Online learning has steadily gained momentum and credibility over the past 10 years. Yet the COVID-19 crisis has thrust digital learning into a spotlight that couldn’t have been predicted just six months ago. Opportunities to learn and advance your career remotely may well be a silver lining in a pandemic-rocked world, but the proliferation of online offerings has also introduced a lot more complexity if you’re trying to choose among them.
Whether you’re looking for a new job, trying to position yourself for a promotion, or simply seeking something productive to do while stuck at home, online courses are a great option. They can help you expand your knowledge, hone your skills, and get hired. In fact, in a 2019 survey by Harvard Business School Online—where I’m the executive director—85% of recruiters said online certificates on a resume make candidates more attractive.
But it’s harder than ever to decide what program or course is right for you. The range of quality, credentials, and price can create “analysis paralysis” for prospective students.
Making a good decision doesn’t have to be hard. Here are four tips that can help ensure you get what you need and enjoy the experience:
1. Determine Your Goals
Not surprisingly, knowing what you want out of an online program is the first step. Spend time getting clarity around what you hope to accomplish through your educational experience. Are you seeking a degree that will position you for the workforce or graduate school? Are you simply looking for skills you can put to use in short order? Do you care about the “thing” you get at the end of the experience—a degree, a certificate, or something else?
Gone are the days when universities only offered degree programs that delivered what’s been called “just in case” learning. This sort of learning is what most of us know as “traditional”—a degree program that (hopefully!) gives you some skills you’ll use when you graduate, but might also feature a significant amount of content you may never use.
“Just in time” learning, on the other hand, is more focused, usually shorter, almost always less expensive, and should arm students with critical skills they can use immediately. Coding bootcamps are a good example of “just in time” learning, as are standalone courses focused solely on accounting or data analysis for marketing. These are targeted classes unencumbered by general education requirements you might have to complete in a degree program.
When should you seek out “just in time” vs. “just in case” learning? It depends on both your objective and the amount of time you have. “Just in case” learning is usually necessary to establish yourself in a new career field. It also requires more time—usually a year or more. “Just in time” learning is often the choice when you hope to augment what you already know in your current career field and do so quickly—usually in less than six months. For example, if you’re a graphic artist who designs websites, having extra education in HTML programming can help you raise your game within a few months.
Both types of learning have their place and can be exceptionally fulfilling, but be sure you know what type you need and what you’re hoping to get out of the experience.
2. Look for Engaging Content Delivery and Interaction
“That 90-minute lecture with 73 PowerPoint slides was amazing,” isn’t something you’re likely to hear a student say, remote or not. Lectures are boring. They’re even more boring online. And the worst outcome is to waste money on something you don’t complete. So do your due diligence. Ensure that the program you’re signing up for not only covers the topic areas you’re interested in, but does so in an engaging way.
At HBS Online, we’ve found that the case method of learning—which is essentially outlining a decision a business leader is facing and asking students to put themselves in that leader’s shoes—is highly engaging and helps drive home learning. Not every course has to use this particular method, but you should make sure there is something, outside of straight lecture, that helps keep you interested and engaged. In fact, you should be sure there are many somethings.
Courses with a variety of activities delivered in short segments are more engaging. A class that asks you to read a little, watch a short video, write a short reflection, and then complete an online simulation or exercise is an example of content that was made with the learner in mind. That’s the kind of course you should find.
In addition to investigating how the teaching is done, consider how much interaction you’ll have with faculty and other students. If a course without live faculty interaction is done well, it can be just as compelling as one with it. However, if there is no faculty interaction, be sure there is student-to-student interaction—such as a forum or Slack channel where you can ask one another questions and discuss the material. Research shows that teaching material to others—or even just expecting that you’ll have to—helps you learn better, so if you’re part of a community where everyone helps explain concepts to one another, everyone benefits.
Never forget that the academic experience is meant to have plenty of formal and informal social interaction. Just because a program is online doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice these things.
3. Remember That Brand Matters, But Not in the Way Most People Think
You’ll often hear people say, “It doesn’t matter where you go, as long as you get the education.” This isn’t entirely true. That’s not to say that everybody has to go to an elite institution, but where you go can influence your success. This is true for in-person learning and is just as true online.
If, for example, you live in East Lansing, Michigan, home of Michigan State University (MSU), and intend to stay in the Lansing area to work, then choosing the online program of a more “highly ranked” school elsewhere may not make sense. MSU alumni in central Michigan will likely be extra helpful to recent graduates of their alma mater.
So it’s important to consider not just what you want in an educational experience but also how prospective employers—in the specific field and geographic location you’re hoping to work in—will view your choice.
4. Make Sure It’s Worth Your Money (and Time)
While brand matters in some instances, there are times when it’s much less important. For example, many states require teachers to have advanced degrees. For the most part, where that degree is earned is not very important. Given that, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend a king’s ransom for a fancy brand, especially when your earning power is significantly limited. The same goes for fields like social work. We can debate whether it’s fair that these critical roles don’t pay well, but for now, if you can’t easily earn your money back, you may want to choose a less expensive option.
The same logic should be applied to non-degree online programs. There are a lot of options in the online space now. But the number of choices has introduced a lot of noise that can make understanding the value difficult. Read online reviews. Sample any content available. Talk to former students. Do everything you would if you were buying a car. And just like when you’re buying a car, be sure to read the fine print: Few programs are really free anymore if you’re looking for a credential that you can show to potential employers as evidence of your academic accomplishment.
Many institutions share data that indicates how a given program can help advance your career based on how former students have fared. For example, a survey of our own participants at HBS Online, which we happily share with prospective students, found that one in four earned a promotion or title change, one in four were able to transition to a new field, and nine out of 10 said their professional lives were impacted for the better.
Be sure to actively seek out providers that are able and willing to share concrete data about satisfaction and outcomes. If an institution can’t provide evidence that its offering can help you achieve your specific goals, it’s probably best to spend your time—and your money—somewhere else.
There are many wonderful options and new courses coming online every day. With uncertainty around in-person experiences still looming, online programs will remain a popular choice and can teach you just as effectively—and often more effectively—than on-campus programs. Keep an open mind. But also do your research and choose wisely. The money you spend is an investment in you. Make it worthwhile.