One of the things I love most in life is learning new things. I’m both a curious soul and a nerd, what can I say?
In my capacities as freelancer, artist, writer, content marketer, blogger, and project coordinator (phew that’s a lot of things!) I take a lot of classes.
I feel particularly lucky to live in the internet age where it is so easy to learn, especially through online courses. It’s nice that for a low price or even free, I can sit back in my pajamas and be taught things that I’d otherwise have had to attend college, apprenticeships, conferences, or workshops to learn.
One part of the online learning experience is less than ideal, however. And for me that’s figuring out how to track all of my classes.
I’d like my system to be able to:
- Collect information for classes I want to take in the future
- Sort this information so I can find the right class at the right time
- Track completed classes
- Collect certifications, badges, etc. in one neat place
- Be able to post certifications and completions easily and completely, to show employers or clients my skills and dedication to my work
- Keep notes, screenshots, key ideas, and resulting projects
- Save course reviews
It seems strange in the age of having everything at our fingertips, but according to my research so far, there is no one system that can easily do all of this. So unless I want to build my own website / social media empire – and I did think about it briefly – I’ll have to look at what solutions might come close to what I’m looking for.
Option 1: LinkedIn
The first option is LinkedIn, a website for job seekers and professional networking.
The reason this could be a good option is that your profile page contains a place for classes and certifications, and it’s already a place that employers or clients might be looking anyway. LinkedIn also runs its own learning platform LinkedIn Learning (previously Lynda.com) which integrates with the profile system – meaning if you take a class through them, you get an easily shareable and visible badge.
If you use LinkedIn, you don’t have to manage your own website to share credentials or have to hunt for the graphics and urls every time you need one for a job application, resume, etc.. You can input the information at the time you finish the class and LinkedIn saves it for you, at least a little bit of the information.
First of all, certifications and classes are in two places. Possibly because when originally designed, I don’t think LinkedIn intended online classes to be a part of the profile. Presumably, certifications was supposed to be for professional certificates and licenses while classes seems oriented to relevant coursework from college or workshops taken on the job. Neither category is really geared toward self-directed online coursework, and the input fields really show this.
This is the input form for adding courses. You can see that it is geared especially to college courses. And though you can associate the class with a college or job through the dropdown menu, it doesn’t actually show that information with the class on your profile. This is just not enough information in my opinion.
This is the input for adding licenses or certifications. It is better than the class section, but still not ideal.
In my own experience, I’ve struggled to know how or even where to input different online class situations. I’ve taken online classes from Google in Analytics and Marketing which both have certifications at the end of the courses. So do I only list the certification? Should I place it in both sections? With limited room for certifications and classes, that doesn’t seem like the best option either.
The licenses & certifications section shows all licenses and certifications on the public profile and just three on the backend. Unfortunately when all of the certifications are listed it is just one long list that can scroll for a page or more.
I’d rather each certification could be listed in a grid to fit more of them in less space. It would also be nice to have the ability to easily toggle which are featured on the profile page and reorder them as needed. I have a lot of Google Analytics certs that could be grouped better, for example.
The classes section is completely lacking in displaying any important information at all besides course name. Above is a screenshot from my own LinkedIn profile and you can see how unhelpful and unimpressive this list is. There is no way for it to break out what the class is, where it was taken, what it’s about, a link to tell more about the class, etc.. Again, because this section was seemingly designed for college coursework, using it for online classes is far from optimal.
Without a way to include more information about the classes themselves, LinkedIn’s usefulness is mostly just to collect badges and class names for employers, clients, and other interested parties. There’s no way to organize your learning efforts or save notes. Posting about classes is one of the predefined types of posts on LinkedIn which is nice, but it’s not really integrated with any functionality. This might be different if you’re taking one of LinkedIn’s own classes – which I haven’t done yet.
In all, I consider this a pretty poor course tracking method overall. But it’s a good method of advertising certificates, especially if you’re already using LinkedIn anyway. Because it’s a social media network, I think it will have an edge when it comes to sharing and posting over other options.
Option 2: Spreadsheet
I started out simply tracking classes in a spreadsheet because it was an easy way to collect all the URLs I needed. I also wanted to track time invested, and with spreadsheets comes the easy ability to calculate numbers in the blink of an eye with formulas.
Using Google Sheets is free and its web based nature means you can share sheets with others if desired and access it from any computer.
Unfortunately it’s… well it’s an ugly spreadsheet. No getting around that. Spreadsheets can be dressed up a bit, but at the end of the day, it is what it is. Above is the Google Sheet I was using to track marketing and design classes, mostly in 2019, though you can see I came back to it a few times.
And while it can handle lots of categories of information well, it doesn’t handle large amounts of data in any one cell very well. Meaning if I want to put in course reviews, notes, or screenshots, I’ll likely be stretching the spreadsheet to its limit. I won’t be able to format that text in a way so I can easily use it later and it just won’t be very fun to look at.
Not shown are columns tracking hours invested and certificate expiration dates. It would be simple to create a formula style that highlights expired certificates and sum time invested either per class, certificate, time frame, or type of class. The possibilities here are quite endless.
But in the end, you’ll still need another way to share certificates and badges (and reviews if desired) because while you can share a Google Sheet with others, you probably won’t want to. It’s not very polished looking even at its best.
You’ll still definitely need somewhere else to keep notes, screenshots, and anything else you collect while taking the classes.
Option 3: Notion
Notion is an online page and database building app that lets you collect and link data, text, web clippings, and more. It is a competitor to Google Keep, Evernote, Asana, Microsoft Sharepoint or OneNote, private Wiki pages, Air Table, Obsidian, Roam, ClickUp, and more depending on what your use case is. Admittedly, it is a very difficult program to describe because it is so flexible and can do so many different things.
I have been using Notion Personal (which is free!) since early 2020 to help track and organize my life. I use a “Life Management System” – in the words of Notion guru August Bradley, whose YouTube series introduced me to Notion and helped create the framework for a lot of my system. My “University” page where I collect classes was set up with help from his video on how he collects his own classes. Over time I’ve made some changes to better suit myself, however.
This is one way the University page can look, a so-called “Gallery” view with one image per class. I can choose and insert the images by hand or use the Notion web clipper Chrome plug-in to grab the images and text from the course’s home page.
Classes can be saved both before and after I’ve taken them, using statuses to differentiate the two. Then I can filter the views so that I can see just what I want to see, whether I want to look at finished classes or if I want to pick which class to do next.
The above screenshot shows how the University database can be viewed in table format instead of gallery format, allowing a bigger picture view of all the classes. The University database can be filtered and viewed in endless ways using Notion. From the gallery and table view already shown, to a Kanban board or even calendar and timeline views. The customizability is truly endless! It’s simply a matter of imagining what you might want, and then creating it.
For me, I mostly use the gallery and table views. While I could spend a lot of time setting up other views, they would mostly be just “cool to have” rather than actually useful. If there is one central drawback to Notion, it’s the double-edged sword of customizability: just because you can do so many things doesn’t mean you have to do all of them. Trying to do everything can lead to rabbit hole after rabbit hole and wasting a lot of time.
Above you can see the kind of fields that I have available to use for my classes. I have to admit, I don’t use every field for every class, just what I need when I need it.
I can tag classes by category and content, so I can filter by different kinds of classes. By selecting the right filter, I can look up all Art classes or Marketing classes. I can also filter by platform, so I can see all classes hosted on Coursera for instance, at a glance.
It’s also useful to be able to track prices or expiration dates if applicable, or any other metric or characteristic I need. Uploading links and certification images is very easy using Notion, and I can even filter by these characteristics as well.
Then within the body of each class page I have room to add all the notes and supplemental material I could ever want to keep. The above screenshot is a peek at my notes from the Creative Live class “How to Build a Memorable Brand” by Carolina Rogoll. You can see that I can add screenshots from the class slides or video, I can type my own notes, and add anything I want to save to the body of the document.
I will often take classes in split-screen mode on my computer, with Notion open on one side and the class open on the other. Then I can easily type notes in as I go.
Another option is taking notes by hand and scanning copies of them, which I’ve also done. I also like to think of key takeaways and add those near the top of the document. Notion has a built-in Table of Contents block which automatically uses the headers to create an organized table of links, so that navigating your notes is very easy.
Above is another customized gallery view of my University database where I’ve grouped classes by category. I hope all the different screenshots are giving you some idea of the possibilities that Notion affords, of which I’ve only scratched the surface.
All this customizability comes at a price: it takes a while to set up. And a lot of people are not going to have the patience or inclination to want to do so. I enjoyed setting up my system but even I wish that something more ready-made was available.
Also as mentioned earlier, being so customizable can be a double-edged sword because it can cause you to spend a lot of time “perfecting” the system instead of doing the work you wanted the system for. In this case that would be spending hours updating your class system every week instead of actually taking classes.
Sharing badges and certificates is another thing that Notion doesn’t do quite so well as LinkedIn because Notion is not a social media platform. LinkedIn will probably always hold that edge over Notion. However you could fairly easily create a page within Notion that calls up your class database. The page could display your certificates, and each page has its own URL natively. This means that if you toggle the right setting, you can push this page public and share the page with clients and employers as a hyperlink. Your page of certifications can be much more detailed and targeted than the sections on LinkedIn, which is an advantage.
Other things I wish Notion were better at include the styling and appearance. I find the aesthetic of Notion to be pretty ugly. They’ve done some things that make it better, but as I approach my 3rd anniversary of using the app I’m surprised they haven’t done more. While I can add my own graphics and often do to improve things, the basic fonts, colors, and database view options desperately need a rehaul in my opinion.
Notion also runs pretty much cloud-based, meaning you can’t have an offline copy of your work. While this hasn’t been a problem for me, that does present conceivable scenarios that are not good. Not being able to connect to the internet to use your system is one possible scenario. The worst case catastrophe might be losing all your work forever if the internet were to go up in flames. This is pretty unlikely, but something to consider.
If you guessed that I talked about Notion last because it is the best, you’re right. Even though it has some major drawbacks and doesn’t tick all the boxes of what I’m looking for in a system, I think it is the best option right now.
I am still updating LinkedIn, particularly with more business-oriented certifications. But I’m not happy about it. If LinkedIn could overhaul its system to be more accommodating to online courses, that would go a long way. But I suspect that even if it did, I’d still have the problem of not being able to sort certifications and classes by topic, since LinkedIn isn’t very multipassionate friendly (that is, people who do a lot of different things like me).
In the end, I’m still kinda holding out hope of something new coming along. Maybe I’ll have to build it myself. Who knows what the future will bring!