How Should You Evaluate the Value of Online Courses?


Many colleges and universities now offer online courses, either as part of their normal curriculum, or as free classes available to the public. Sites like Coursera and edX bundle many of these classes together, making it easy to find information on almost any topic you can imagine.

But as a student, how can you tell which of these courses are worth taking, and which ones to avoid?

Strengths and Weaknesses of Online Courses

First, you should be aware of the inherent strengths and weaknesses of online courses in general:

  • Most students who gravitate toward online courses do so because of their convenience. Many don’t have set hours—instead you can watch lectures and do homework at your own pace, so long as you’re available to take exams.
  • Online courses are oftentimes (though not always) less expensive than in-person courses. This makes them a viable alternative for students trying to save money, or graduate with less debt.
  • Social opportunities. Unfortunately, online classes also have fewer opportunities for social interactions. That means you won’t have access to as many study groups, or the interactive discussions you might otherwise have in class.
  • Individual help. Online courses sometimes involve dozens, if not hundreds of people. That means your professor won’t have the time or inclination to give you one-on-one help. If you get stuck on a given subject, you might be on your own.

If you have the option to take an in-person course for the same time and monetary costs, it’s likely worth it. Otherwise, you’ll have to balance the time and cost savings with the necessary sacrifices associated with online classes.

Authority and Certification

Next, consider the authority and certification of the offering party of each online course. If you’re taking an online class through your main university, you shouldn’t have to worry about this. Otherwise, you’ll need to do some due diligence.

Start by investigating the university or organization offering the course. If you recognize the name, that’s a good sign. Otherwise, look for online reviews and how prestigious or accomplished the university is. It shouldn’t take long before you have a clear indication of the organization’s value.

Next, consider whether the online course is certified by a third-party organization. For example, Quality Matters (QM) certifies online courses for their course design, and since 2006 has certified more than 6,000 individual courses.

You may also want to evaluate the lecturer or professor associated with each course. A quick Google search should help you verify the authority’s credentials, and whether they’re truly an expert on the subject. You may also be able to find samples of their public speaking or educational abilities.

Cost and Value

Even if a course appears to be offered by a high authority and a prestigious organization, that doesn’t mean it’s worth the cost. Free courses are tempting, since you might think the cost is zero, but you also have to consider how many hours you’ll spend watching videos, taking quizzes, and studying. The total cost of an online course will be the total monetary price and the total number of hours you’re going to spend on it.

There are many factors to consider here. Having a degree, or a professional certification will, on average, net you a higher average salary over the course of your lifetime. If you aren’t getting a formal degree or certification, the ultimate value of the course may be lower. You may also consider practical skills you take away from the course—for example, if you become skilled in repairing bicycles, you may not only have more job opportunities at bike repair shops, but you’ll save money on your own bike maintenance in the future.

Syllabi, Coursework, and Opportunities

If you have access to the syllabus and coursework for the class before you sign up to take it, look it over. You’ll get a better sense for the time demands of the course, and what types of things you’ll learn along the way. Depending on the course, you may also be able to find specific opportunities that may be available to you after taking the course. For example, the course description may imply that you’ll be able to get an entry-level position in a specific field after taking it, or may direct you to more advanced learning opportunities when you’re finished. These possibilities should add to your evaluation of the course’s prospective return on investment (ROI).

You won’t always have the opportunity to delve into the details of an online course before you start taking it, but it’s crucial to take those critical steps when you’re able. Online classes aren’t always worth the cost or time to take them, but they can also be incredibly valuable opportunities to progress your education. Learn to tell the difference, and you’ll never walk away disappointed.

Sylvia Kohl is an IT teacher with more than 8 years of professional experience. Her main spheres of interest are e-education and she convinced that learning process doesn’t stop after years in school and university.


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