Online Learning 101 Guide to Picking the Right Online Course

Online Learning 101: Guide to Picking the Right Online Course

The world of online learning has exploded in popularity over the last decade. What was once seen as an alternative mode of education is now mainstream, with millions of learners around the globe opting to study through virtual classrooms. The COVID-19 pandemic acted as a catalyst, driving a massive surge in demand for online courses as traditional in-person education was disrupted. According to Class Central, an online course search engine, the number of people taking online courses skyrocketed from 110 million in 2019 to 180 million in 2020 – a 60% increase.
Several key factors account for the meteoric rise in the popularity of online courses. First and foremost is the flexibility and accessibility they provide. Learners can access course materials at any time, from anywhere, removing geographical barriers and fitting education conveniently around work and family commitments. The extensive range of subjects and courses available is another drawcard. Whether seeking professional development, a new hobby or just satisfying curiosity, there’s an abundance of online learning options to meet almost every interest and need imaginable. Lower costs compared to traditional education, interactive and engaging course formats, the opportunity to learn from experts worldwide – these benefits and more continue propelling the online learning revolution.
For learners today, the possibilities are endless. From bite-sized nano-degrees taking a few weeks to complete, to fully online bachelor’s and master’s degrees; subjects as diverse as photography, coding, wine-tasting or ancient Greek mythology – whatever you aspire to learn, there’s an online course tailored for you. With intelligent course recommendation engines and easy enrollment procedures, accessing this world-class education is smoother than ever. As technology advances, the quality and scope of online learning shows no signs of slowing down. The virtual classroom is here to stay.

Define Your Goals

Before diving into the sea of online courses, take a moment to clarify your objectives. Are you seeking to:
  • Gain a professional certification? Online courses can provide industry-recognized certifications to help you qualify for jobs or advance your career. Courses from professional associations and vendors like Cisco or Microsoft offer certifications in many fields.
  • Acquire new skills for career advancement? Taking courses in emerging technologies, leadership, project management, and other domains can make you more competitive for promotions and new roles. Upskilling through online learning shows initiative.
  • Learn something new for personal enrichment. The joy of lifelong learning applies online too! Take a course purely out of interest in a topic like photography, creative writing, wine appreciation or anything that excites your curiosity.
  • Prepare for a career change? A major career shift may require developing a whole new skill set. Online courses enable you to gain knowledge and credentials for an entirely new field while still working your current job.
Understanding your goals will help narrow down your choices and ensure that the course you select aligns with your aspirations.

Research Course Providers

Not all online course providers are created equal. Some are well-known for their high-quality content and reputable instructors, while others may lack credibility. Here are some top-rated platforms to consider:
Coursera: Offers courses from leading universities and institutions. Coursera partners with over 200 top universities and organizations to offer over 4,000 courses across a wide range of subjects including computer science, data science, language learning, business, and more. Coursera courses feature video lectures, assignments, community forums and for some courses, industry-recognized certificates upon completion. Coursera also conducts its own research and data analysis on online learning.
edX: Known for its wide range of subjects and prestigious partners. edX was founded by Harvard and MIT and features courses developed by more than 130 institutions worldwide, including Ivy League schools, top universities, and organizations like Google, Microsoft and IBM. edX offers 2,500+ courses in topics like technology, science, humanities and business and many courses are free. Some courses offer verified certificates for a fee.
Udemy: Features a vast library of courses on nearly every topic imaginable. With over 183,000 online courses, Udemy has one of the largest marketplaces for online learning. Instructors set their own prices for courses, ranging from free to hundreds of dollars. Udemy provides tools and support for instructors to build courses but does not vet instructors or curate content. Quality can vary so check reviews and instructor background.
LinkedIn Learning: Focuses on professional development with a strong emphasis on business and technology skills. With over 16,000 courses taught by industry experts, LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda) offers video courses aimed at working professionals looking to gain job-related skills. Courses cover business, creative, and technology topics. Access requires a paid subscription.
MyMahotsav: MyMahotsav is an online learning platform that is revolutionizing how people learn and instructors teach. With over 50 million students worldwide, MyMahotsav provides a massive opportunity for students to learn and make money teaching online.
Look for reviews and ratings from previous students to gauge the quality of the courses offered by these providers. Check course ratings and read student feedback before enrolling to get a sense of the learning experience and teaching quality.

Check the Course Content

The course syllabus is a crucial factor in determining if a course meets your needs. Carefully review the topics covered, the structure of the course, and the learning outcomes. Ensure that the content aligns with your goals and interests.
  • Topics covered: Review the list of topics and lessons covered in the course. Do they match your learning objectives? Are there any key topics missing?
  • Course structure: Look at how the course is organized and structured. Is it a linear progression or broken into modules? How long is the course? How many lectures/assignments?
  • Learning outcomes: The course description should list specific skills and knowledge you will gain. Make sure these learning outcomes fit your goals.
  • Format: Consider the format of the course. Is it self-paced or instructor-led? Are there interactive elements like quizzes, assignments, or discussion forums? The format impacts the learning experience.
Matching the course content and format to your personal learning preferences is vital. Ensure the syllabus outlines a course that engages your interests and teaches the skills you aim to acquire. Analyzing the course structure and learning outcomes will clarify if it’s a good fit.

Evaluate the Instructor’s Expertise

A knowledgeable and experienced instructor can make a significant difference in your learning experience. Look for information about the instructor’s background, qualifications, and professional experience. Platforms like Coursera and edX often provide detailed instructor profiles, including their academic and professional credentials.
Specifically, check the instructor’s:
  • Background – What is their educational and professional background? Where have they worked and what have they studied? This gives you insight into the depth of their real-world experience.
  • Qualifications – Do they have relevant degrees, certifications, or training? Formal qualifications indicate mastery of the subject matter.
  • Credentials – Are they affiliated with well-regarded institutions and organizations? Prestigious credentials add legitimacy.
  • Expertise – How knowledgeable are they in the topic area? Look for evidence of subject matter expertise like publications, research, projects, etc.
An instructor with a strong background, formal qualifications, impressive credentials and proven expertise is more likely to provide a high-quality, impactful learning experience. Their knowledge and skills will be reflected in the course content and teaching methods.
Prioritize instructors who can demonstrate in-depth knowledge from both academic study and practical experience. This signifies their ability to provide valuable insights and effectively convey complex topics to students.
Vetting the instructor thoroughly ensures you’ll be learning from someone capable of enriching your understanding and preparing you to apply new skills. It’s time well invested that will pay dividends in your educational journey.

Consider the Time Commitment

Online courses vary significantly in length and time commitment required. Some courses may only require a few hours of study per week, while others demand upwards of 15-20 hours per week for assignments, projects, readings, etc. As you evaluate courses, consider the following regarding time commitment:
  • Length of course: Courses may range from 1-week sprints to multi-month programs. Consider what timeframe works for your schedule.
  • Hours per week: Estimate the weekly hours required based on the course syllabus. Can you dedicate that much time each week?
  • Flexibility: Many courses offer flexibility in terms of deadlines and completion pace. Self-paced courses allow you to work at your own speed. Instructor-led courses may have set deadlines but offer leniency if communicated in advance.
When assessing time commitment, be realistic about your availability and choose a course that aligns with your schedule and lifestyle. A course requiring 20 hours per week may not be feasible if you have a full-time job and family obligations. Seek out flexible, self-paced courses if your time is limited. By evaluating the expected workload and flexibility upfront, you can avoid signing up for a course that demands more time than you can dedicate.

Look for Accreditation and Certification

When selecting an online course, it’s important to consider accreditation and certification, especially if you’re taking the course for professional development.
Accredited courses are recognized by educational institutions and employers, which adds value to your resume and credentials. Accreditation indicates that the course content and instructors meet certain quality standards. Look for courses accredited by organizations like the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) or regional accreditors.
Certification also carries weight when provided upon completion of a course. Be sure to verify the legitimacy and industry acceptance of any certification offered. Some platforms may offer their own certificates, while others provide certifications from reputable third parties like CompTIA or PMI.
If your goal is career advancement or a professional certification, accreditation and credible certification are worth prioritizing in your online course selection. They demonstrate the knowledge you’ve gained and validate your new skills in the eyes of employers. Even if accreditation isn’t mandatory for your needs, it’s an indicator of quality instruction and content.

Assess the Cost

Online courses come in a wide range of price points, from completely free options to courses costing hundreds of dollars. It’s tempting to automatically go for the free courses, but it’s important to consider the value you’ll be getting for your money. While quality free courses are available, paid options often provide more comprehensive content, direct access to instructors, and official certification upon completion.
Free courses are a great option if you’re on a tight budget or just looking to explore a topic. Many prestigious universities like Harvard and MIT offer free online courses. Platforms like edX and Coursera also have a selection of free courses, usually with the option to pay for official certification. The downside is that free courses tend to have less robust content and support compared to paid alternatives.
Paid courses provide a more thorough, in-depth learning experience. The price usually reflects the amount of content covered, assignments given, and instructor interaction provided. Paid courses invest more resources into developing high-quality, comprehensive materials. They also often lead to respected industry certifications. The price tag brings more value in terms of content depth, teaching support, and credentials for your resume.
Subscription models give you access to multiple courses for a monthly or annual fee. This allows you to take a range of courses over time rather than paying for each one individually. Subscription services like LinkedIn Learning and MasterClass offer this model. It’s ideal if you want to take many courses or sample different topics.
Financial aid is available through some platforms, making courses more affordable. EdX, Coursera, and Udacity are known for providing financial assistance to learners in need. Scholarships, discounted memberships, and payment plans can reduce the cost barrier for valuable courses.
Consider both free and paid options, but focus on the quality of content and learning experience. Ultimately the right course for you provides the best value in helping you achieve your goals, regardless of cost.

Read User Reviews and Testimonials

User reviews and testimonials provide valuable first-hand insight into the real-world experiences of other learners. When researching courses, be sure to look for feedback on:
  • Content Quality: What are people saying about the depth, relevance, and accuracy of the course material? Is the content engaging and well-structured? Reviews can reveal if the syllabus is comprehensive or if critical topics are missing.
  • Instructor Effectiveness: An instructor can make or break a course. Check reviews for feedback on the teacher’s knowledge, teaching methods, responsiveness, and ability to explain complex topics. Know if they actively participate in discussions.
  • Overall Learning Experience: Look for testimonials on the course’s format, assignments, quizzes, projects, and ability to retain information. See if people felt they achieved the course objectives and emerged more knowledgeable. Understand the workload and time commitment required.
Pay close attention to any recurring complaints or praises mentioned by multiple reviewers. This helps identify systemic strengths and weaknesses in the course. Try to read reviews from recent students, as courses may update and improve over time. Taking the time to carefully evaluate reviews will provide key insights to ensure the course fits your learning needs and style.


Choosing the right online course is an important decision that requires careful evaluation of your needs and the options available. Here are some key tips to keep in mind:
  • Clearly define your goals and ensure the course aligns with your objectives. Are you looking to gain new skills, earn a certification, or explore a hobby? Matching your goals is crucial.
  • Thoroughly research potential course providers and platforms. Look for those with a strong reputation for high-quality courses and instructors.
  • Carefully examine the course syllabus and details. Make sure it covers the topics you want at the appropriate level.
  • Check the instructor’s background and qualifications. More experienced instructors tend to provide better learning experiences.
  • Consider the time commitment required and choose an option that fits your schedule.
  • Verify accreditation and certification is important for your needs. Accredited courses hold more weight professionally.
  • Evaluate cost in relation to the value you will gain. Free courses can provide great learning too.
  • Read reviews from past students for real-world insights into the course experience.
  • If possible, preview parts of the course through free trials to ensure it’s a good fit.
By thoroughly evaluating courses based on your goals and needs, you’re more likely to choose one that delivers significant benefits and enriches your learning journey.

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