Online Course FAQs for Students

By Denton Zhou | Updated August 14, 2017 (Originally Published August 13, 2017)

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Who can take online courses?

edX, a course provider, allows anyone to sign up and take courses regardless of age. All other course providers require that you either at least 13 years of age or have your parents’ permission to sign up and enroll in courses.

How much do online courses cost?

The majority of courses we list at OpenCourser that are designed for students are free. Those who aren’t free are usually affordably priced. Paid courses are typically priced between $20 and $250. Some online courses also offer financial aid based on need.

Can I get course credits to apply to my degree with online courses?

Very few institutions and schools will accept course credit from online courses. While some course providers (edX and Coursera, namely) have experimented with issuing credit through third party universities, those programs have been discontinued.

If you’re serious about earning credit from an online course, consult with academic counselors or administrators of your school or university. Alternatively, you may consider taking courses from a local college or university in lieu of an online course. Courses earned from these institutions can often be transferred to another.

Will online courses improve my chances of being admitted to the college / university of my choice?

Only the admissions officer who decides on your application can give you a definitive answer. Generally, admissions officers look favorably upon students who show initiative around their own academics. Completing a rigorous college-level course about a subject you’re interested in may just signal to the admissions officers looking at your application that you’re serious about pursuing your academic interests.

There are still concerns over online courses about authenticity and honor policy (for example, few controls exist to prevent cheating and academic dishonesty). The best ways to prove that you completed these courses is to produce something tangible that shows off what you learned, perhaps in the form of a project you can share on your application. You may also consider buying a verified certificate in which your identity is personally verified by the course provider.

I have a busy schedule. Can I pause and resume courses at my leisure?

Some courses offer tremendous flexibility when it comes to completing them, allowing you to consume course materials on your own time. Most run on a fixed schedule. Aside from emulating the structure of a traditional course, courses with schedules set the pace for you and your classmates to study.

There are clear benefits to having this synchronization. For one, instructors are better able to address their students. Some, for example, hold live office hours, something that would otherwise be impossible without a synchronized timeline. A fixed schedule also promotes vibrant discussions in course forums, a close analog to having conversations with your classmates on a physical campus.

However, even with these courses, you’re free to learn at your own pace. The only time you might want to stick closely to the schedule is if you’re pursuing a certificate.

English is not my first language. Will I be able to keep up with the material?

Most courses offer the ability to set your video speed (0.5x to 2x, typically) and toggle captions and subtitles. If you’re having trouble understanding lecture videos, we suggest slowing down this pace and turning on captions. In more popular courses, these captions are sometimes available in translation, which may be particularly helpful to you.

OpenCourser also allows you to search for courses specifically in your native language, which you may try searching for.

When are courses free and when are they not? What are the differences between them?

There are three categories of courses: free courses, paid courses, and a hybrid free/paid course model.

Free courses allow you to complete a course without paying and represent the majority of online courses. Paid courses on the other hand require payment in full to access any course content.

Hybrid courses might offer certain parts of their course for free, but exclude other parts that are necessary for completing a course. For example, you may have access to all of the lecture videos and readings, but graded coursework like quizzes, exams, and homework assignments might be locked.

Paid courses lock the entirety of their contents behind a paywall. You cannot access these courses without payment.

What are verified certificates?

Earning a verified certificate often goes hand in hand with payment. If you’re taking a free or partially free course, you may wonder why you would want to purchase a verified certificate. There are a few reasons.

Verified certificates certify that you (and no one else but you) completed an online course. It’s an extension of the course provider’s honor policy. When you apply for your verified certificate, you must personally certify (in signature) that you abide by the honor policy. Further, you must provide a form of identification (e.g. a scan of your driver’s license) for the course provider’s records.

These certificates also add value in that they offer learners an opportunity to put more up for stake in completing a course.

In general, we recommend verified certificates in two cases: 1) when you really want to complete a course and are able to pay for a course, and 2) when you plan on sharing your achievements in a college application or on a resume / LinkedIn profile. 

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