Cybersecurity MOOCs: Affordable Access to High Quality Training

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Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are the future of online education. Virtual classrooms that mimic many of the elements of traditional college classes, MOOCs also incorporate the unique advantages that come from virtually unlimited online storage, collaboration, and streaming bandwidth. Both colleges and private corporations have been flooding the MOOC space over the past decade. The classes are being offered to students at prices far less than traditional educational channels.

This advent has been particularly apparent in cybersecurity education. As a relatively new field, cybersecurity educational curriculums have been developed in tandem with the introduction of MOOCs rather than being adapted from existing off-line course curricula. Consequently, the introduction of cybersecurity MOOCs has roughly paralleled the state of the art in cybersecurity education.

Although there are few complete cybersecurity MOOC programs, some MOOCs now offer their own online certificate programs, bundling a set of courses around a specific subject and providing proof of completion similar to a degree program. This is a primarily vocational approach that does not generate transferable college credit. Still, in a job market starved for cybersecurity experts, it can provide a fast method of gaining credentials in the field.

Using MOOCs to Prep for a Master’s Program in Cybersecurity

MOOCs are offered both through existing higher education institutions and by a variety of private providers. There are also a number of collaborative MOOC providers that use private technology platforms to distribute courses that traditional colleges and universities develop and run.

Pursuing a degree in cybersecurity can be adjunct to or incorporate MOOCs, depending on the objectives of the student. Some students use MOOC classes to reinforce knowledge in areas they are weak in before moving on to a cybersecurity master’s program.

For instance, the admissions requirements for such programs often include some degree of programming knowledge. A candidate without any prior coding education could take a MOOC course to attain the required skills before applying.

In other cases, MOOC courses may offer credits that can be transferred toward a cybersecurity degree.

Despite the surge in cybersecurity job demand, many of the major online MOOC providers have relatively few courses on information security subjects. Although all of the major MOOC providers—Udacity, Coursera, Khan Academy, and EdX—have courses in the core information technology topics that underlie cybersecurity education, only Coursera has a broad selection of classes that focus specifically on subjects related to security:

Coursera

Coursera was founded by two computer science professors from Stanford University and remains closely affiliated with Stanford and other major universities, deriving most of its course content from accredited graduate programs.

  • Type: For-profit, xMOOC
  • Class delivery: Video lectures, online quizzes and practice exercises
  • Class starting restrictions: Both open-enrollment and fixed-date courses
  • Course cost: All courses may be audited free of charge; a completion certificate costs $30 – $50 per class
  • Grading: Automated and peer-review grading
  • Accreditation/Certification: Offers “Specialization” completion certificates
  • Of Particular Interest to Cybersecurity Professionals: Cybersecurity specialization track

Udemy

Udemy is unusual in that it allows anyone to build and teach a course on any topic. Instructors receive a percentage of the proceeds for enrollment in their classes. This attracts professionals in various fields rather than traditional academics, giving many Udemy courses a characteristic veneer of real-world experience and up-to-date information from within the field.

  • Type: For-profit, xMOOC
  • Class delivery: Video and text presentation
  • Class starting restrictions: All open-enrollment
  • Course cost: Varies, instructor discretion
  • Grading: None
  • Accreditation/Certification: None; however, many Udemy classes are designed as preparatory courses for traditional industry certification tracks
  • Of Particular Interest to Cybersecurity Professionals: List of security classes

FutureLearn

FutureLearn is based in the United Kingdom and run by the Open University. The company generates its course content through partnerships with other universities around the world as well as private partners.

  • Type: Non-profit, xMOOC
  • Class delivery: Video and audio presentation, online quizzes
  • Class starting restrictions: Semi-fixed-date classes; each class has dates scheduled but some flexibility is allowed in time-shifting participation
  • Course cost: Free
  • Grading: Peer-review and multiple-choice test grading
  • Accreditation/Certification: Completion certificates available for a fee of £40 to £60; college credit available with certain courses depending on university partner
  • Of Particular Interest to Cybersecurity Professionals: Introduction to Cybersecurity

MOOC Aggregators

Because there are such a large number of MOOC providers and no consistency between course formats or standards, a number of specialized search engines have emerged allowing students to search across MOOCs from different organizations and sort by factors such as price, subject matter, and enrollment dates.

Security Firms

In addition to traditional MOOCs, there are a large number of security firms and trainers that offer online courses in cybersecurity topics. These courses may or may not be “massive” and the size of the classes is not advertised. Although they are rarely as structured or formal as regular MOOCs, they do offer up-to-date specialist knowledge in narrow information security fields.

cMOOCs and xMOOCs in Cybersecurity

There are two different basic categories of MOOC on the market today, each with its own unique approach to pedagogy.

cMOOCs Focus on Collaborative Learning

The “c” in cMOOC stands for “connection” and cMOOCs are all about connecting students with one another for collaborative learning. Indeed, some cMOOCs resemble very large study groups rather than conventional college classes—there may be no instructor, and students may work together to decide what the course of study will be and what course materials they will work from.

Because of the emphasis on collaboration, cMOOCs are not as easily time-shifted as xMOOCs. Since the value of the class comes more from interaction than materials, all students must participate during the same time span.

xMOOCs Put Traditional Classes Online

xMOOCs adopt a more traditional collegiate course structure to the online environment. In fact, many colleges now offer many of their regular course offerings in an online format that is identical for matriculated students and MOOC participants. An xMOOC will be lead by an instructor and consist of course materials being presented in a variety of formats, punctuated by graded quizzes and exercises.

Because they are essentially prefabricated, xMOOCs often have more flexible scheduling, allow students to begin at any time and complete the coursework on their own schedule, rather than having to stick with the pace of a cohort group.

Cybersecurity MOOCs versus Bootcamps

Although MOOCs are part of the new wave of cybersecurity education, they are not the only option for students seeking focused instruction on information security topics. Cybersecurity bootcamps have become popular alternatives for some students recently, but they provide a different style of education than MOOCs.

Bootcamps are styled, in some respects, after their military namesake. They aim to deliver an intense, focused block of information to a cohort of students in a limited amount of time. Because the cohort may be quite diverse in background, bootcamps tend to aim toward building everyone up from a lowest common denominator, not taking into account the individual experience and capabilities of all participants. The CSX Nexus bootcamp, for example, puts every participant on a whirlwind five-day practical lab that covers topics running the gamut from basic network scans to data recovery in the wake of a breach.

With MOOCs it is possible to pick and choose courses focused on a relatively narrow field of interest. If a candidate is already well-trained in network scanning theory and practice, they can skip classes on that subject and focus entirely on data recovery or other topics where their knowledge isn’t as strong. Because of this ability to pick and choose, it’s possible to get a more in-depth education from a set of MOOC classes at a lower cost than a bootcamp.

Bootcamps offer more than just education, however. Because industry veterans often run bootcamps and because they place a strong focus on job placement for graduates, they are excellent resources for networking. Students within a cohort often bond and remain in touch long after graduation. Bootcamp companies frequently offer career days or have job placement departments designed to connect graduates with employers.

MOOCs provide less structure and less interaction with instructors. If the MOOC is an xMOOC, there may not be much contact with other students, either. Typically, MOOCs are more theoretical and less hands-on than bootcamp courses.

In general, MOOCs are a better fit for candidates who have a relatively small number of gaps in functional knowledge as they prepare for a cybersecurity career or entry into a degree program, while bootcamps are more appropriate for candidates who are entering the field with no background in computer science or information systems.

Selecting the Cybersecurity MOOC That’s Right for You

Finding the right MOOC relies on a clear idea of the goals of individual candidates and the class itself. Is getting a job immediately upon completion important to you? If so, a MOOC provider that offers job placement services as an option is a good choice. Is a bachelor’s or master’s degree in information security the ultimate goal? If so, looking for MOOCs that offer transferrable college credits would be wise.

When planning to use MOOCs to prepare for a degree in cybersecurity, it’s a good idea to look for courses that allow credits to be transferred to institutions that are part of the joint DHS/NSA (Department of Homeland Security/National Security Agency) Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance (CAE/IA) network of schools.

The CAE program is designed to identify colleges and universities offering classes with particular depth and applicability to information assurance professionals, particularly those interested in working for federal agencies.

Certification Options

If you’re looking for a broad, certificated cybersecurity education, only Coursera offers a complete program. Other providers have less comprehensive coverage of various information security topics and are best used for either a high-level overview or to fill in very specific knowledge gaps in subject matter.

A large proportion of cybersecurity MOOCs are special-purpose courses designed primarily to prepare students for taking various industry standard certification tests, however. Unlike traditional MOOCs, which are based on general knowledge, university-style educational precepts, these classes teach to the tests, providing students with the specific information to help pass certification tests that include:

These courses make MOOCs a good option even for students who would not traditionally have much use for online courses. They can cost a fraction of what typical certificate test prep classes cost, and possessing such certificates opens doors to jobs and promotions in every industry.

Students’ Background Knowledge

Many aspects of cybersecurity rely on in-depth knowledge of basic technologies used in computer science. Students interested in cybersecurity but unable to find cybersecurity MOOC courses in their area of specialization might instead benefit from more general classes on the underlying technologies. These could include:

  • TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) and OSI (Open Systems Interconnection) networking models
  • General or language-specific introductory programming courses
    • Java
    • The C language family
    • Python
  • Database management and data storage concepts
    • SQL
    • NoSQL
  • Cloud-based computing principles and operation

Although security may not specifically be addressed in many such courses, having a strong knowledge of how the technology operates is always a boon to security specialists.

Costs

Cost, of course, is always likely to be a factor. MOOCs are available at every price point, but not necessarily with every feature that may be desired. For example, free MOOCs rarely come with transferrable course credits or certification options.

Pedagogy Styles

The methods by which the materials are presented will also matter to some students. It’s long been understood that different learners incorporate lessons differently based on the nature of the source materials—some do better with auditory lessons, some with visual, and some with hands-on practice.

Students should seek out MOOCs that present their course materials in a way that best aligns with the student’s own learning style.

Getting the Most Out of Your MOOC

Although MOOCs sound like the ideal solution for learning your own way on your own time, the fact of the matter is that most students never fulfill that goal. One study has shown that completion rates for MOOC courses hovers around 15 percent. Low costs and few accountability factors make dropping out easy. Strong drive and self-discipline are required for successful candidates.

However, some MOOCs have better completion rates than others. An independent site has analyzed a variety of popular courses and should be consulted to find those with the best track record. Check out MOOC Completion Rate and Assessments.

Another important step is checking out published reviews before enrolling. Almost all MOOC providers publish student ratings and reviews on their own sites for each class. However, these statistics are susceptible to bias or manipulation. There are also a number of independent MOOC review websites that provide independently published class assessments:

Many MOOCs offer opportunities for online interaction with instructors and other students. It can be wise to take advantage of these opportunities, both to make contacts within the field, obtain a better understanding of the course material, and to enter into some sort of implied social contract for completing the course. Students are more likely to finish when they have some accountability to their peers on an individual basis.

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