How translators can increase their subject-matter expertise with free online courses

November 8, 2013 by

How translators can increase their subject-matter expertise with free online coursesHave you seen the wide range of free online courses (Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs) available these days? If not, you’re in for a treat.

While a high level of expertise in our source and target languages is crucial for us as translators, we also need a strong understanding of our subject matter. There are many ways that we can develop this – including formal training, work experience, trade events and reading. Now that universities around the world are offering free courses online, MOOCs have given us another attractive way to increase our subject-matter expertise. Of course, no one can become an expert overnight, but we can use MOOCs as part of an overall learning plan to steadily work towards our goals.

My background is in physics, but I’m interested in biological sciences and have recently started two online courses in genetics. I’m learning a lot and am loving the MOOC experience. At first I worried that I might not have time to follow an online course, but I found that with some multitasking I can fit the study in.

The first MOOC that I started is Tales from the Genome, a self-paced course at Udacity, which is an offshoot of Stanford University in the US. I’m really enjoying the highly interactive format of the Udacity course, and especially like the live “Hangouts on Air” discussion sessions that they run each week.

This month I also started Useful Genetics at Coursera, which is a 6-week, college-level course. Coursera provides a platform for universities and organisations around the world to offer online courses. The MOOC that I’m doing, which is with the University of British Columbia in Canada, has a more traditional format than the Udacity course. The course content is a bit more complex and there are strict deadlines, which add pressure but can be quite motivating. As my other course is self-paced, I’m doing just a few hours a week with Udacity while I focus on the Coursera deadlines.

There are a number of other MOOC providers, including edX and FutureLearn, and together they offer a huge variety of courses. Thankfully, the MOOC List catalogues all of the MOOCs currently available. Most of the courses are delivered in English, but the MOOC List lets you search for courses in nine different languages. In fact, Coursera offers MOOCs in twelve languages, including Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish.

How about you, do you have any experience of MOOCs? Or are you keen to give one a try? Let me know in the comments below.

Please note that I do not have a commercial relationship with any of the organisations mentioned above.

By Jayne Fox BSc MITI, German-English translator.
For German-English medical translation – and translation of corporate communications.

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About the author: Jayne Fox is a German-English translator specialising in corporate communications for sci-tech and health care. She works with German and Swiss organisations to help them communicate effectively with international audiences.

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  1. Jayne Fox

    And once you've tried MOOCs, look out for the next big thing: SPOCs!

  2. Iris Steiner

    I did a few courses from and I am now in the middle of another one. It's called "International law" by Case Western Reserve University and I truly love it.

    • Jayne Fox

      That sounds like a good one, I'll look it up!

  3. Jorge Nuno

    Will do, Jayne. Thank you so very much for sharing 😀

  4. Kevin Lossner (@GermanENTrans)

    It's good to draw attention to this, Jayne. Corinne McKay has also been writing about her MOOC experiences on her blog - I think she's into courses on sustainable development - and a while ago a couple of medical/pharmaceutical specialists on Stridonium were also reporting positive experiences. There is such an explosion of good material available online now from places like MIT; if this had happened when I was in grade school I probably would have stayed home to learn and just gone to school at recess time to play chess or kickball with friends 🙂

    • Jayne Fox

      Thanks Kevin - I was a bit late coming to the MOOC party (the last few years have been busy!) but now that I'm here, I'm loving it. I'd forgotten how much I enjoy studying.

  5. Matthew Cook

    This is fascinating, Jayne! I love seeing all the different reasons people take MOOCs. I'm also impressed with how you manage to juggle deadlines with one MOOC and manage to stay motivated for our self-paced class. The idea of self-pacing is so attractive but has the huge downside of no hard deadlines so it can be easy to let your work fall by the wayside. Kudos to you for staying on top of everything.

    • Jayne Fox

      Thank you, Matt! Things are going well with the two courses so far, and I'm used to a lot of deadline-juggling in my work. I'm trying to do all the Coursera study early in the week so there's plenty of time left for your fabulous course at Udacity!

  6. imcxl8

    Good post on an interesting subject. I just started my first Coursera course (Marketing) and think it's great! I definitely plan to take more in the future. I don't put as much into
    it as I did during "real" college, but I like the terminology building aspect since I specialize in marketing translations. It's a nice refresher and helps me speak the language of my clients.

  7. kimpines

    I found this so very interesting.... I am hoping you don't mind if I put a link back to your page in our newsletter -see AILIA.CA and click on the Newsletter. It would go in tour A la Carte section . If you are against it, just let me know - regardless, great read!

    • Jayne Fox

      That would be great, thanks Kim!

  8. Anna

    I was thinking about writing on the same topic. So far I only completed one course (with distinction, yay!) - "Introduction to Psychology" on Coursera (by Steve Joordens from University of Toronto Scarborough) and it was FANTASTIC! There are lots of other ones that I'd have liked to complete but didn't have (or make) the time.

    • Jayne Fox

      Well done, Anna! That sounds like a great course, thanks for the recommendation.

  9. Gaëlle Gagné

    Thank you for spreading the word Jane! There are less courses available in French and translators are not always aware of MOOCs in France, so I recently promoted this fantastic opportunity to learn and grow on my blog (

    So far I have taken financial classes from Yale (iTunes U) and marketing courses with Coursera, which were all very enlightening. I would not recommend MOOCs as a way to get a higher education (as Matthew Cook mentioned self-paced classes are not for everyone), but for translators it is the perfect way to get immersed in an unfamiliar subject, develop knowledge in a specialized field and learn new terminology.

    • Jayne Fox

      Thanks Gaëlle, they sound like very interesting courses, I'll have to check them out! And I agree, I don't see MOOCs as an alternative to higher education, but as a very useful addition - and they're fantastic for translators. I'm addicted already!

  10. David

    It would really be a great way to increase our subject matter expertise. Thanks allot Jayne for this useful information.

  11. Manolo45

    I did Intro to Finance from on coursera when I was in the senior year and guess what? I fell in love with the University and I followed up with an application and eventually got admission to read MA this fall. MOOCs are great.

  12. Julio Cesar de Sousa e Amaral

    Hi Jane! I have landed on your page quite by chance. I am also a translator (english into portuguese and vice versa) and a few weeks ago I too learnt of resources like Udacity and Coursera. Although I had never heard of the term MOOCs until reading your post, I also realised the courses provided would be a golden opportunity to learn new subject matters. By the way, I am studying towards a degree in translation (in Brazil) and I will other people know about your post.

    • Jayne Fox

      Hi Julio, thanks for your feedback! I'm finding MOOCs and interesting and entertaining way to learn - I'm addicted to them. Hope you find some good ones that you enjoy, too.

  13. Terry Gilman

    Dear Jane, Thank you for this blog, which I read when you first wrote it. My apologies for not commenting on back then. As others have meanwhile said, it is a very helpful intro. I haven't started my Coursera course yet (sustainability), but am looking forward to going back to school. Best wishes, Terry

    • Jayne Fox

      Thanks for your feedback, Terry! I'm loving being back at school - hope you enjoy the course on sustainability. 🙂

  14. cristina

    do you think that MOOcs can replace a University Master or specialization? For example my favourite subject matter is the EU and I'm following some MOOCs on this subject. I have no time to study in a traditional University, I'm enrolled in a Faculty of Political science but I'm thinking about leaving it as I have no time because of my job as a translator and family. What do you think about that?

    • Jayne Fox

      Hi Cristina, I think that all study is beneficial. In my view, MOOCs can't replace a university degree, but edX has started freshman level courses for credit. Perhaps more will follow.

  15. Victoria

    Hi Jayne, I agree that there is an incredible amount on offer via MOOCs. Do you think we can add them to our CVs, cite them to clients etc., or are they more for our own edification? In other words, do you think they look "serious" enough as a form of CPD?

    • Jayne Fox

      Hi Victoria, I think it depends on the courses. For example, if you've spent the last year doing MOOCs in a particular field, that's a good indication that you're serious about it. But if you're doing a wide range of MOOCs in different subjects with no underlying theme, it's probably not so useful career-wise and is more for your own interest. So you may or may not want to put them on your CV!

  16. Deepti

    I love MOOCs too! My background is in engineering, but I'm also interested in medicine and am about to start a MOOC on breast cancer. I finished a very useful course on statistics and understanding clinical research earlier this year. Both are on Coursera.
    Thanks for telling us about Udacity, I hadn't heard of it but I look forward to checking it out!

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German-to-English translator specialising in medical and technical translation and corporate communications
Welcome to my blog, Between Translations! I'm Jayne Fox, German-English translator specialising in sci-tech, health care & corporate communications.
I work with clients from around the world. From my location in New Zealand, I translate overnight for European customers.
See my websites for more information.
Sci-tech translation and corporate comms:
Medical translation:
Email: jayne(at)