Brian Bonus was suffering from a quarter-life crisis. Having spent his post-college years as a junior editor for broadcast commercials, the 28-year-old was looking to change careers. But like so many other young professionals, the thought of spending the time and money to go back to school was daunting. Instead, Bonus signed up for an introductory computer science course on Udacity, a site that gives real college courses away for free online. Through Udacity and other platforms for so-called "massively open online courses," or MOOCs, he taught himself Java from scratch, all while working a full-time job. Finally, in February, he left his job as a film editor to become a developer for the site

"I was surprised how much I enjoyed coding," Bonus says. "At first I wasn't sure what direction I wanted to take with it, but what you learn in those classes really can set you up for a job."

Much has been made of the potential for MOOC providers like Udacity, Coursera, and edX to radically democratize access to education around the world. Still, some, including Udacity's own CEO Sebastian Thrun have admitted that the field still has a long way to go before MOOCs can serve as a true replacement for on-campus learning. In the meantime, however, these sites have emerged as a viable option for jobseekers looking to brush up on or learn new skills to compete in today’s workforce.

"If you're in the workforce, you can't take a year and a half off to get a masters degree," Thrun says. "Now, we can go to people mid-career who might have a hard time going back to school and help them get jobs."

A Source for New Talent

Udacity has been receiving inquiries about its students from tech companies since it first launched. That's partly to do with the fact that Thrun is a well-known Google Fellow, as well as the fact that Udacity, unlike its biggest competitor Coursera, focuses primarily on computer science courses. "That's why I teach computer science," says Thrun, who is also a research professor of computer science at Stanford. "It's a subject with ample employment opportunities."

Now, he says, about 50 companies receive regular updates about the students Udacity deems hirable. The company also has an internal résumé site for employers. Some tech companies are even working directly with Udacity to train their own employees or train the public in skills they perceive to be in high demand. Google, for instance, has enrolled 80,000 students in its HTML5 course, which was spearheaded by the Chrome Developer Relations team. Meanwhile, AT&T is sponsoring a breakthrough program between Georgia Tech and Udacity to offer a Masters of Computer Science for $7,000, an initiative recently mentioned by President Obama in a speech on higher education. AT&T's goal, Thrun says, is to enroll its own employees in the program to help them update their base of knowledge.

"Bringing MOOCs to undergraduates is a higher mountain to climb," Thrun says. "Our sweet spots are the people who want to get learning done. One of the many reasons we love the career perspective is because we’re getting more mature candidates."

Bringing Online Ed In-House

But existing MOOC providers like Udacity and Coursera aren't the only ones using free online education to prepare people for jobs. The Muse, a career advice and job search site, recently launched Muse University, which trains students in subjects like landing a promotion and management 101. Aquent, a Boston-based staffing company for digital marketing professionals, also recently launched a MOOC platform of its own called Aquent Gymnasium. Its first class, Coding for Designers, launched in July, and so far, more than 8,000 students have enrolled. The goal of that class, says Andrew Miller, program director of Aquent Gymnasium, is to help designers trained in the print medium understand coding well enough that they can design for a digital medium. It's a skill, Miller says, that Aquent's clients were clamoring for. "Most designers can make pictures, and that's it. Nowadays, people want designers who can produce prototypes," he says. "We're not trying to turn designers into developers. We're trying to turn them into designers developers want to work with."

Aquent held similar courses during the first dotcom boom, but the training happened in a physical classroom. "This model is a lot more efficient for people who are currently working," he says. After the course is finished, Aquent's talent agents begin reaching out to top performers and recommending them to their corporate clients. Some existing clients have also signed their current employees up for the Aquent Gymnasium class.

John Moore, digital director of Fish Marketing in Portland, Oregon, for instance, recently sent two of the agency’s graphic designers through the program. Both had been trained in print, and, says Moore, "They had a rough transition," moving into the digital world. "Coding is something you can learn from these courses and become an expert at it," says Moore. "It's a great way for people to continue their education and develop their careers."