Free online courses are having a major impact in helping workers advance their careers, a new study shows.

A recent survey from online learning company Coursera, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Washington shows that 87 percent of individuals who take online courses with the goal of career advancement are finding success doing so. Nearly 35 percent reported tangible benefits, including receiving a raise, getting a promotion, finding a new job, or starting their own business.  

"There are probably thousands of businesses that have launched just in the survey sample that have launched directly as a consequence of this educational opportunity," says Daphne Koller, president and co-founder of Coursera.

The survey looked at data from nearly 52,000 individuals who have completed at least one class. About 9 percent of respondents who took online classes specifically to advance their careers ended up starting their own businesses.

So how can your company benefit from massive open online courses, or MOOCs?

In the same way that workers are using online learning to help advance their careers, business owners can help fill open positions by hiring individuals with some of the required skills and using online courses to close the gap. 

"The jobs that an entrepreneur needs in his or her brand new startup are often not ones they had when they went to school," Koller says. "If you want the people at your company to be up to date in digital marketing or Android development or data science or machine learning, where are they going to get those skills?"

Of Coursera's 1,000 courses taken by 15 million registered users worldwide, the three most popular topics included basic business skills, technology, and data. North America represented the largest share of class-takers, with 43 percent, followed by 32 percent in Europe and 12 percent in Asia.

While Koller says that some small business owners in the U.S. are aware of the skills offered through companies like Coursera, which she co-founded in 2012, many entrepreneurs still don't know how online learning can help address the skills gap.

"There is clearly a lot of awareness that still has to be done," she says.