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Online Learning: look before you leap

Education has changed.

Any motivated learner with an internet connection can increase his knowledge and skills in any subject by taking an online course. The latest information in science, technology, and programming is available to the intrepid learner.

Coursera, edX, and freeCodeCamp are learning platforms offering thousands of free classes taught by university professors and subject experts around the world. A professional can add to her knowledge base and increase her value to the company or a student can learn about a profession before committing to a college major (or changing it multiple times at the cost of years and thousands of dollars in tuition).

Computer science fields, in particular, are evolving so rapidly professionals and students need updated knowledge to be competitive in the marketplace.

But how to choose a learning platform? Not all online course are equal.

I asked Mulan Lau, an online college student at Full Sail University who has over 10 years of online learning experience, six of them in programming. She began with, “The quality of an online course is determined by the instructor, course content, and student support, not whether it is free or fee-based.”

How does one choose a course?

ML: Have a specific goal in mind when you search for your course. For example, “I want to learn how to make a website” is a better goal than “I want to learn how to use the computer to make stuff.”

Read the course description thoroughly. Oftentimes, they will provide a free look at the syllabus, so you can get an overview of the course. Depending on the site and course, you might also see a free video of what the course is like, how the teacher talks, and the course objectives. You also want to look at the rating and reviews of the course. If there is a bad review, read it carefully to make sure it reviews the course and not someone signing up for the wrong thing because he didn’t look at the syllabus.

What about teacher feedback?

ML: Depending on the site or course, there will be various levels of support for each class. Udemy provides a forum for each class and a way to message the instructor. Some EdX instructors insert links to outside forums, such as Facebook, Discord, and Reddit, where you can talk to the other students. If you are a collaborative person, you should look for classes and sites with a communication platform or a way for students to communicate. Treehouse and duoLingo also have communication platforms.

How much interaction do students get with instructors?

ML: It depends on the course. Some are heavily project-focused. Usually, instruction is mostly lecture-centered. Depending on the teacher, you can interact with them in a forum or message them for projects. It really depends on the class. Look at the learning platform to see what kind of teacher communication is available. Teachers on Coursera and Udemy continue to check on their classes, grade projects, and participate in forums. Look at the feedback on instructors. Most Udemy courses have lifetime access, a lot are free, and instructors continue to update their courses and communicate with students.

Where should a beginner to online learning start?

ML: It depends on what they’re looking for. Probably start with Coursera or Udemy. The reason being both have forums where the teachers interact with students. Coursera promotes peer feedback because that’s a big part of grading. Udemy has a ton of free classes that you can take with lifetime access. Coursera has an auditing option for all its courses so you can take them for free. The interfaces are self-explanatory but with help pages. And both sites offer mobile apps so you can learn away from your computer using your smartphone.

What makes a successful online student?

ML: Self-motivation. You don’t want to take an online class because someone else told you to. You want to be doing it for yourself, because you want to learn something, or to further your career. Otherwise, you won’t be motivated to do the work.

Some degree of focus is definitely required because you don’t want to start something and then wander off, or only kind of learn the material and then come back for a project and say, “Shoot, I don’t understand anything!”

That’s the only two qualities you really need because there’s online courses for all levels. You don’t have to be organized but you do have to be computer literate.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

ML: One of the best ways to get help with an online course is to join forums on topics being covered but not necessarily for the course itself. So, for example, when I have a question about web dev I can go to a web dev forum and post my question in the database section. They’ll generally know the answer or provide helpful links.

When you are stuck on something, you don’t have to stick to your course and its forum. You can go to Google. It might not be the answer you want or the answer you need, but it might help you. YouTube is a very underrated source of classes and tutorials, but not as structured.

When the online course instructor suggests a resource or link, go look at it. You don’t have to read it, but, in general, the resources are essential and relevant to your learning. They won’t send you on a wild YouTube chase.

Oh! If you are doing a tech class, I love Stack Overflow! Stack Overflow is like the saving light, sort of. I probably spend half of my project time for my tech classes looking at the forums or asking a question.

For coding, I prefer to learn from written tutorials instead of video lessons. My favorites are raywenderlich.com and code.tutsplus.com. I also learn from Unity, Blender, BlenderNation, and StackOverflow.

What online classes are you taking now?

ML: My college classes are Technology in the Entertainment and Media Industries and Discrete Math. I’m also learning Blender and how to program an iOS app using Swift.

Freedom and Experience

Mulan’s online learning allows her a flexible schedule with time to pursue competitive ballroom dancing and work as a game designer/writer/webmaster/director for a start-up game company. We hope that her insights have opened new learning opportunities for you.