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Don’t Call it a Course

As the popularity of online learning continues to increase, with more than 6.7 million students in higher education taking at least one online course in 2011, new opportunities are emerging everyday. Some are free to experience while others may involve tuition, registration, or assessment fees. And the offerings extend beyond colleges and universities to include massive open online course (MOOCs) systems, such as Coursera and Udacity.

One of my pet peeves of late is the use of the term "online course" to describe everything from a credit-bearing academic offering to a website with educational content. With so many options available, how can you know what to expect? What should you look for when comparing online learning opportunities? Here's my take on the characteristics of an online course:

  • Subject Matter Expertise: Research the organization offering the experience, whether it's a college or other kind of organization. What can you find out about how the course was developed and who was involved? While it may seem obvious, don't take for granted that every course is created by someone with established expertise in the subject being taught.
  • Instructor Involvement: The type of involvement can vary, ranging from facilitating class discussions to being available for questions, but there should be a central guide or guides (i.e., teaching assistants, coaches, mentors, tutors) to facilitate progress. Communication with peers can be helpful, too, and is part of a traditional course, but instructor presence helps to differentiate the experience of a course from a tutorial, workshop, or other format. This has been one of the biggest challenges of MOOCs from both teaching and learning perspectives: providing instructor contact and support to tens of thousands of students enrolled in a single course.
  • Stated Purpose: This may be listed in a course description or other information about the content. A course should be more than a collection of links and reference resources. Look for established goals or objectives – which could be broad or narrow, knowledge- or skill-based – that you can expect to achieve through your participation in the course.
  • Evaluation of Learning: How will you know when you've met the course goals? Assessments, such as tests and assignments, measure your achievement. Ideally, this kind of evaluation will also include feedback related to what you've done well and where you could improve.
  • Learner Participation: We can all learn in a variety of informal and formal ways. We read, attend events, have conversations, and tour museums, learning along the way. But the formal experience of a course should include more focused participation on your part and may include writing, building, creating, collaborating, researching, reflecting, and more.
  • Proof of Completion. Courses usually have a start point and an endpoint, even if they are self-paced. At the end, will you be able to document your participation and achievement? Look for options as basic as printable certificates of completion, email notification, and test scores. These materials can verify what you've done as professional development and if not credit-bearing can at least be included as part of prior learning assessment for academic credit in the future.

Whether you are interested in taking a single, stand-alone course or beginning a program of courses leading to a certificate or degree, this list is a starting point to help you understand what to expect.

Yet there's still a lot of flexibility in my definition:

  • None of these items is subject specific or tied to a particular motivation for learning (i.e., career goals, professional development, lifelong learning).
  • These components are also present in courses addressing either general or niche topics.
  • Experiences with these characteristics are available for a range of learners from novice to advanced.
  • Self-paced and cohort options are available, allowing you to study on your own or with other learners.

You can find a lot of information available online, but know that it's also okay to ask questions. Use to the communication tools and contact information available for any course or program you are considering. Find out more about what to expect from the experience and the institution or organization offering the course. When possible, talk with an advisor or submit questions via online form or email to get the conversation started.

There are many ways to successfully learn online. Match the format with your needs as a prospective online learner.

Image credit: Victor1558, Flickr, CC:BY