(Courtesy: Kevin Casey, Informationweek) 12 Dec 2013 Viewed 621 Times Viewed by 447 people

Constant learning is a key to avoiding career stagnation. That's especially true in IT. When the technologies and corresponding skills change regularly, there's no such thing as business as usual.


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Sure, some of the know-how you've had since day one of your first job will remain with you throughout your professional life. How you augment and renew your core skills and education, however, could make the difference in your current or future IT gig. 

The good news? That whole constant learning thing can be done, at least in part, without leaving your couch. An explosion in online learning opportunities, offered by prestigious universities and Internet startups alike, shrinks the list of available excuses for folks who swore they'd never again set foot in a classroom. Better still, many of these opportunities are offered free, eliminating another popular excuse. And if you're lucky, you work for a smart boss at a company willing to invest in its internal IT skills. If that's the case, you can likely make the case for taking online courses on company time. 

Where to start? Here are five online classes for IT pros of varying backgrounds to consider. 

Applied Cryptography (Udacity) 
Here's an easy bet: Information security is going to be a hot topic for, um, forever. The recent NSA revelations and growing interest in securing sensitive data don't hurt. Even without such dramatic headlines, the everyday world of malware, targeted hacks, social engineering, and other perils of digital business continues to expand. As a result, IT pros with serious security skills aren't likely to starve. They'll be in high demand for the foreseeable future. University of Virginia computer science professor David Evans teaches a free course in Applied Cryptography at Udacity. It's aimed at people with programming experience and computer science knowledge, and it covers topics such as secure computation, secure commerce, and anonymizing online communications. 

HTML5 Programming From Scratch (Udemy) 
HTML5 has hit some speed bumps on the road to Next Big Thing status. Whether it delivers on its initial hype is yet to be determined, but that isn't slowing demand for HTML5 development skills. The job search site Indeed.com lists "HTML5" as the fastest-growing keyword in its open positions. Mobility is a major reason why. Gartner predicted that more than half of enterprise mobile apps will be a hybrid of HTML5 and native frameworks by 2016. "The advantages of the hybrid architecture, which combines the portability of HTML5 Web apps with a native container that facilitates access to native device features, will appeal to many enterprises," the firm said. Udemy offers a free course for beginners called Learn HTML5 Programming from Scratch. It also offers Create a HTML5 Game from Scratch; this course runs $99, and a basic understanding of HTML and JavaScript is recommended. 

Natural Language Processing (Stanford) 
You no longer need to be a whiz kid to attend Stanford, thanks to the Stanford Engineering Everywhere program, which offers 10 free courses online. (You won't earn actual course credit for successful completion; you'll just have to give yourself a gold star.) The class in Natural Language Processing should appeal to IT pros looking to stay up to speed with ongoing research in the field, one that seems almost certain to grow in concert with demand for new user interaction models for mobile devices, wearable technology, and other arenas. Companies such as Apple and Google appear to agree. The latter recently said in a blog post: "Having a 'conversation' with Google should also be more natural. Ideally, you wouldn’t need to pull out your phone or tap buttons to use Google." The course, taught by Christopher D. Manning, isn't for greenhorns; be sure to review the list of prerequisites. 

Linux for Developers and SysAdmins (Linux Foundation) 
Linux chops sometimes take a back seat to trendier tech skills, but IT pros looking to become more versatile could do worse than add the open-source platform to their resume. Much worse, in fact, if the 2013 Linux Jobs Report is to be believed. The survey, conducted by the job site Dice.com and the Linux Foundation, the nonprofit tasked with promoting Linux, found that 75 percent of Linux pros had been contacted by a recruiter in the past six months, and 90 percent of hiring managers said they had a tough time finding candidates with Linux skills. The Linux Foundation offers a full menu of online training videos and webinars for developers and systems administrators. The organization also offers advanced courses for enterprise IT pros, but you might want to see if you can get your employer to pick up the tab -- they're not cheap. The course in OpenStack Cloud Architecture and Deployment, for example, runs $2,900. 

Social Network Analysis (Coursera) 
Making sense of the gobs of data generated by social networks has quickly become a holy grail of sorts in the business world. Executives and marketers crave tangible, understandable information that they can stick into a PowerPoint presentation or tout on their next sales call. IT pros that can provide that info, especially in visual form, will be in good stead. The University of Michigan offers a class in Social Network Analysis via Coursera. And though social sites are an obvious example, the course treats information of any kind as a possible network -- "everything is connected," the description begins -- that can be mined for insights. No prior experience is required, though students who want to complete the optional programming assignments will use R. Visualization will be done with Gephi. 


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