Getting Started: A Guide to Online Courses for Students

By Denton Zhou | Updated August 16, 2017 (Originally Published August 1, 2017)

In this series, we look at how you as a student can take advantage of online courses.

Jump to a section:

Students, get excited. You’re among the first generation of learners with access to online courses.

If that means nothing to you now, it will by the time you’re done reading this article.

A simple concept

Like any class you might find in high school or university, online courses are designed to give you knowledge and teach you skills. Most take between a few weeks to a few months to complete.

At their core, these courses are made up of lectures, usually given through pre-recorded videos. It’s through these videos and maybe a few readings where you’ll learn most of a course’s new material.

In between videos, you might have mini quizzes and homework assignments. Some challenging courses even have exams, but don’t worry. No one here will scrutinize your grades; they’re just there to help you track your progress.

Because lecture videos are pre-recorded and edited, they’re often much more streamlined than traditional in-person lectures. Most instructors use tools like digital whiteboards and animations to illustrate difficult concepts. Others will make use of slides and illustrations that they can draw over, akin to slide projectors that you’ll find in the classroom.

Perhaps the best outcome of editing though is that most courses break their lectures down into chunks. Each of these usually last two and five minutes long with all of the extra unnecessary fillers thrown out. If you’ve sat through excruciating lectures before that seem to drag on and on, this itself should be a huge selling point. And if an online course is still moving too slowly, you can always up the playback speed with a click.

Greater flexibility

Online courses are made for everyone, and since everyone’s different, the creators of these courses built in a number of ways you could customize your learning experience.

While most instructors expect students to complete all of the lectures and coursework, you can just as easily pick and choose which lectures you want to learn from and which assignments you’ll finish, if any. That makes online courses a fantastic way to explore new topics and see if one ignites your interest.

Of course, if you already know what you’re passionate about, you can put your all into a course and try to earn a certificate, usually issued to those who end the course with a passing grade. These certificates prove that you were able to successfully complete a course and they’re great for showing off your achievement to colleges or future employers.

You might wonder how you could possibly fit another course into your schedule. Fret not. Unlike traditional courses where you’re more or less forced to schedule your life around learning, online courses let you do quite the opposite. For the most part, you decide when you’ll watch lectures, finish quizzes, and complete assignments. Just make sure that if you’re after a certificate, you complete coursework within deadlines set (usually set weeks in advance so you can prepare accordingly).

Learn almost anything

By now, you know what an online course entails, but arguably the most important fact about them is the vast number of things they teach. You’d be hard pressed not to find something that interests you.

On OpenCourser alone, we keep track of over 7,500 courses (as of this writing). About half of those courses come from some of the best colleges and universities around the world taught by brilliant instructors who are leaders in their respective fields.

In the next section, we’ll look more closely at what kinds of courses are most sought after by students to give you a few ideas of how you might want to take online courses.

More Posts

5 New Specializations that Teach You Future-Proof Skills

Course Spotlight


Statistics MOOCs and Online Courses that Will Make You a Data Guru

Numbers and data surround us, but how do individuals and companies use them to their advantage? This post looks at the field of statistics and how you might get a grasp on it through online courses.

Course Spotlight


70+ Free AP Online Courses & MOOCs for Advanced Placement Learners

Every year, a few million ambitious high school students sit for the AP exams. We look at why you might want to join these legions of test takers and how you can prep for AP exams through our comprehensive list of online AP courses.

Course Spotlight


Learner's Guide

New to online courses and MOOC's? We've covered all of the basics and then some about how you can get started taking them. You'll also find some helpful FAQ's in this guide as well.

Course Spotlight


Getting Started: A Guide to Online Courses for Professionals

Resource Center


Take These Award Winning MOOCs from MITx

Course Spotlight


Should You Pay for MOOCs and Online Courses?

We take a look at when it makes sense to pay for an online course and when you're better off going with a lower cost or free alternative.

Own Your Future


Learn Corporate Finance from These Online Courses

Course Spotlight

Featured in this Post

OpenCourser Newsletter

Sign up for our newsletter to get updates about online courses