More universities and companies are investing in providing distance learning opportunities. With many marketing tactics at play and unaccredited programs on the market, it’s important to do your research and gain a strong understanding of the specific program you’re signing up for.

When choosing to invest your hard-earned savings or making considerations to take out a student loan, it’s crucial to know how to identify a good online course. You can find some helpful factors to consider below, but defining your individual goals for online learning can be key in selecting the right course.

Elearning, Distance Learning, Online Learning

Technology has completely transformed the world of work, providing more opportunities to work remotely. It’s therefore no surprise that students are also seeking remote learning opportunities to further their studies.

Distance, or online learning, is an educational process where students enroll in online courses to learn through lecture recordings, live video conferencing, and additional audio/visual materials, which are made available virtually.

Online learning is proving to be quite impactful by making education accessible to larger groups of people. University-based massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are not a new offering, but a greater number of students are now opting to do their learning through accredited online courses.

Individuals who benefit from the flexibility of online learning include working professionals, stay at home parents, those who are abroad and others without regular access to transportation. Many full-time students also choose to take online courses during their school breaks to lighten their standard course loads during semesters. Elearning can therefore also complement traditional education and offline learning.

Good Online Course Options & Offerings

The best online courses mirror the quality of the in-person classroom experience. They do so by utilizing key technologies to create accessible, engaging environments. Engaging students in online learning is key, especially when face-to-face interactions, both between students and teachers and among students and their peers, do not occur.

Some initial best practices being implemented include interactive measures to encourage online student engagement, effective use of technology to make for easily accessible and well-produced materials, opportunities for mentoring, peer collaboration and more.

Here are some questions to explore when selecting a good online course or program:

Is the school accredited?

Individuals’ goals may vary, but accreditation is often a key consideration. Has a regional association accredited the school you’re exploring? If not, you may not be able to use it to meet academic requirements and the credits may not be accepted to be ‘rolled over’ into another institution. You need to do your due diligence here, since some accrediting agencies also do not review schools thoroughly enough. If you can verify that the course or program is endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education, that is always the safest bet. The majority of MOOCs do not offer college credits.

How qualified are the professors?

One could argue that having an engaging professor is even more important when face-to-face interactions are lacking. Look for reviews of faculty and explore how much experience they have teaching the subject at hand. University professors should likely have PhDs, and teachers at community colleges should likely have Masters degrees. You shouldn’t settle for less just because the course is online.

What degree will you be eligible for?

Does the school offer an Associates degree or is it a professional certification? Will these credits be recognized by other institutions if you’re taking a few courses online to then roll them over to obtain a degree? Identify what your degree or certification end goal is, then look up all of the requirements and work backward to see which courses apply.

How tech savvy is the program?

Technology can make or break online student engagement experiences. When participating online, the quality of the video, audio, graphics and design are key to student retention.

Can you demo the course before enrolling to get a gauge of the quality of technology being used or the interface? Is the website and are course materials accessible to those with varying learning needs? A strong program will offer captions or transcription services for its online lectures to improve the student experience and help individuals navigating disabilities. If you miss a live lecture for example, transcriptions can provide you with notes of the missed materials. If you encounter technical issues like poor audio, you want to ensure there are tools to help you receive immediate support.

On the flip side, some courses utilize complex technologies, which complicate the online learning process. Making students download many apps and plug-ins can have the opposite effect. Students can get frustrated when technologies don’t work properly and spend too much time troubleshooting issues and not enough time actually learning.  Instead, look for courses which use reliable technologies that are universally supported by different browsers and devices. Students should be fully aware of how to access resources on the provided platform.

Does the course accommodate different learning styles and needs?

More schools are focusing on embedding Universal Design for Learning (or UDL) principles into their offerings. UDL aims to give all students an equal opportunity to succeed and is based on the idea that everyone learns differently.

Some individuals are more visual, while others are audible learners. Providing all students – not just those navigating disabilities in the learning environment – with tools like captions can help to even the playing field. You’ll likely feel more engaged if you can  take interactive notes directly on the provided platform during live lectures for example. Providing students with closed captions is another method that can allow them to utilize or turn off tech to accommodate their unique learning styles.

How flexible is the course?

You’re likely taking courses online due to convenience or scheduling matters. Can you then complete the course at your own pace? Do you have to join lectures live or can you watch them on-demand? It’s important to get a sense of the course schedule and deadlines to ensure you’re able to complete it. Some students thrive on deadlines and need the extra push to motivate themselves, while others need a flexible structure due to other life or work responsibilities. With a plethora of options on the market, It would be a shame to enroll in a course that does not accommodate your individual needs.

How big is the class and what does student retention look like?

It’s helpful to consider factors such as the completion rate. This statistic can help you gauge how strong a course is and how much time the professor is able to allocate toward students to ensure their success.

Is the course attracting a lot of students? What is the student to teacher ratio? It’s important to know how much attention you’ll receive from the professor if that is crucial for you to succeed. Many online course instructors offer online office hours, which can prove helpful when things are not made clear, especially when consuming recorded lectures which don’t allow for live Q&A.

Is there an opportunity for peer interaction?

Are group projects part of the course? Online programs can often feel isolating and group assignments can foster a sense of community and camaraderie. The ability to network and build relationships with classmates who will later become industry peers can also prove to be important.

You can learn a great deal from like-minded peers and benefit from the opportunity to collaborate with them. Studying for exams with peers, even virtually, can also be a helpful tactic to ensure you’re prepared to complete the course successfully.

How is the course designed?

The elearning development process should be ongoing. Good online courses will continue to find unique ways to keep online students engaged with out-of-the box thinking. Many online courses lack multimedia elements or provide the same format each week, which can make for a boring experience. You should look for courses that have invested in elearning innovation and are utilizing multiple formats for interaction, including multimedia elements to create an engaging experience.

US News offers an independent ranking of entirely online programs, which could also be a helpful resource.