Consider Your Options

Options in online education abound. Below are some relevant distinctions to help you determine which ones might best fit your interests and needs.

Free versus Paid

If you need to receive formal recognition for your learning (certification, license and/or degree) you’ll likely need to pay for your education and/or a formal evaluation, and transcript. If you want to pursue your interests and don’t need formal documentation of your learning, you can leave your credit card in your wallet; there are plenty of cost-free educational options.


You may wish to begin with your public library and librarians. “And librarians” is worth emphasizing, as librarians are experts in locating information-and perhaps more importantly-showing us how to find it. Learning from a librarian about how to do research is always time well spent and can be as easy as making a phone call or sending an email.

Google Channels

In addition to the services of the public library, there are many free, online resources.  In her article, “197 Educational YouTube Channels You Should Know,” Jayne Clare categorizes and lists the top channels.

Here is a sampling from her list:

Khan Academy: This non-profit educational organization, created in 2006 by educator Salman Kahn, a graduate of MIT and Harvard Business School, supplies all its lessons [on Math, Science, Economics and Finance, and Arts and Humanities] online for free. An original pioneer for the open education movement.

TED-Ed: With over 400,000 subscribers, this channel offers an extensive library of original videos meant to inform and inspire. A new lesson is posted every day, Monday-Friday, and relevant TED Talks are highlighted on weekends.

Expert Village: Watch. Learn. Do. Tutorials on pretty much anything you can think of.

MinutePhysics: The most popular educational channel on YouTube, second only to the Khan Academy.

PatrickJMT Free Math Videos: With nearly 200,000 subscribers, this channel is considered to be one of the best math channels on YouTube. It has videos on different topics such as calculus, derivatives, differential equations, limits, integrals, and more.

Statistics Learning Center: With clear, short, entertaining videos, learn the basics of statistics from an expert teacher.

Beliefnet Community: The men and women of discuss spiritual matters from a comparative perspective, meaning atheists and agnostics are just as welcome to participate a individuals of faith. Videos also touch upon mental health and political topics as well.

University of California Berkeley: Arguably the most substantive YouTube collection available, featuring a large selection of free courses as well as lectures given by important figures.

Harvard University: Despite showing up late to the Web 2.0 party, Harvard has its own collection of worthwhile videos, including Michael Sandel’s famous course on Justice.

Yale University Courses: This site features nearly 40 free courses artfully recorded by Yale University. You won’t want to miss the gems on this channel.

With google channels and all other information providers on the web, the quality and reliability of the data will vary. One of the crucial steps in assessing the usefulness of a website’s information is to consider its source, that is, the author(s) and publisher. (For information on this see Write Wisely: Use Your “OWL” Online Writing Lab.”) Sometimes, however, there is no identifiable source. This is the case with “wikis.”


“A wiki is a publishing platform on which many people can contribute new content and revise existing content. The content benefits from the collective knowledge base and the dynamic nature of the contributions.”

One of the most popular wikis, indeed one of the most popular destinations on the web is “wikipedia,” “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.”  and therein lies the problem. If anyone can edit material and we have no idea who is doing the editing, then we cannot assume that the information is reliable. Does that mean that we should never take a look at wikipedia? No. For one thing, a wikipedia article may provide us with a bibliography, a list of sources we can assess for reliability. For another, a wikipedia entry can provide us with theses and lines of argument that had not previously occurred to us and are worth investigating. If we would not have otherwise considered these perspectives and we can substantiate them in verifiable sources, then we are ahead of the game. However, we must substantiate the claims elsewhere. We should no more assume that unverified publically edited articles are correct, than we would suppose that medicine from bottles with unverified publically edited labels is safe to take.

Continuing Education Units versus Credit Hours

Continuing Education Units/CEUs and credit hours are two different ways of recognizing educational accomplishments. Credit hours are awarded for the successful completion of college courses. Each credit hour represents three hours of work (typically one hour of instruction and two hours of work outside of the classroom) for a period of fifteen weeks. Credit hours recognize academic accomplishments.

Continuing Educational Units/CEUs recognize professional development accomplishments. In contrast to the credit hour, “One CEU is a unit of measurement based on time—defined as ten (10) hours of full participation in an organized continuing educational experience under responsible sponsorship, capable direction, and qualified instruction.”

When it comes to a choice between earning credit hours or continuing education units/CEUs, what matters is what meets your needs. If, for example, you are in a profession that requires ongoing education for recertification, you’ll want to check to see whether your profession gives you a choice between CEUs and college credits.  If you have choice, you may find that the CEU option would result in a cost savings.

Whether you are taking a course for professional development or college credit, before enrolling, it crucial to verify with your academic advisor or professional organization that the course meets the requirement you aim to satisfy.  It is all too easy to assume that it will and then learn otherwise when it is too late to drop the course and get a refund.

Competency Assessment versus Independent Study versus Cohort Classes

There are three main options in online education: independent study, cohort-based classes, and competency assessments. With competency assessments students demonstrate their mastery of a subject area through one or more evaluations. This option may work well for highly motivated and disciplined students and/or students with prior knowledge (e.g. a native speaker of a foreign language who needs formal documentation of her abilities.) Two competency-based programs, The Western Governors University and the University of Wisconsin Flex Option, give students the opportunity to pay a flat fee for time period, without placing any limit on the number of credit hours a student can earn in during that time.

Independent Study is like competency assessment in that students work at their own pace but in contrast to competency assessment, course grades are typically based upon both written assignments and exams. And, the time period for independent study may be significantly longer than the time periods in competency assessments.  For example, the University of Wisconsin Independent Learning Program allows students to enroll at any time and take, as long as twelve months, to complete their course work.

Cohort-based classes run on a fixed schedule and-as an essential component of the learning experience- require significant interaction among the students. In a fully online course this interaction will take place in a discussion forum on the course website.

Not all cohort-based courses are fully online. Some are blended or hybrid courses. These courses combine face-to-face meetings with online instruction and interaction. In a “flipped” hybrid course, students and instructors meet to work on “homework” and instructors utilize online resources to convey information they used to share in classroom lectures.

In keeping with Get Ready, you’ll want to choose the option that best meets your learning style and life situation. You may find that in some subjects independent study is your best option while in others a cohort-based class is the preferable choice. For example, a student who experiences math anxiety may want to take a math course via independent study, as it may allow the student more than the typical four-month semester schedule to complete the course,  and the longer time period may significantly reduce stress.  However, that same student may wish to engage in group discussion when taking a literature or philosophy course and so prefer studying those subjects in a cohort.

Regional Versus National Accreditation

The U.S. Department of Education, defines accreditation as “the recognition that an institution maintains standards requisite for its graduates to gain admission to other reputable institutions of high learning or to achieve credentials for professional practice” and identifies the aim of accreditation “ to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.”

Before thinking about enrolling in a degree program check to see that the U.S. Department of Education recognizes the institution’s accrediting agencies.

Note also, that the U.S. Department of Education’s recognition of an institution’s accrediting agency(cies) is not sufficient for determining whether or not enrollment in the institution would be a good option for you.  The following words of caution are from The U.S. Department of Education’s “FAQs about Accreditation”:

Can the institutional accreditation system be used to determine whether my credit hours will transfer or what courses will satisfy my professional license renewal?

Accreditation does not provide automatic acceptance by an institution of credit earned at another institution, nor does it give assurance of acceptance of graduates by employers. Acceptance of students or graduates is always the prerogative of the receiving institution or employer. For these reasons, besides ascertaining the accredited status of a school or program, students should take additional measures to determine, prior to enrollment, whether or not their educational goals will be met through attendance at a particular institution. These measures should include inquiries to institutions to which transfer might be desired or to prospective employers and, if possible, personal inspection of the institution at which enrollment is contemplated.

In determining whether your “educational goals will be met through attendance at a particular institution” there are two especially important matters to check on. First, find out whether the accreditation is national or regional.  And, do not be misled; though a nationally accredited degree may sound more prestigious than a regional one, a degree from a regionally accredited institution may open occupational and educational doors closed to degree-holders from nationally accredited institutions. Second, if you are interested in a particular program offered by an institution, check to see if specialized or programmatic accreditation is relevant, and-if so-if the program you interested in has been accredited. On this important matter, please see: “Check with the Human Resources Office” and “Choosing a Program to Prepare for a Career/Career Path” under “Consider Your Career Goals.”

Some questions to consider:

Do I need to earn a certificate, license or degree?

Are there free educational resources that could provide me with the information and instruction I desire?

If I need to provide documentation of my educational accomplishments is the required documentation continuing-education units or credit hours?

Is there a subject area where I have significant background and prior knowledge such that a competency-based course would make good sense?

Do I prefer independent study with its greater flexibility or cohort-based study with its added structure? Does my preference depend upon the particular subject?

Have I checked with the Human Resources offices of a variety of possible employers to see if they require regional accreditation or will accept either regional or national accreditation?

Last revised on November 8, 2018.