What is an online course?

June 18, 2021
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Life has shifted online—everything from dating to shopping for groceries can now be done over the internet. Education is a field that embraced this change. Ivy League schools and private tutors alike are now making their curriculum available online.

But if you’ve never considered online learning before, you may feel a bit lost. There is so much information to sift through, but you may just want an answer to a simple question: What is an online course?

Online courses give people the opportunity to expand their knowledge. Whether you need to pick up a new skill for work, supplement what you learned in school, or just want to know more about something that interests you, there are a lot of different online courses that are available.

An online course is a video, audio, or text-based learning experience. Designed to be completed from the comfort of your own home, these courses are self-paced, so there's no pressure to finish them in one sitting. Online learning is also very affordable and offers a way for people to improve themselves personally and professionally. 

Let's take a look at how online courses work and why you might want to consider taking one—or even creating one yourself.

How does an online course work?

Girl Writing in Workbook from Online Course with Laptop on Desk

Unlike in-person classrooms or workshops, online courses are completely remote. They can range from an hour to multiple hours; while some courses can be taken over many months, others can be completed in a day! 

Generally, online courses include supplemental materials such as transcripts or downloadable workbooks. A lot of online programs also offer some sort of community, such as a forum or a group chat. Teacher interaction may also be available for more personalized learning.

Many people take online classes for professional development. Because they are so much more flexible than in-person classes, they are particularly useful for building skills and fleshing out resumes without having to miss work.

There is also a wide variety of online learning programs available that offer skills training, language instruction, and continuing education opportunities at various levels. 

What is the purpose of an online course?

Man in Suit with Watch Touching the Touchpad on the Laptop

The main goal of online courses is to provide an easy way for people to learn new skills. They are great for instructors because lessons can be made available 24/7, and they’re also beneficial to students because online classes can typically be done on their own time. Because the information is in a digital format, it's easy to send and receive educational materials.

Online coursework can even supplement formal education by providing an option for accelerated content delivery—particularly in the sciences, where there's always new research being published. 

There are also online courses for growing businesses and brands. A great way for small business owners to either obtain new skills or motivate their staff members is by offering courses on marketing, social media use, and management principles. These courses help increase profits because they equip employees with the skills they need to do their jobs well, allowing them to grow in the company.

What are some examples of online courses?

Camera Fimling Online Cooking Course for Nutrition and Fitness

Some online courses are free while others cost money. They can be a one-time purchase, or they can have a recurring membership with added lessons and/or learning materials.

Online courses come in a variety of formats, such as video, audio, and text. Some courses will use only one medium while other courses may make use of all three types so that different learning styles are covered.

Popular online courses cover blogging, running a small business, social media marketing, cooking healthy recipes, building passive income streams, art, music, fitness, or programming. However, you can find online courses on just about any topic!

Online classes typically have a set of questions, assignments, or tasks that need to be completed before the student can move onto the next lesson. Some even require students to pass quizzes or tests. After the course is completed, students may earn a certificate of achievement. 

Difficulty levels may also be available to accommodate different skillsets. Many instructors offer beginner, intermediate, and advanced curriculum. 

What are the advantages of online courses?

Man with Glasses Watching Online Course on His Laptop with Orange Juice on Desk

The main advantage of online courses is that they are self-paced. Students can take their time, which makes it easier for them to digest information. They also don't need to be physically present in a classroom or office space—all they need is an internet connection! 

Online courses don't require someone to leave their home or workplace during business hours. They allow workers with busy schedules, such as nurses or doctors who have variable shifts week-to-week, flexibility when it comes to scheduling education around work demands.

These courses can be tailored to a student's needs and skill level, which is great if you're looking for something specific. The internet is also a wealth of knowledge on just about any topic, so there's no shortage of information out there that can help people learn what they need to know. 

Courses are also less expensive than traditional schooling. Generally, the quality of information is on par, if not better, than you would find in a traditional school.

And the best part: online courses are accessible to anyone with an internet connection. There are thousands of different topics that you can choose from across various fields of study, so there really is something for everyone.

What are the disadvantages of online courses?

The disadvantage to online classes—and there are very few—is that since you aren't in a classroom you might not get an immediate response from the instructor or receive a personal, one-on-one connection. Software like Skype and Zoom have made it possible for students and teachers to interact, but you may need to set up an appointment.

Another downside to an online course is that since there are so many options available, it might be hard to know which course will provide the right information for your specific needs. You may need to spend some time researching which course will be best for you.

Where can I find online courses?

edX Homepage for Top Online Courses in Business and Education

You can find online courses anywhere! There are dedicated platforms for online learning, as well as educational sites created by individual teachers.

EdX and Coursera are platforms that host courses from universities and businesses. You can find courses from top-tier schools such as Harvard University, UC Berkeley, and MIT! The most popular courses on EdX include computer science, data science, business, healthcare, and design. Coursera offers similar topics; you can get certificates for completing courses created by Stanford and Duke University, as well as Google and IBM.

Best of all, you can take these courses from well-known universities at a fraction of what you would pay through a traditional route. Many of these courses are the same ones that traditionally enrolled students take—but you won’t have to pay those ghastly tuition fees!

There are also platforms that host courses by individuals who are experts in their fields. Udemy and Skillshare offer courses made by private instructors who design their own curriculum. You can find topics ranging from business development to more creative pursuits like photography and painting. 

Outside of these platforms, you can find instructors who host courses on their own sites. These are particularly great for niche topics, like marketing on Instagram or building email lists. You can even find courses on how to make courses!

Are online courses worth it?

In a word: yes! Online courses are a great way for a student to grow their skills at their own pace. They also provide an excellent way for anyone who wants to make extra money by teaching.

Aside from personal development, online courses can be great for your professional life. A survey by Coursera found that 87% of people who took an online course for professional enrichment reported a boost to their work-life via a promotion, a raise, or a new career path altogether.

The best way to get started with online courses is by deciding which skills you want to learn. Find out about online platforms and what they offer so you’ll know which courses will meet your goals.

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