4 Things Professionals Should Know Before Taking Online Courses

By Denton Zhou | Updated August 14, 2017 (Originally Published August 1, 2017)

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Enrolling a course is as easy as buying a book off of Amazon nowadays. You find a course, read its description, its specs and features, a few reviews and hit checkout.

Still, there are some nuances that you should know about before you dive into a course. We’ve put some tips together for career-oriented learners.

Two “types” of courses

In general, courses come in two varieties.

Type 1: These courses are usually offered by providers like Lynda and Treehouse. They take the form of video tutorials that last anywhere from a few minutes to 80 hours. Their subjects mostly revolve around software tools (Excel, Salesforce, Photoshop, etc.) or computer skills (programming, SQL, etc.) along with a few courses covering business fundamentals.

Type 2: Other course providers like edX and Coursera offer more structured courses that typically take 6-12 weeks to complete. Unlike the Type 1 courses, which are more closely akin to self-learn books and study guides that you can pick up and put down whenever, these courses attempt to emulate a traditional course complete with syllabi, instructors, homework assignments, and exams.

Type 1 courses offer the most amount of flexibility both because you’re able to access a huge library of content at your leisure. Because these course providers charge a flat monthly fee, you can learn as much as you want without worrying about costs.

Type 2 courses trade up some of this flexibility by providing more depth. These courses cover not only the how-to but also the theory and science behind concepts. If you’re looking to become an expert in a topic or subject, then Type 2’s the way to go.

The cost of taking online courses: time and money

Online courses designed for professionals are occasionally free, but more often now they require payment in exchange for access and/or a certificate. Expect to pay if your course is more specialized.

Type 1 providers often charge between $25 and $50 per month to access courses. Type 2 courses can cost anywhere between $20 and $300, but on average hover between $40 and $60.

We’re inclined to say that if a course will help your chances at a raise, a promotion, or a new job, then these costs are reasonable.

Given that in-classroom trainings can often cost many multiples more (in-person Excel trainings can cost $500-$900 in the New York City area), you’ll be hard pressed to find other comprehensive options for much cheaper.

Time is our most valuable resource as we’re certain it is yours. Before starting an online course, make sure you’re able to commit to that course’s time requirements over its length. The most rigorous courses take anywhere between 12-26 weeks with as much as 8-12 hours of coursework each week.

There are a few ways to streamline this time commitment is by setting your own pace in advance.

Study the syllabus before you begin a course and figure out which lectures you can skip (you should still complete the coursework to make sure you’re not cutting yourself out of a certificate). When the going’s slow, don’t forget to make use of the video speed settings which will let you zip through lectures at 1.5x or 2x playback speed.

Finally, try your best to spend at least an hour every two days chipping away at a course. Most course lectures are divvied up into 3-5 minute chunks. One seamless way to knock out a lecture is by watching one or two chunks regularly throughout the day, perhaps during breaks.

Not only will you improve how much of the content you retain from a course, but you’ll save hours that you might spend trying to remember and review materials you haven’t touched in a week, as is often the case for learners who relegate self-learning to weekends.

Know what you want to get out of your courses

Before you dive into your first course, think about what skills and knowledge you’re looking to pick up. Doing so can help you focus on getting what you need out of a course as you’re taking it.

Often, learners who take a course feel compelled to stick with it to the end. Don’t. If it turns out a course won’t help you advance your career or your own career goals have shifted, it’s better to take just the most valuable parts of a course before setting it down. You might lose out on a certificate, but the time you save is likely more valuable than the certificate’s cost.

Finally, although we’ve put great emphasis on them, skills and knowledge aren’t the only factors to consider when choosing an online course.

A great course should fit your broader career goals. Before you commit to a course, think whether a course can help push you to your next milestone career goal (e.g. a raise or promotion). A course doesn’t necessarily need to help in this regard, but choosing one that does helps to justify your investment in time and money.

Make it a habit

Studies show that we learn best when we learn in digestible parts. It might make sense if you’re busy throughout the workweek to set aside all of your learning for the weekend. Better it is, however, to make your learning a regular habit. Not only will you have better learning outcomes, you’ll also spend less time trying to figure out what you last learned many days ago.

One other benefit you as a professional is that you’ll have more opportunities to apply concepts you learn to your own work if you learn in short bursts. It’s often easier to put to the test one or two concepts than it is to juggle and apply many.

Many other tips and tricks

There’s no correct way to take online courses, but we hope these tips and tricks will help give you an idea of how to make the best out of them. Have your own tip you’d like to share? Share them with us in the comments!

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