The flexibility of online learning is something that appeals to just about every learner. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom looking to make the most of her spare time or a high school student wanting to take a few online courses to get ahead, the distance learning environment is one of the best.
Online education is becoming increasingly popular for students everywhere – but do you have what it takes to be successful? For many people, there is the assumption that distance learning requires unique learning styles and abilities. True, online classes are easier for some people than for others.
In general, though, as long as you know what to look for when you are choosing your next online education opportunity, you’ll find that you can make the class you choose work well for you.
Here are some tips on choosing an online course – and what you should be looking for as you start your next adventure.
What Are the Advantages of an Online Degree?
Technology has completely changed the traditional learning environment. Distance learning, also referred to online learning, e-learning, or simply “taking online classes,” presents a great opportunity for many students all over the world.
Not only will you be able to access education no matter where you live, but you can sometimes save some money by taking online training courses, too. The flexibility of online learning makes it possible for you to take classes without having to arrange transportation, housing, or any other factors – you just have to show up to take the class.
In fact, many students choose to take online courses during school breaks or in conjunction with in-person learning. Not only can an online education accommodate a wide variety of learning styles, but they can help you meet your professional development goals, too.
12 Tips on How to Choose an Online Course
1. Figure Out What Your Goals Are
Your first step in choosing the right online course is to decide what your ultimate purpose and goal in taking an online course even is.
If you’re a working professional, your main priority might be to increase your skills so that you have a better chance of landing a good job opportunity. What are the skills that are preventing you from obtaining the career of your dreams? Make a list of the key attributes you think you might need to be successful in your dream job.
What areas can you expand upon? Which topics do you feel as though you don’t have enough knowledge in?
Other qualities you will want to consider are whether you want a course that is endorsed by a professional body – or one that will just help you pass the time. Do you know what topic you want to study, or what kind of credential is necessary for career advancement? You might want to answer the following questions (and add a few of your own as you conduct your research):
● Am I learning for work, or just for fun?
● How long can I spend working on this skill?
● Do I need to develop a specific skill or have prerequisite knowledge before jumping into this topic?
● What am I interested in?
Once you’ve identified these areas, you can start looking for courses that will best build these skills. Spend some time searching for course topics and titles that might help you fill in the gaps. Make sure you read each and every course description in detail and then make a shortlist of the key classes that will help you improve your career.
After you’ve put together an idea of which classes might be best – you should have a few – you need to narrow things down even more. Which course will best meet your needs? If you want to take more than one course, ask yourself whether you have the time and willingness to engage in multiple classes.
If you don’t think you can participate in more than one class at once, remember that you can always return to them later, when you have more time (just bookmark them or make a detailed list so you don’t forget which ones you were interested in).
Don’t feel like you need to settle, either. For example, if you can’t bear the thought of choosing between two subjects you love, why not consider a joint program, a combined honors program, or a degree with both a major and a minor option? That way, you can take classes in anything you’d like – and you won’t have to compromise.
You might even find that your separate areas of interest are more closely related than you initially thought. Many universities offer joint degrees or degrees with focus areas. For example, you might pursue an online degree in law with a focus on criminology. Or you could take a criminology degree with a focus in psychology.
Whatever you choose, make sure you take the time to explore all of the opportunities that are out there.
2. Find the Right Course Provider
The best part of taking an online course is that you can study from home – but that doesn’t mean that just any course provider is wild o. You’re going to have to narrow down your selection to find the right online course provider.
The world is your oyster! You can travel virtually at just about any school in the world without having to leave your home. Make sure the course provider is legitimate. You don’t want to get scammed. Ideally, especially if you are taking a class to provide you with some sort of credential or certification, you need to make sure your course provider is accredited.
There are several different accrediting bodies in the United States that actively work to ascertain whether a course provider or university is legit. Do your research as to which accrediting bodies work within your specific disciplines.
What degree will you be eligible for after taking this course (if any)? Will the credits be recognized by other universities or institutions if you just want to take one or two online courses and then roll them over to get your degree? You will want to identify the end goal and then work backward to determine which courses apply.
Remember, your individual goals might vary, but accreditation is important. You want the work you put into your course to count!
3. Consider The Course Length
The beauty of taking an online course is that it’s ultimately up to you as to how long you want to study. You can choose to take classes part- or full-time depending on your goals and your situation. Many campus-based or traditional programs take up to three years to complete, but online programs can take far less.
When you’re pursuing a full online degree, you can often complete the requirements in a year or less (depending on what kind of program you’re enrolled in, of course). If you’d rather study only occasionally, though, some online degrees will enable you to take up to seven or eight years to get your work done.
Before signing up for any class, consider how much time you have to commit to your coursework. Not only that, but how many years do you think you will need to complete your degree? Either way, you will want to choose a course that provides you with enough time to do so – but also lets you meet your goals in a reasonable amount of time.
While some universities and course providers do give their students as much time as they need to get their courses completed, some have stricter time limits that ultimately must be adhered to in order for the certification to remain valid. Check on all of these details before you enroll.
4. Independent vs. Blended Learning
Many online courses are designed specifically for learning that is fully independent. You’ll be handed the course materials and have the ability to go off and study at your own pace. You could also be given recordings of seminars or lectures and that’s it.
In other classes, though, you’ll combine traditional online learning with more interactive experiences. For some, you might be required to attend campus. For others, you might simply have to log in at a certain time where you can engage with an instructor, tutor, and/or fellow students at a preselected time.
The most common way that online course providers offer their courses is in a mostly independent setting – you’ll log in when it’s convenient for you to complete your assignments. Sometimes you may have to interact with your peers in an online discussion board or something of that nature.
Just commit to what you have the time to commit to attend scheduled classes, if you’d prefer a blended learning model. If you don’t know whether your schedule is flexible enough for this, you might want to look into a class that is fully independent.
5. Student Support Services and Facilities
Studying online can be a stressful experience, but it doesn’t have to be – at least, not if the online course you choose has all of the support and networking opportunities you need.
Many people assume that online courses simply aren’t a good option for extroverted students. However, if you are able to study at a university with good support, it might not be a big challenge for you as you think.
Look for an online course that offers support via email, phone calls, or other channels. Read course reviews to see how (and how often) feedback is provided from your instructor. Is it offered at regular intervals, or only at the end of the course?
You will want to see what kinds of academic support are offered in terms of tutoring and technological services, but look beyond the academic level to see what kind of personal support is available, too. Can you get support and advice for things like your finances and health and wellbeing? Is counseling available?
Another important piece of support is career and employment support. Does your course offer help in looking for jobs? Will you be able to participate in things like networking or career fairs? How about internships, cooperative learning, or other hands-on work experiences? What does the alumni network look like?
Let’s not forget access to students’ activities, either. For some students – particularly those who don’t have a lot of time on their hands and just want to acquire the basic credentials necessary to advance their careers – this might not be a dealbreaker. For others, though, being able to access resources like student clubs and activities is a much-needed feature to stay sane during the pressure of an online class.
Finally, what kind of resources and facilities will you have access to as an online learner? Some courses provide everything you need to be successful, solely online. You can pull up your books, video lectures, presentations, and all other interactive activities via your course module or study portal. In other cases, you may need to pursue physical resources like textbooks. These aren’t always offered in an eBook format and you may need to buy them yourself.
As an online student, your course provider might allow you to come to campus to use computer and library facilities. That is not always the case, though, so be sure to do your research if it matters to you.
6. Entry and Admission Requirements
Every course will be different in terms of what qualifications are necessary to be admitted. At a bare minimum, you need to make a list of classes for which you think you could be qualified. Are prerequisite courses necessary? Do you need to have work experience in the field?
You also need to consider what sorts of admissions requirements the course or program has. Some online courses may require only an internet connection, while others may need you to have a degree in the field or some work experience – meaning you’ll need to submit things like transcripts, a resume, or test scores. Be prepared so that you aren’t caught off-guard when it comes time to enroll.
7. Marketability of Your Course
When you take any course, but particularly an online course, it’s important that you keep your end goals in mind. While you can certainly take a course just for fun, most people take online courses to enhance their future career opportunities.
What will your online course help you accomplish? If you are taking the time to study for an online degree, you’ll want to make sure your course will help you make a career change or boost your employability in the field.
You might want to look into the school’s career placement rates or employability statistics. That way, you’ll know whether the course is worth your investment (both time and money).
Cost is going to be another major consideration when it comes to signing up for an online course. Many online courses are now offered for free through platforms like Udemy and Coursera. Others are offered at a substantial discount when compared to their on-campus counterparts.
Whatever the case may be, it’s not always a good idea to go with a cut-rate or low-cost course. Make sure you look for the course that is right for you and your professional goals – and not just your checkbook.
That said, this is a significant concern for many students, so take the time to research funding opportunities before you enroll. You can often fund your degree with financial aid resources like grants, scholarships, and even student loans. Many online courses offer payment plans so that you can pay for your course and any associated fees in equal, more manageable installments.
If you can’t find any information on financial aid for your course of choice online, feel free to reach out to the administrators at your school of choice. They’ll be able to give you more information on what kinds of financial support and funding options are available to students in your particular situation.
9. Faculty Qualifications
Another important feature you need to consider when shopping around for an online course is the qualifications of the instructors. How much experience do these teachers have in teaching the subject at hand?
Ideally, a professor teaching a university-level course should have a Ph.D., and a teacher at a community college should have a master’s. But a degree isn’t the only credential you need to look for.
You also need to make sure the instructor who is teaching your class is experienced in the discipline that he or she is teaching. Does she have work experience in the subject? Has she passed any related credentialing exams? Make sure you take the time to research what sorts of credentials and background are desired for someone in this field.
10. Format of Course
How is the course designed? A good course will include plenty of opportunities for ongoing learning. Some classes include the same elements each week, requiring you to listen to a lecture and then complete a preset chunk of assignments.
While that works well for some people, for others, it’s downright monotonous. Make sure the course is formatted in a way that works well for your learning style and personality. Some include various multimedia elements that can make taking a course way more fun.
You will also want to consider how technologically savvy you need to be to take this class. If you can, see if you can demo the course before you enroll. That way, you’ll be able to decide what kind of technology is used and whether the course materials are accessible to people who struggle with technology – or those with diverse learning needs.
Many programs offer transcription or captioning services to help you out if you struggle with technology. These are also helpful if you like to return to a lecture to review the material later or if you have trouble understanding what the instructor said (this is often caused by poor audio).
You’ll want to make sure the course you select is easy to navigate, technologically, and also that there are options for you to get immediate support when necessary. Make sure there aren’t too many technological features to the course, though, either – some classes require fancy technologies like plug-ins and apps that can cause you some serious frustration when they don’t work as they should.
11. Methods of Assessment
An important decision you will need to make when signing up for any course, but particularly an online course, is how you will be assessed. In some online classes, you’ll be assessed through your coursework or through project-based tasks. In others, you’ll only be given exams. If you know that you struggle with traditional exams, you might want to look for a class that’s a bit more nontraditional in its assessment approach.
It is important to note that some online courses, despite offering fully online course delivery, do require students to travel to campus to take exams. If that’s the case, you will want to plan accordingly so you aren’t caught off guard at the end of the term when exam time rolls around.
12. Consider Your Peers
How big is the class? When you’re taking an online class, it’s not just about you – but it’s also about your fellow classmates. Consider the student to teacher ratio for the course and look for classes that are small enough to allow you to easily interact with your instructor, yet not so small that peer learning is impossible.
A course with plenty of opportunities for you to interact with your peers is ideal. Often, the best experiences you will have in an online course come not from the experiences you have with your instructor, but the conversations you have with your peers.
The Most Important Tip for Choosing an Online Course
By far, the single most important tip you need to consider when choosing an online course is what other students have to say about it.
Be sure to check the reviews and testimonials of past students when you are signing up for your online course. That way, you can get a clear understanding of whether the course is one that’s worth signing up for – and whether it’s right for you.