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Thinking about trying out a few online courses?

If so, you’re in good company. Today, more than 6 million Americans are pursuing a degree solely online (with many more taking the occasional online class here or there).

There are plenty of advantages to online learning, too. From the inherent convenience of being able to take classes whenever it’s most convenient for your schedule to the reduced costs associated with distance learning, online learning is a smart choice for many degree seekers.

However, it’s important to note that not all online learning courses are built alike. In fact, for many educators, creating a high-quality online class is not easy. That’s especially true for programs that tend to have a large percentage of in-person components, like practicums or experiential learning modules.

So how do you find the best online courses? Start with this list of the top components of a good online course – then consider trying a few out today.

Related reading: How to Start an Online Marketing Course?

What Exactly Is Online Learning?

Online learning, also referred to as distance learning, is a process through which students receive instruction through video recordings, video conferencing, and other online audio/visual technology. It’s one of the best ways to earn a degree, since you don’t actually have to be present in a physical classroom in order to earn your degree.

Distance learning is an effective way for students to earn their degrees. Not only can you learn just as much as you might be able to while studying on-campus, but you’ll be able to do so from your own home (even in your pajamas, as the marketing gimmicks might promise!).

Although online learning is not a new phenomenon, it has grown in popularity as more students look for convenient ways to continue learning even when logistical challenges make it impossible to travel to in-person classes.

In the past, online learning was traditionally viewed as a way for busy working adults to earn their degrees, but today, it offers so much more.

True, you might consider taking an online class if you’re an employee looking to get better at your job or gain the skills necessary for a promotion. Sometimes, occasional online courses are required for continuing education credits.

But online courses are also great for professionals who want to change careers entirely. You might prefer an online program so that you can continue to work while you are engaged in your studies.

Alternatively, online courses are increasingly being selected by full-time students who simply need a bit of a boost. For example, lots of universities and nonprofits offer classes to students who need some extra help with certain subjects, classes, or topics.

Simply put, online classes work well for everyone.

What to Look for in Good Online Learning Courses

Good Pacing

One of the biggest pitfalls of taking an online course is that it is incredibly easy to fall behind. This is, of course, true of in-person classes, too. However, on-campus courses are generally taught by instructors who see their students face-to-face on a weekly basis and therefore have the opportunity to pester students about missing assignments!

Therefore, it’s essential that you find an online course that offers good pacing. Pacing is essential both for the laggards in the class as well as the speed demons. Often, online courses are asynchronous – this is really the way to go!

An asynchronous online class is one in which there are no live meeting times during which students and the instructor gather together as a class. Instead, students progress through the lesson and complete their assignments at their own pace. While certain assignments have attached due dates, there is much more flexibility than if a set meeting time was required.

There are some online courses that are entirely self-paced, allowing you to move to the next learning module once you have mastered the one you are on.

When a course is properly paced, you’ll feel engaged by your assignments but you won’t necessarily feel buried in anxiety – or as though you’re engaging in pointless, tedious busy work for no reason.

Reliability

Taking an online class is hard enough, but it’s even more difficult if a course has tons of flashy, glitzy technologies that take ages to load and eons to learn how to navigate.

When you’re taking an online course, it can be fun to build your technological aptitudes and try out new programs. However, you shouldn’t be required to download seven new plug-ins or sign up for outside services beyond the course’s main delivery platform.

Often, these technologies don’t work, and this can cause students to spend way too much time troubleshooting those technologies instead of spending time on the content itself.

When you’re researching online courses, look for those that incorporate technologies with which you are familiar – or at the very least, are able to learn. If you are totally new to online learning and haven’t tried out any distance learning platform, try to at least find a course that seems simple and easy to navigate.

Learning Accommodations via Multiple Learning Modalities

Look at a classroom full of students and each one of those students is likely to learn best in a different way.

Regardless of whether you are taking classes online or on-campus, it’s important that you find a program that aligns well with your unique learning style. Some students learn best by reading while others do best by watching videos. Others would rather work in a hands-on setting to master various student skills.

No matter what your preferences might be, the greatest online learning courses will engage you with a variety of opportunities that match your personality and preferences.

Consider online courses that appeal to learners in as many learning modalities as possible, including visual, kinesthetic, auditory, musical, and other formats. You’ll be able to study in a way that works best for you.

Includes Three Major Pillars of Student Learning

Although online learning typically includes technologies that can be considered novel and modern, distance education is really no different than the education our great grandparents received in one-room schoolhouses. Mousepads and HTML aside, all good classes include three major pillars of student learning.

The first pillar is content. This is the information that students are expected to learn. What will you learn in this class, and what will you be able to do with that new information?

The second pillar is instruction. This is the broadest pillar and each class can vary in terms of how instruction is delivered. You might enjoy class discussions, problem-solving activities, or projects. Some online classes include direct instruction. The best online courses include a myriad of options to accommodate various schedules, course objectives, and goals.

The final pillar is evaluation. This pillar is ongoing – students should have access to constant evaluation during their studies in the form of formative assessments. These evaluations might be as simple as occasional instructor feedback in a written or verbal format. They could be as formal as graded rubrics or professional development checklists.

Either way, these assessments are essential – not only for you, as the student, but for instructors. Without formative assessment and evaluation, it is impossible to know how instruction should be aligned and adjusted for better understanding.

Each online course should also culminate in a  final evaluation. This should be closely aligned to the course’s learning objectives and serve as the final assessment of whether a student has mastered those objectives.

Offers an Interactive and Collaborative Environment

It takes a village to educate a student – that’s true both in an on-campus and online learning environment.

In fact, interaction between students and between students and their instructors is essential. Without it, you won’t have quite as many opportunities for deep learning. Look for an online class that integrates interactive lessons, hands-on labs, group projects, class discussions, and opportunities for private chats, too.

These opportunities will allow you to connect directly with other students and with your instructors. You’ll gain new insights on your topic of choice and emerge from your schooling as a more well-rounded, disciplined learner.

Here are some of the other features you might find in a quality online class:

  • Interactive tests, quizzes, and video clips
  • Tools for online collaboration and discussion are provided
  • Regular video feedback, tips, and announcements
  • Interactive instructions
  • Consistent outreach to students from faculty members

Allows for Self-Directed Learning

While the best online courses will include clear, immersive instruction from teachers who know what they are doing (and are trained in some of the best teaching strategies), a good online course will also provide students with the time and resources necessary for self-directed learning.

You should be given some responsibility when it comes to your education. If a course is too micromanaged with no opportunity for choice or discovery, it becomes bland and meaningless very quickly. A good course will provide learners with plenty of freedom to design their own programs and explore new aspects of various subjects.

A great online class will also incorporate the element of surprise. While there should be some predictability in your coursework, a truly great online class will give you real opportunities to develop as a learner and to grow as a professional.

Has a Thoughtful, Purposeful Design That is Focused on Outcomes

The best online courses are designed with attention to student outcomes. In short, a good online class isn’t one that’s thrown together at the last minute but instead takes a backward-front approach.

Instructors who want to build student skills in an online learning environment will start by thinking about what strategies, concepts, and proficiencies they want their students to develop. They’ll work backward from these goals, striving to create a curriculum that addresses those specific goals.

As a student considering an online class, you should look for a program that offers clear course goals and learning objectives. Although some of the language used in the course descriptions might be a bit beyond your level of understanding,  you should, for the most part, be able to develop a clear idea of what you’ll learn in the class.

Always look for classes that offer clear syllabi. A good online class won’t leave anything up to chance but will instead have all of the content and assignments mapped out. You may even find that instructors already have assessments and support materials selected for future classes, too.

Provides Students with Connections to the Larger Community

For many students, the biggest deterrent to online learning is that it lacks the close-knit connections fostered by on-campus programs. It’s easy to feel isolated when you’re taking an online course.

However, the best courses will not only be interactive and collaborative, as we mentioned before, but they’ll also connect you with opportunities outside of the classroom. You won’t be able to head over to the quad to catch the Sunday football game, so you’ll need an online program that offers other ways to stay connected.

For example, an online class might facilitate an off-topic discussion board where learners can chat about anything that interests them (be it the weather, the NFL draft, or Beyonce’s latest single). Other online courses may connect students to alumni for career networking or provide students with access to volunteer or work opportunities in their local communities.

You should also feel connected to the campus community, no matter how far away you might be studying. Ideally, a good online course will allow you to access resources like academic tutoring, career services, counseling, student life, health services, and more.

Actively Involves the Learner

Some people believe (erroneously, of course) that for an online course to be effective, it should require a student to read a large amount of text each week and then answer questions based on that text.

Although that’s probably the easiest method of designing a class, it is rarely the most effective.

For students to be active participants in their own education, they should be completing assignments that are challenging and intellectually stimulating. You shouldn’t just be regurgitating information that was spewed forth at you.

A good online course will allow students to demonstrate their understanding of the content in novel ways. Ideally, instructors will incorporate authentic activities that not only require students to show mastery of the content but also to connect that mastery back to its real-world implications.

Some online classes take things one step further and use an inquiry-based learning model. In this model, students are required to investigate certain questions that they have about the content. On a very basic level, this means completing activities like KWL (Know, Want to Know, and Learned) charts.

On a more advanced level, student inquiry might require students to complete a research proposal and final project in an area of interest-  often involving outside research and discussions.

Has a Clear and Consistent Structure

One of the biggest deterrents when it comes to taking online classes, for many students, is the fact that the learning modules and structure of a class can be overwhelming.

After all, instructors have a lot of information to cram into a single online learning environment – and in a short amount of time.

However, good online courses will be clearly and consistently structured so that even the most technologically-challenged student can navigate the learning modules. Each should have the same structure in terms of the location of reading materials, tasks, assignments, and other components.

Again, to do this, the best teaching strategies recommend working and planning backward. Instructors should start with the content they want to cover and then identify major thematic chunks of information. Each “chunk” will become a learning module that will help each student progress toward the final course goals.

Other good teaching strategies to ensure clarity and consistency include the use of rubrics and other understandable feedback tools.

Adapts to a Variety of Technologies

As a student, you might be completing your online classes via any kind of device, from a smartphone to a tablet, laptop to a full-sized desktop PC. You might use Windows, or you could use a Mac.

Regardless of the technology you plan to use, you should look for an online class that will be compatible with your specific device. You shouldn’t have to go out and purchase a $500 laptop just to complete one class.

Incorporates High-Quality and Multimedia Content

In high school, there’s a good chance that you sat through quite a few classes thinking, “I already know all of this.” Many courses, both online and on-campus, continue to follow this bland, stark model – they only use bland texts and fill-in-the-blank worksheets.

A good online course, though, will contain high-quality content so that learning is no longer a chore. You will feel as though you are learning naturally through more immersive activities. You’ll feel more curious and more engaged – and as though what you are learning in the classroom is new and actually matters in your career.

Many of the best online courses are beginning to experiment with multimedia integration. This is one of the greatest and most exciting features of online learning – you don’t have to rely on textbooks and lectures to get the message across.

Instead, some of the top programs incorporate unique multimedia elements like podcasts and videos. They engage students in unique information without being overwhelming or bland.

Easy to Navigate

Top online courses should be easy to follow. It should be clear what you are expected to do next and you should be able to access relevant resources and information when you end it. Some of the best online courses have even been reviewed by third-party organizations, which can be a good indicator that the course is easy to navigate.

Creative Design

If the thought of taking an online course makes your eyes glaze over, you’re not alone – but keep in mind that there are countless online classes out there that are not only far from boring, but they’re incredibly interesting, too.

The best online courses will provide learners with a varied, fresh learning environment every week. Too often, online courses fall into a pattern that is not only predictable, but yawn-inducing.

While a bit of a formulaic approach is necessary (after all, consistent structure is vital), too much predictability can make material dull and uninspiring. Therefore, online classes should be unique, engaging, and interactive.

Room to Do More

Taking an online class shouldn’t just be about checking off boxes and completing a list of to-dos. Instead, it should encourage and inspire you to go further and to continue learning.

Instructors who are teaching online should take the opportunity to connect their students with additional opportunities. Whether these take the form of optional volunteer experiences, cooperative learning opportunities, or web-based resources for further reading, providing students with the ability to continue growing is an essential feature of top online classes.

Provides Opportunities for Reflection and Revision

Again, a major trait of a good online course is one that is commonly found among the best traditional classes, too.

A good online course will provide both the instructors and the students with constant opportunities for reflection and revision.

Education shouldn’t be a static, unchanging thing. Instead, it should be a metamorphosizing entity that is always changing and adapting to student, industry, and societal needs.

The best online course, then, will have a performance evaluation process with flexible guidelines. The program should teach students to be reflective practitioners and instructors should also continuously monitor their own teaching strategies to make sure students are being reached in the best possible way.

Are Online Courses Right for Me?

In the past, online classes were ideal only for students who were extremely self-motivated, talented, and technologically savvy.

That’s no longer the case.

Today, just about anybody can take – and benefit from – an online course. It’s all about finding the right one!

Online learning may change the delivery of instruction, but just like in the traditional classroom, good teaching can make or break the course. Look for some of these features in an online course before you register, and you’ll find that you can succeed regardless of your experiences or capabilities.

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Patricia Alfonso

Patricia Alfonso is an educator and researcher who earned her master's degree in guidance and counseling from Ateneo de Manila. She specializes in developing school counseling programs for schools.

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