What kind of course do you think of when you hear “online learning”? Is it a semester-bound course or an independent study? Do you still work with other students or are you isolated? Is it an online certification course or a 3-credit course that goes toward a degree? As you can see from the number of questions we just asked, there are many types of online courses to choose from. So how do you pick what is right for you?

1. Personal Needs

Start with you: What are your goals? Are you seeking career advancement or are you learning for fun? Are you looking for a fast way to complete your degree or certification in a new skill? It is also important to look at how you learn. You have to be honest with yourself about whether you are motivated enough to finish a self-paced course on your own or if you need the due dates and accountability that come with an instructor-driven course.

2. Type of Course

Once you have determined what your goals and needs are, you can start looking at different online courses. Let’s look at self-paced versus scheduled courses:

Self-Paced Courses: A self-paced course is exactly what it sounds like—you set the pace of your learning. You can complete it all in a week or take six months. It is important to note, though, that there is usually some kind of expiration or completion date for the course, with courses typically lasting one year. Self-paced courses are great for those who want to go at their own pace (whether that be fast or slow) and have the motivation to stay on top of their coursework. These courses also work great for those who are trying to squeeze a class between existing commitments to work or family and may only have a little time each week. 

Scheduled Courses: Scheduled classes will have due dates for assignments, reading, and/or exams. They may or may not operate during a traditional semester. A scheduled course is more appropriate for those who have the desire to further their education but may not have the self-discipline or motivation to keep themselves on track.

3. Peer Interaction

The next quality to consider is the amount of peer interaction in the course. There is a scale of interactivity to look at. Some courses, especially independent study options, will be unlikely to include much, if any, peer interaction. Other classes may require you to comment on online discussion boards or give feedback on student projects. Some universities even offer blended courses where students may meet once a week in person and complete the rest of the class or attend lectures online. If peer interaction is important to you, this is a vital quality to consider.

4. Quality of Institution

Look at the accreditation or quality of the institution through which the course is being offered. If you are only taking the class for fun or to learn something new, this may not be as important to you. However, if you are looking to get a degree or receive certification, make sure that the institution is known for quality instruction and meets basic standards set by the government, and that the degree or certificate will be accepted by your employer or other governing body.

5. Prerequisites and Cost

Look at the difficulty level or prerequisites for the course you want to take. You don’t want to start the course and then realize that the coursework is too advanced or that you needed to have completed another class!

Along with difficulty, you must also look at the cost of the course or program. Online courses range from free to thousands of dollars, so it is necessary to understand the value a course will deliver. What is more important to you—taking a class from a prestigious university or the quality of the content itself? What services does the course offer? If one course offers benefits such as access to on-campus facilities, an online library, or student help services, a more expensive course could be worth it. 

6. Course Reviews

The last quality we will discuss here (but certainly not the last thing to consider) is course reviews. Just as many on-campus, in-person students will look at websites such as RateMyProfessors.com to determine whether they will like a certain professor or class, online students can also look at reviews for online courses on websites such as Learn A Course Online. Looking at the number of students enrolled and reviews can give you an idea of whether the course will be a good fit for you.

Ultimately, there is no one best type of online course. Each student is different. Different courses will appeal to different learners based on their needs, learning styles, and time constraints. Find what will give you the most value and what works best for you!


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