Choosing an online course – what to look out for

Online education has boomed over the past decade and is even stronger in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic when many people were inspired to try it for the first time. It’s now widely recognized and respected by employers and traditional academics, and it can be a very practical route into a new career, or simply an enjoyable way to expand your understanding of the world. If you’re thinking of starting an online course, however, there are some things you ought to establish clearly before you decide which one is for you. This article is designed to help you work through that process.

Accreditation

For a course to have value in the wider world, either to employers or to other educational institutions, it must be properly accredited. This means that it’s either made by an institution with a longstanding reputation (usually at least a century old), or that the staff of such an institution have reviewed the study materials and consider them to be good enough to deliver a high standard of education. The best way to be sure that a course is accredited is to look it up on either the CHEA (Council for Higher Education) or the Department of Education website. Beware of institutions which use names very similar to the names of established universities to create a false impression of legitimacy and to trick people into failing to check their courses.

Expertise

Who will be leading the teaching team on your course? What is their background? Usually, if somebody is an academic expert, you will be able to find peer reviewed papers in their name. In some cases they may have other qualifications, such as being successful in industry or being famous in the arts or having published acclaimed books on the subject. At any rate, you should be able to find something out about them quickly if you do a bit of online research. This will give you an idea of how much the course is worth to you. Not only will it help to establish the quality of instruction you can expect, but if you are taught by somebody well known, that could prove useful as a point to raise in interviews when you’ve completed the course and are looking for a job.

Level

For a course to be useful, you need to have a clear idea of the level it’s pitched at. Not every course fits into a clear position in a larger curriculum. If it turns out to be too easy, it will be a waste of your time. If it’s too hard, you might be better advised to take other courses first to prepare yourself, and you could find yourself in a very difficult position if you don’t do that. Even with a sympathetic tutor, it’s tough to catch up while your fellow students are forging ahead. Make sure that you have a realistic idea of your own ability, and always be honest with course personnel about your educational history to date. Bear in mind that in some disciplines an advanced certificate is not actually useful unless you also have the preliminary qualification which goes with it.

Hours of study

Every traditional course has different attendance requirements, and that’s no different when your attendance is virtual, via a screen. If you’ve taken a similar course before, even at the same institution, don’t assume that the hours will be the same. Some also have fixed hours for specific course elements, when you will need to be certain that you will be able to attend. Make sure you know exactly what’s expected of you and that you can fit it around your other responsibilities. Often the best way to do this is to find somebody who has taken the course before (an online search is often the easiest way to do this) and ask for advice. This can also help you to get a heads-up about any other aspects of the course which might prove problematic for you.

Coursework requirements

When working out whether you can realistically fit a course into your life, remember that it’s not just time spent watching videos, listening to lectures or attending tutorials which needs to be factored in, but also the time you’ll need to complete coursework and recommended reading. This can be harder to figure out, so it’s worth asking for an outline of some typical assignments so you can practice before making your final decision. If possible, leave yourself some extra leeway around aspects of the course which you think likely to be particularly challenging, as well as time for revision ahead of any exams, and remember that reading on your subject beyond the scope of the basic course is expected by many of the more prestigious learning institutions.

Study materials

Are all study materials for the course provided at no extra cost? Sometimes this is the case, and sometimes not. If not, you will need to factor in the additional cost of purchasing them (if unable to borrow them from a friend or a library). Unless you need the latest edition, the best approach is often to look online for copies being sold by previous years’ students. On niche courses, it can sometimes be hard to get hold of materials, especially if a lot of applicants are trying to do so at the same time, so bear this in mind. If you expect to be working with a lot of published academic papers, find out if your course provider can give you blanket access or if you will be expected to pay for journal access yourself. If you find yourself in the latter position, bear in mind that many authors are happy to send you copies of their papers directly if you write to them and doing this is perfectly within the rules.

Practical requirements

Will your course be based entirely online, or will you also need to undertake some practical work in person? If so, how will this be organized? If you’re studying accounting, you may well be advised to combine it with work experience. If you’re studying nursing, you will need to build up a certain number of clinical hours – you can learn more about that from Elmhurst, who offer a course specifically tailored to those looking to transition into a nursing career. Other types of courses take a similar approach, especially if they teach a subject which involves hands-on work. Many science subjects will require you to travel to a designated location where you can do laboratory work for one or two weeks to develop practical skills. This is still a much more practical option for many people than attending a traditional course where it’s necessary to relocate or to commute every day.

Technical requirements

Most online courses are designed with accessibility clearly in mind, so that you can participate even if all you have is an old laptop, or even a phone. For some types of courses, however, requirements are much higher. Subjects like architecture and engineering can require you to use advanced software packages. Computing courses will usually require you to have an operating system (or more than one) which is bang up to date. For some sciences, you will need the computing power to process significant amounts of data. If you are studying photography or film, you will need a lot of processing power and a sizable hard drive. In any such case, it’s important to establish what’s needed up front because it could add quite a bit to your costs, and you don’t want to find yourself struggling at the last minute.

Connections to industry

What do you imagine yourself doing after your course is complete? If you’re hoping to go straight into a job in a related profession, it’s a good idea to look for a course at an institution which has the right connections. This could simply be a case of it having a specialty or a strong reputation in a particular area. Alternatively, it could be the case that industry figures are directly involved in the design or teaching of the course, give guest lectures, or recruit directly from it. Relationships like this are common in areas like business or finance and can provide you with a great opportunity to network and a stepping stone into the career you’ve been dreaming of.

As in every area of life, good planning pays off. By researching courses thoroughly in advance, you’ll find it much easier to identify one which suits you and will give you what you need. When you finish it, don’t forget to leave feedback so that it can be improved for the next set of students, and review it so that people looking up courses in future will know what to expect. The more established online education becomes, the more students can help one another, gradually making the best courses more visible and providing warnings about problematic ones. Making your choice shouldn’t just be about what has attracted praise from others, however. It should be, first and foremost, about what is right for you, giving you a positive learning experience and helping you to move on to the next stage in your life.