Learn to Code: Online Courses That Will Turn You Into a Hacker

Jan 02, 2013 -

One skill in particular that will make you a more appealing job candidate these days is knowing how to code. Even having a basic understanding of the coding world—though you might not be able to build the next hot mobile app—can work in your favor.

So how do you learn those skills? An increasing number of e-learning sites are popping up to help you brush up on your hacking abilities. And since all those options can be overwhelming, we’ve showcased a few of the best sites, giving you insight into the pros and cons of each one so you can choose the platform that’s right for you.

The best part? Some of these courses are even free. Check out your options:

1. Code Academy

Code Academy looks like a gamified web app and manages to teach you how to code without making it feel like a learning experience. Get through the first few exercises on the main page and you’ll find yourself wondering, “Wow, so this is what programmers do? This is easy!” The New-York-City-based company is good at teaching the basics, and it feels like you’re making progress right away.

Code Academy doesn’t require you to download anything, and you can do tasks at your own pace. If you leave the site, you can even pick up later where you left off. You won’t find many bells and whistles, but now that the startup has Code Academy Projects, you can show off your new skills by sharing them on the social media profile of your choice.

Besides JavaScript (what you’ll learn on the main page), Code Academy features units on Ruby, Python and jQuery—all hot right now, as far as new skills go.

2. Udacity

This California-grown project has been written about in The New York Times with the team building its brand around its acclaimed Computer Science class (or “CS101” for short). Udacity is also brimming with geek-worthy forays like Differential Equations and Artificial Intelligence, and there’s a class on building your own business, too. Courses are designed around units, with constant “quizzes” for comprehension. Completion of a class garners you a certificate, tangible proof that you passed the course.

The key teaching component of Udacity is lecture-style YouTube videos. This could be distracting if you’re in an open work space, and sometimes (especially in the introductory classes), it feels like you’re learning at a snail’s pace. There’s no in-browser “sandbox” for you to test your new skills—you’ll have to download Python for that. And (oh yeah) Python is the only programming language they teach.

The shining jewel of this e-learning site is their job placement program. Udacity refers their most impressive students to more than 20 different companies, working through an internal recruiter to find the right match for you! You’ll have to study hard to get noticed, though. After getting the basics, try out the Building a Blog class. Or you could always try Applied Cryptology—you know, for those pesky job application riddles.

3. Coursera

Coursera goes on a more traditional track than its contemporaries, offering actual courses taught through universities. The names are impressive enough: Duke, Stanford and CalTech all have classes available here. (Expect flashbacks to freshman year studying on the quad.) There’s a wide range of coursework, some of it a little inaccessible and overly technical. But don’t worry; Coursera does a great job of breaking down the classes by category, format and requirements. You can even search by institution.

You must take classes when they’re scheduled; there’s no on-demand option, and that’s Coursera’s major drawback. You can join a course that’s already started, but it’s up to the instructor whether you’ll receive credit towards a certificate.

Like other sites, Coursera offers a computer programming module. But options are far more narrow than, say, Code Academy.

4. Khan Academy

Geared towards brick-and-mortar schools, Khan Academy is definitely more accessible in both content and feel. (There’s even a section that teaches you how to manipulate a drawing of Kirby.) Most of the site is YouTube-based, just like Udacity. But the Computer Science section is where this non-profit excels.

Khan Academy offers the most intuitive interface yet. During your training, you can either scroll through the code editor at your leisure or click the “play” button and let the tutorial take you through every detail. Not only is it engaging; you also get the instant gratification of running your code and seeing it in action. You can even post a project once it’s completed.

Khan Academy also has an ambitious point system, where you can earn “achievements” for assignments of varying difficulty (a la Xbox). The user dashboard gives a detailed account of both what you’ve mastered and which skills you need to improve.

The site is aimed at the younger crowd—much younger than college grads. But the user experience on Khan Academy makes all the difference.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for learning how to code online! If you decide to go this route, be sure to pick a site that truly engages you—that’s the best way to learn skills you can apply towards your career. A few hours every week could lead you to a better, more fulfilling job!

What other e-learning sites have you tried and enjoyed?

Kimber Gillus is a New-York-based writer whose only true area of expertise is her rural Virginia hometown. Find her at her tumblr and @kimbergillus.