Main image of article How to Tell If an Online Learning Platform is Worth It

There are numerous online learning courses for building your tech skills—so many, in fact, that it can be overwhelming to try and decide which course is right for you. 

Is it best to try the thrifty approach and seek out free offerings, pony up for a monthly subscription, or pay per class? It’s important to know what you’ll actually be getting out of the commitment; for example, some sites offering premium options to supplement free courses. If you pay for online education, you might start to worry that you could obtain similarly extensive resources for the low, low cost of free.  

Madhu Venkatesh, director of platform engineering at Udemy, suggests that online learning platforms ensure technologists can access and learn the most cutting-edge skills. However, those platforms must meet certain criteria. 

For example, key elements for a successful digital learning platform include: 

  • High-quality and fresh content.
  • Sufficiently high volume of content. 
  • Availability on many devices. 
  • Low-friction UI. 
  • The opportunity to learn at your own pace. 
  • No time limits on finishing courses. 

Supplemental course materials (such as texts, PDFs, and/or video) allow people to practice as they learn. A good search and recommendations engine can help ensure the best content comes to the surface.

“Overall, people want control over how and when they learn, and digital learning provides this,” Venkatesh said. “Digital learning platforms offer busy professionals the opportunity to micro-learn in short spurts of bite-sized chunks.”  

What to Consider

It’s important to know what you need, as well as your budget. Do you need to take classes that give formal academic credit, or can you simply learn what you need from experts? Will you use that learned knowledge in your job, to obtain a certification, or to work on a personal project?

In other words, know your goals before jumping in. You also need to consider what type of learning fits your lifestyle. “Do you have several hours in a day to take a few courses quickly? Or do you want to learn several skills over a longer period of time? Are you applying your knowledge as you learn, or are you trying to learn basics to pass a job interview?” Venkatesh posited. 

Alongside Udemy, some of the other digital learning platforms out there include Coursera, founded by a pair of Stanford University professors. 

Coursera is offering free learning resources to help university students during the COVID-19 outbreak. The site offers programs across a wide variety of computer science, IT and data science fields, such as the University of Michigan School of Information’s online Master of Applied Data Science (MADS) degree. However, the costs are significant. 

Udemy might be a better option for those looking to dip their toe in a new skill—for instance, the company’s heavily discounted Kubernetes for the Absolute Beginners, which gets you 5 hours on-demand video, 16 articles and 37 coding exercises. 

Then there are the online options offered by leading universities, including MIT, which offers OpenCourseWare, a web-based publication of virtually all MIT course content.

Clara Piloto, who heads up MIT Professional Education’s Digital Plus Programs, said the global COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a stampede of investment, interest, and offerings in digital learning. This is due in large part to online courses’ inherent flexibility, the removal of geography and travel as a barrier to access, and the ability to mitigate potential ongoing global and national restrictions due to the outbreak.

“Some of the platforms are proven and reputable, others perhaps not so much,” Piloto said. “And while it is true the educational world is fortunate that technology has evolved to where service providers can deliver premium service and content online, the basic principles of education still apply.”

As Piloto explained, successful digital learning platforms must offer students measurable and meaningful learning experiences: “In the IT sector specifically, students must quickly and effectively apply learnings in their respective workplaces… Employers invest in digital learning for staff to benefit the enterprise, so all the theoretical concepts students learn must be relevant to, and immediately applicable in, the workplace.”

Moreover, Piloto said, IT sector digital leaning must incorporate new theories, trends, and success stories, as well as case studies of failure, all of which help educators learn from past mistakes and improve future planning and prospects. 

MIT Professional Education’s platform, for example, uses Canvas as its learning management system (LMS), which allows instructors and administrators to add plugins so they can optimize tools for a flexible and constantly improving learning experience.

“Whether it's video conferencing tools, online learning software, or virtual classrooms or tutoring, established platforms like ours, Coursera, Kaltura, and others all seek a slice of that pie,” Piloto said. 

She laid out a step-by-step process that may inform someone’s search for the ideal digital learning opportunity. First, you should determine your desired digital learning outcomes, and then identify platforms that fulfill your requirements; be wary of platforms offering "one-size-fits-all" solutions. 

Second, compare the quality of the available programs and platforms as well as the quality of the institutions offering them. “A good way to determine whether a program is of high quality is to consult with current or past program participants and reviews,” she said. 

Third, you need to factor in program cost and duration. After that, find out what (if any) credential is being offered upon successful program completion

“Is it a legitimate credential, known and accepted in your respective industry?” Piloto asked. 

Cutting-edge digital learning courses are increasingly deploying and experimenting with augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), wearables, robotics and artificial intelligence.

“While it's not a new concept that people study and learn differently, the digital world opens unprecedented opportunities to adapt content to each participant’s learning abilities and preferences,” she said. “We meet students where they are by designing programs following socially directed, inclusive pedagogical methodologies, and creating learning environments that encourage creative thinking, shared knowledge exchanges and collaboration opportunities.”