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Things to know before paying for online courses

How good are you with making decisions? I admit I sometimes have trouble even with the most basic things. For example, when I'm at the ice cream shop, I can never make up my mind of what I want. Raspberry is so pleasantly sour, and marshmallows so sweet and puffy, and then the chocolate chip cookie dough, and oh, that butterscotch... It’s a really long way to cones and toppings.

Ok, I’ll admit that not all life decisions are this complex, especially when you don’t have so many choices as in the ice cream shop. But this is felt when I opened a virtual library of online courses. So many authors, universities, prizes, recommendations... How can one make the right choice?

What if you don’t like the “taste”? Or it “melts” away before time? Enrolling and paying for an online course is a little bit more challenging than deciding which snow cone to choose. And just like ice cream, you can’t return it if you don’t like the flavor, nor after eating half of it.

Things to know before paying for online courses

So before typing in your card number and making an impulsive buy, here are a few FAQs — and their answers — to help you make an informed decision:

Q1: Does it necessarily have to be an online course?

How did you come across the idea of an online course? Just be true to yourself. If you only chose it because that’s what everybody is talking about, then don’t. If you chose the course because it suits your life, health, location, state of mind or financial situation, you are good to go forward.

Q2: What are the tech and IT requirements for online students?

Before enrolling do check what are the internet connection requirements, what browser is compatible and which are the recommended devices. You don’t want to end up with a paid course that doesn’t run on your PC or other devices you intend to use. If you plan on taking a self-paced course and access it as you have time during the day, be sure to check the responsive design. Usually online courses are offered through an LMS, and all the good ones have this feature, but check just to be sure.

Q3: Will I learn just as much as from a face-to-face course?

Researchers concluded that there are no significant differences in learning outcomes when it comes to online learning courses compared to the classical ones. However, the quality of learning is highly determined by the student’s engagement and the quality of the content. So sift carefully between offers before deciding which one deserves your hard-earned money. Try and find out what curricula the course covers and how well it does so, what resources it has, who are the authors, and generally see how well it matches your requirements.

Q4: Aren’t online courses for people too old to go to college?

The answer is NO, in capital letters. Online courses are for people who want to learn but for one reason or another can’t be present in a brick and mortar classroom: working students, medically challenged people, mountaineers, or people who just want to take a new hobby beside the regular pre-med courses. Young people usually go towards the classical way of learning because, for starters, they have more time on their hands, and also because at a young age, self-motivation and a very structured life aren't their greatest assets. Adults are better at this, I believe. But that doesn’t mean online course impose an age limit. Just commit to it and stay motivated. That’s all it takes.

Q5: Can I just take a free class instead? There are plenty out there.

That’s true, and that’s exactly what you should do if you find a free online course to offer what you need. Getting better at hobbies like knitting or charcoal drawing doesn’t require a certified degree – to the best of my knowledge, that is. Just keep in mind that free courses from prestigious universities are not always as qualitative as a paid course from a less prestigious school. So go back to Q3 and follow those instructions.

Q6: I keep hearing that online courses are easier... How much truth is to that?

That’s about as true as ice cream not melting if exposed to sun. Online only means that you do not have to be physically present in a classroom. But you do have to study just as hard as in a regular class if you want good results. You get assignments, quizzes, reports, projects and deadlines, just like any other regular student.

Q7: What if I get stuck? Do I pay extra for help?

When you enroll for an online course, even a self-paced one, you are never alone. It’s not like reading a book; you can always ask your teacher questions when you have trouble understanding something. It’s quite recommended that you join the forums and discussions, and the groups dedicated to the course you are taking. Modern learning management systems have a generous array of social media-like collaboration tools and features that make it easy to interact with other fellow online students. And for technical issues, you can address the support team for the platform supporting the course. All of these are usually included in the price of the course, but be sure to check before paying.

Apart from the financial means to pay for online courses, all you need is a passion for learning and a good online search that will take you to the right course. From there on, you are the master of your own education.

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