Advancing or increasing your education doesn’t have to mean enrolling in a full degree program, taking time off work or disrupting your schedule. Individual online courses are an increasingly popular and convenient way for adults to continue learning, no matter their interests. Around 15 million students are non-traditional, adult learners, and a diverse range of online learning opportunities exists to meet these students’ needs. Online classes are available in many different formats and are great solutions for those who want to learn new skills, advance their careers or try online learning without a making a huge commitment.
Popular Online College Courses
Types of Online Courses
Online course offerings aren’t limited to full online degree programs. In fact, there are tons of classes available in a range of formats to suit different learning styles. Many online courses are offered through colleges or universities, but there are many other websites and organizations that offer classes online. Whether they’re looking for needlepoint techniques or an introduction to artificial intelligence, students can find something interesting to learn through online courses.
Some one-off online courses are formatted similarly to traditional college courses, with class discussions, graded coursework and exams, and may even be part of a full degree program. Some courses are comprised entirely of videos and can be completed in a week while others require projects or written assignments and last a year or more.
Online classes can be completely autonomous or have consistent interaction with instructors and classmates. The outcome of different online courses varies, too. Credential preparation, college credit, completion certificates or simple personal fulfillment are all possible through online courses, depending on where you look.
The key to finding the right online class is to get familiar with the types of online courses available, how they’re structured and whether they meet other criteria you’re looking for, like cost and outcomes.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)
Massive Open Online Courses, commonly called MOOCs, are an extremely flexible way for people to take classes online. Enrollment is open and unlimited, which means anyone with internet access can take them, regardless of their qualifications or how many other people are enrolled. MOOCs are generally free, self-paced and cover a wide range of topics, making them a nice option for students who want a low-commitment way to give online learning a try.
However, MOOCs are usually designed so students can work through the course at their own pace and have little to no instructor involvement, so those who are very self-motivated will likely have an easier time completing these courses than students who prefer more structure. Because of their flexible nature and vast subject matter, MOOCs can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year or more to complete.
Check out this guide to MOOCs to learn more about their structure and benefits, and get firsthand insights from a MOOC student.
Credentialing varies. Most MOOCs are free, but fee-based ones, especially those backed by universities or industry leaders like Google, tend to offer some sort of credentialing or certificate upon successful completion of a course.
College Credit Offered
College credit is sometimes available through MOOCs. Some of the largest MOOC providers have partnered with universities like Arizona State University, University of Illinois and Georgia Tech to provide people around the world with low-cost, high-quality educations. Read more about university-based open courseware below.
Often free, but many offer optional certificates or college credit, which usually involves a fee.
Where to Find Them
Popular providers include edX, Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, FutureLearn and iversity. Students can also search for individual MOOCs through MOOC List, Canvas Network and the Open Education Database.
Open Courseware via Accredited Universities
When MOOCs took off in 2012, some providers intended to offer high quality courses from well-known colleges and universities. One of the largest online education providers, edX, was actually created by Harvard and MIT. Since then, tons of colleges and universities have partnered with MOOC providers to bring their courses online and make them accessible to everyone.
Because many of these university-based open courseware classes imitate a traditional classroom experience, they can offer more structure than other MOOCs. However, that is not always the case. Students should read course descriptions, which provide details about class structure, before enrolling.
Because these classes are offered through universities, students may be able to earn college credit, depending on the course.
Certificates of completion may be available.
College Credit Offered
College credit may be available, depending on the program.
While courses are usually free, students looking to earn credit can opt to pay the university’s standard credit fee, which is listed by each course, upon passing the class. Those who do not need college credit but want an official certificate of completion often have to pay a fee, which is usually $40 – $300.
Where to Find Them
Search popular providers like edX, Coursera, Udacity, or contact the school of your choice to find out if they offer open courseware classes.
Individual Courses Through Vocational and Community Colleges
Community colleges and vocational schools are known for providing affordable two-year degrees, professional training and other types of academic and professional credentials to local students. However, many community colleges and vocational schools also offer online courses that don’t require enrollment in a full degree or certificate program. These courses are a great option for students seeking online courses with more structure and community than MOOCs typically provide.
Schools may offer a wide range of courses, from grammar refreshers and digital photography to full certification and professional development programs in business, the trades, information technology and more. Course structure varies by institution and course type.
For example, Portland Community College in Oregon separates their online community education courses into two categories: instructor-led courses and career training programs. The six-week, instructor-led courses have predetermined start and end dates and interactive class discussions. Their career training programs, on the other hand, can be started at any time, are intended to prepare students for professional certification and take longer to complete. Both types of programs offer access to instructors and completion awards with a passing score.
Some schools may also allow for enrollment or auditing of individual courses within a degree program. Students should call their school of interest for specific details about taking online courses this way.
Awards of completion are often available. While many programs prepare for professional certification, students generally have to sit for an exam given by the credential-granting organization to gain certification.
College Credit Offered
College credit is usually available to students taking individual courses that are offered as part of a full degree program, but they may have to enroll in the college first. Community education programs usually do not offer college credit.
Varies by institution and course.
Where to Find Them
Your local community college or vocational school is a good place to start, but the online nature of these courses means you may be able to take courses from schools outside your immediate area, too.
Courses Through Professional Development & Community Learning Platform
Professional development and community learning platforms are a nice solution for students who want to sample a variety of classes or develop multiple skills. Both have similar structures, but they fill different learning needs.
As their name suggests, professional development platforms are ideal for students who want to develop or build upon work-related skills. Courses are often comprised of a series of short videos that may be supplemented with documents and assignments. They often have hands-on elements, like in-browser coding practice, which is great for those who want to build their portfolios to share with potential employers. While these classes are great for their professional focus, many students take them for personal enrichment, too.
Community learning platforms, like Skillshare, tend to have a broader focus, offering courses in drawing techniques, sewing, small business development and foreign languages, to name a few. With their emphasis on community sharing, classes offered through these platforms aren’t necessarily taught by professionals; anyone who has a special technique or skill can create a class and share their knowledge. Like courses offered through professional development platforms, these classes are typically a series of videos with supplemental materials.
Awards of completion and badges that can be added to personal websites or social media outlets, like LinkedIn, may be available.
College Credit Offered
Usually between $0 – $30 per month. Both types of platforms are usually subscription-based, so students can take as many courses as they want for a flat fee. Some platforms are completely free, and others have pricing tiers, so students can choose a package that suits their educational needs as well as their budgets.
Where to Find Them
Lynda, Codecademy, Treehouse, Khan Academy, Skillshare and Craftsy are popular professional development and community learning platforms.
When it comes to online classes, there can be a lot of factors to consider. Online education expert Keisha Kidan has the answers to some of the questions most commonly asked about online learning.
Who can take online courses?
Anyone can take online courses, but to be successful, learners should be comfortable using the internet and have access to a computer, tablet or smartphone. It is also important to be organized and to know how to manage time well, because online courses are generally self-paced.
How can I find online courses?
Online courses are offered by various sources including colleges and universities. But, you can also find online courses offered by private companies and organizations by searching for online courses in your subject area of interest. Popular course offerings may be found through Lynda, Coursera, Udemy or edX.
Are online courses usually offered for credit?
To be offered for credit, an online course may be offered by a college or university. However, other organizations offer certificates or digital badges for completing their online courses. These digital badges or certificates can be added to your resume or LinkedIn profile.
Can I take individual online classes through an online college or university?
There are colleges and universities that offer students the ability to audit courses (and you can choose to take one class). The options will vary by institution.
Do individual online classes transfer?
The ability to transfer courses or credits is decided by an institution and would vary. To find out, contact the institution you hope to transfer credits or courses to before enrolling in a course.
What technology requirements are typically needed for online courses?
Online courses offered by private companies are often web-based. You would need a reliable internet connection, computer, tablet or smartphone and an internet browser (Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome). If you take a course through an online college or university, they may use a learning management system, which is a system to organize and house course materials. A learning management system can also be accessed through the web, and the technology requirements will be detailed by the school.
If I audit a class for self-enrichment, do I need to pay for it?
Typically, yes if the course is through a college or university. However, this will vary by course and by institution. There are platforms that offer free online courses including Lynda, Udemy, edX and Coursera.
If I’m not taking a class for credit, do I need to complete the homework assignments and exams?
It is likely that you would have to complete the assignments and exams of a course if you wish to check for understanding and have a rich experience in the course. However, turning in course work may not be required by the institution offering the course.
Is financial aid available for online courses?
Financial aid from the government or other sources is typically offered for students enrolled in a certain number of credit hours at a college or university. However, there are non-traditional financial aid opportunities for students who qualify (and for certain courses or programs). Grants, scholarships, fellowships and funding may be offered by private companies, groups or even individuals.