How can I tell if an online course is going to be any good?

How can I tell if an online course is going to be any good?

In recent years, the online course market has grown exponentially and due in no small part to the major players and platforms encouraging ‘everyone’ to think about making an online course. As a result, the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) arena has expanded quickly and broadly to include traditional academic offerings, business tutorials and independent course tutors all the way through to the ‘world’s youngest teacher’.

Even Google itself is not only the world’s largest search engine, but also the greatest source of (largely unqualified) teachers. Think about the rise of sites such as Quora or Reddit, where anyone can ask anything and the popularity of individual responses determines the ‘right’ answer. How often (particularly during recent months) have posts on Facebook been shared and cited as truthful, before later being broad-brushed as ‘alternative facts’?

If you’re looking for an online course in an area such as safe-guarding, where there’s no room for hear-say, how can you tell from the myriad of options what’s a good bet and what’s simply an urban myth re-packaged with a shiny new bow?

When evaluating an online course, it’s easy to be drawn in to slick marketing and re-targeting campaigns (you search for a ‘widget’ on Amazon and then all you see on Facebook are ads for ‘widgets’). Currently, some of the most successful online courses are not necessarily those with the best tutors; the most successful are the ones with the best marketers.

Think about the following when you are searching for the ‘perfect’ online course to get a sense of what you’re being asked to pay for:

1) Can I get a sense of the instructor’s style before enrolling?
A quality course will not only have a promotional video featuring the instructor (face as well as voice), you will have an opportunity to sample a typical lesson as a ‘free view’. If you don’t get to see or get a sense of who the instructor is and how they teach, what are they trying to hide? Do they offer any information about their background and credibility to be teaching what they are? Can you check them out on LinkedIn?

2) Are the learning objectives for the course clear and specific?
I see too many courses that have been thrown together without spending any time thinking about things from a potential student’s point of view. A quality online course will talk about fulfilling what you are trying to achieve and be clear and specific in how the course will help you get there. You want an instructor who understands that an online course is there to disseminate information quickly and logically in a way that promotes your understanding as the highest goal.

3) Does the pre-sale information guide me to the commitment I need to successfully complete the course?
Again, this is something that poorly-constructed courses overlook: how long will the course take you? What time-period does the instructor recommend you allow and how long should each stretch be? For example: an hour a day for five days might be intensive but doable; recommending five hours in one stretch is naïve; no guidance at all indicates an instructor who doesn’t care about your success.
In addition, what guidance is given for resources needed – can I simply press play or will I need to print out some handouts or workbooks? Do I need to download or even purchase a specific piece of software, or join a particular organisation?

4) Is the skill-level required to be successful in this course clear?
This is a simple check, but again something often overlooked – what level of knowledge do I need, to not be over- or under-whelmed by the knowledge imparted in this course? Often this can be covered by the pre-sale information being clear about who the course is aimed at – is the ‘ideal’ student described at all?

5) Can I see the course curriculum before deciding about a purchase?
Most reputable marketplaces and platforms will ensure that this information is freely available to potential students. You’re looking for sections and lessons that are clearly titled to get a sense of the flow through the course. Many poor instructors are more concerned with ‘giving away’ their content to the competition than they are with helping potential students; as a result, sections and lessons are at best cryptically titled, which only serves to confuse just about everyone, including the instructor themselves. Do you want to learn from someone who’s confused?

6) Is there an obvious and unambiguous refund policy?
Again, most marketplaces and platforms will offer at least a 30-day refund policy. If the refund policy is vastly different to this (or not obvious at all), ask yourself if there’s a good reason why. Is there a way to ask about the policy before you buy?
As an extra layer of security for you, paying with PayPal (if it’s available as an option) gives you another option should the pretty packaging be hiding a plain cardboard box. Ultimately though, unless you personally know the person or company delivering the course, this is something of a gamble – is the amount you’re being asked to pay something you could just about live with losing if it’s all a waste of your time?

None of the above guarantees protection from a truly bad online learning experience, but it goes a long way to helping you evaluate what you’re likely to get before you buy. You may be wondering why student reviews and testimonials or pricing isn’t suggested as an indicator of quality. These are far too easily manipulated to present a rosy picture without real qualification – they might serve a purpose as an added extra layer of reassurance for you, but they should definitely not be used as the only reference point – you have been warned!

Ginette Tessier
Founder and Lead Reviewer

At the Online Training Index, our mission is to help online learners understand how to evaluate online courses, so they know exactly what they’re getting before handing over their cash. We work with independent course makers to:
• encourage quality in their individual output
• encourage higher standards across the board
• encourage learners to demand better of their instructors.

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