humanities-type classes offered.

However, to be honest, from my perspective, the technical subjects seem to more in demand for translators anyway so for a translator looking to learn more that will help him learn, this is right up his ally.

Another potential downside is that many of the classes offered follow a traditional university format with specific start and stop times, as well as deadlines for homework and assignments.

However, more and more platforms are offering classes that are available anytime. Also, if you’re not focused or worry about getting an official certificate for the course you take, you can audit the course at your own pace without waiting for the course to official start.

Finally, you need to be dedicated.

With most things that are free, it’s easy to put low to no value on the class since you’re not paying actual money for the course.

And if you don’t put any value on the class, it will be that much easier to skip taking the class and waste your time on other things that have no value to your business, like checking your Twitter feed and online translation forums.

But if you do decide to use these free courses to learn about new subjects you can then leverage to improve your translation business, you’ll be ahead of the pack and be able to find new clients. You’ll be confident in your abilities to translate new subjects. You’ll keep your job interesting. And you’ll be that much more valuable to your clients.

A win-win-win for sure.


14 thoughts on “How to Use Free Online Educational Courses to Become a Specialized Translator”

  1. Katarzyna Klag

    I would also recommend FutureLearn: http://www.futurelearn.com. Its schedule is even more flexible than Coursera’s or EdX’s, since after a course ends, all course materials remain on the website and can be used later on, while in the case of Coursera and others, they are wiped some time after the closing date of the course, so you have to download them if you want to refer to them in the future. You only have to enrol when the course is going on, before its end and then you have access to all materials and can work whenever you want. It is impossible to enrol only when the course has already ended. The course certificates offered by FutureLearn have to be paid for, but if you are only after the knowledge, it does not really matter. Topics offered by the site are quite extensive and include also humanities, e.g. there are great courses on Shakespeare such as “Shakespeare and his world” as well as analyses of the Bard’s individual plays (though these are not really useful for a translator, I guess). I particularly enjoy the option of downloading video transcripts in pdf, which can be easily printed out and used to study away from the computer. It is very useful and I really miss this function in other MOOCs.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Katarzyna. I think MOOCs are a great way for translators to gain knowledge in other areas in order to improve their freelance business.

  2. Thanks for a comprehensive artcile, Clint, I really enjoyed reading. I belive that online education once was the thing of the future but now becomes an objective reality. As a freelance translator with over 8 years of experince I still try to learn something new everyday.

    1. Thanks, Simon. You know, it’s funny. There are so many resources for translators these days. I would have never thought 10 years ago that free online education would be available to us like it is today. I think that the translators that are successful are the ones that can take advantage of these resources. Continual learning is a great motto to follow.

  3. Pingback: Weekly translation favorites (Nov 20-26)

  4. Pingback: How to Use Free Online Educational Courses to B...

  5. Jessica Martinez

    Brilliant post. You put a nice effort to collect all these information, these mentioned websites are free for online educational courses. Even I tried “edx” which offers a best free online courses to learn. Thanks for sharing such information.

    1. Thanks, Jessica. Those sites are a wealth of information for translators and should definitely be utilized.

  6. Pingback: Practical Steps for the Translation of any Document

  7. chispitacarreras

    Clint, I just visited the Coursera website wanting to audit a few courses and I could not find a link for auditing. The screen looks different from what you shared on this post, too. Maybe they don’t allow audits anymore? If I missed the link somehow let me know! Thanks.

    1. I know that Coursera seems to be constantly changing their algorithm and sometimes courses show up that allow auditing for some people but don’t have the option for other people. Which classes are you trying to audit? I’ll see if I can access them from my end and we can compare notes.

      1. chispitacarreras

        I’m interested in a SEO certificate they offer–it is composed of 5 courses. It’s called Become an SEO Expert. Check it out and let me know!

      2. OK, so I figured it out I think. You can’t audit an entire specialization, which is a series of courses. However, you can audit the individual courses that make up the specialization. If you search for the courses individually in the search bar at the top of the Coursera page catalog, then click on the course in the search results, you’ll see an “enroll now” button (color blue) that is on the left side of the screen. If you click on that, it’ll present a pop-up window that will allow you the option to audit the course.

      3. chispitacarreras

        Thank you, Clint. I’ll check it out!

Leave a Reply