What to Look for in Online Courses

To make sure you are not wasting your time, effort, and money, here are a few things to look out for with online courses.

By Patricia Roy — December 11, 2023

What to Look for in Online Courses

Many students are attracted to remote learning for the convenience and cost-savings; however, their experience with "Covid school" might make them hesitate. As a learning experience designer and professor, I have seen the best and the worst in online course design. To make sure you are not wasting your time, effort, and money, here are a few things to look out for.

Student-Centered Pedagogy

Pedagogy is the philosophy that informs the professor's instructional choices. Many factors contribute to a teacher's pedagogy, such as their field of study, their own experiences as a student, their professional development, and the prevailing culture at their school. Professors can have any teaching philosophy they want, but students in a remote-learning setting have specific needs that some approaches do not contend with.

A student-centered pedagogy is one that prioritizes the relationship between students and teachers over the teacher's own research or, frankly, ego. In this scenario, it is the job of the teacher to co-create an environment for learning with student input. Teachers share the responsibility to prompt conversation and among students in order to learn what students know and then adapt lessons to meet their needs. Moreover, a student-centered classroom is characterized by less lecture, more collaboration among students, and opportunities for choice, active learning, problem-solving or original creation. A student-centric classroom gives students a chance to practice using their knowledge in each session or module.

As you peruse the course offerings for the upcoming term, you may or may not find the words "student-centered" in the course descriptions for the online courses, but you might find other signs a course is designed for student success. Look for language that suggests student input or choice in activities. For example, a course might be described as "project-based," or focused on creating a portfolio. Furthermore, student-centric courses provide opportunities to collaborate with other students.

Pay close attention to the language in the syllabus. Professors often recycle syllabi, updating the dates and little more. If the course meets face-to-face, this might be fine, but remote courses have special considerations. If you see language about attendance or classroom behavior rules, you know the professor hasn't updated their syllabus to account for remote, asynchronous learning. I'd consider that a red flag.


For most of my teaching years, professors have tried to be sticklers about due dates. However, there are few situations in life when strict adherence to a due date is required. Yes, if you pay bills late, you'll incur a fee, but it's not the end of the world. In fact, many entities don't charge late fees until several days after the due date. Unless there is an emergency, timeliness is a flexible concept.

Due dates need to be realistic and an aid to learning. Due dates help students plan their work and be accountable. But that doesn't mean that due dates should be fixed. Professors who understand the remote experience, know that student learning is more important than strict adherence to deadlines. Students should be prepared and responsible for presentations, exams, interviews, and other time-sensitive assignments. Flexible due dates make sense for discussions and low-stakes activities. In remote settings, technological hiccups and miscommunications need to be accounted for.

One caveat here: the end of the marking period is firm at most schools. Because teachers must submit grades, even the most student-centric courses may not be flexible with the final due date at the end of the semester.

Frequent, Small Assignments

One of the worst experiences I had as an undergraduate was a course with only two graded assignments all semester, an oral presentation and a 20-page paper. With no other assignments, students didn't know what the professor's expectations were, and in those days, no professor collected outlines, drafts, or peer responses. It was just — turn in a huge paper on a vague topic and hope for the best. Why would a teacher do that? At the end of the course, we found out when the professor commented glibly that he was working on a writing project that semester and didn't have time to grade papers. I can still remember the stunned silence in the class as we absorbed this information. All the anxiety we had felt collectively weighed less to this professor than his own comfort balancing teaching duties and grading for a class of maybe ten to fifteen students.

You may think that fewer assignments means you won't have to work as hard, and that might be true up to a point. Without being held accountable for turning in small, low-stakes assignments, students will get used to not doing anything for the course. But at some point, it all catches up, and that's when panic sets in.

All courses — not just remote ones — should be organized around frequent low-stakes assignments that allow students to practice using the knowledge gained in the class. If a course objective is to produce a lengthy project, a student-centered pedagogy organizes the parts of that assignment into smaller, manageable chunks that give students a sense of how well they're mastering the material.

Interaction with Peers

While not everyone loves group work, interacting with others is an important aspect of learning. Discussions, games, and group activities help students learn to work with others. In nearly every work setting imaginable, collaboration with colleagues is necessary.

It is not unreasonable to require remote students to schedule a time when they can all meet online via Zoom, Google Meet, Teams, In-Space or some other video chatting application. Most of these tools allow you to record sessions, share screens, and apply captions. Then, you can edit these recordings to make video presentations. In the real world, many businesses are moving toward this approach: recording live, remote meetings and then editing them for sharing with others who could not attend. Understanding how to use the technology for collaboration in remote settings is part of this "soft skill" that you should learn before moving into your career.

Access to the Professor

Even if you are in a different time zone, you should be able to reach out to the professor to review the material, ask questions, and get extra help. This can occur over email, phone, or video conference. Look for statements about this in the syllabus or in the introduction to the course.

Furthermore, professors should be getting back to your emailed questions within 24 hours during normal school hours (Monday — Friday). It is normal to not hear from instructors over the weekend or holidays, but you can expect a response to an email the first day school returns to session. Professors in different time zones may be on a slightly different schedule, but you can adjust as long as they are consistent.

When it comes to grading, feedback timelines may vary, depending on the type and frequency of the assignments. Typically, it is bad form to have more than one ungraded assignment at a time. Professors who wait weeks to grade your work are either overloaded (most often the case) or inattentive and both can make your experience suffer.

Final Thoughts

Online courses require more independence than courses that meet in-person two or three times a week. Even with a responsive and supportive instructor, you'll need to be able to navigate your own devices and software, especially if you are at a distance from the school's IT helpdesk. Be sure to note the websites and phone numbers for IT and academic support so if you need help you know how to navigate to them. Lastly, make sure you are not taking on more than you can do. Online courses often require more effort than traditional ones. Yes, you survived Covid school, but you don't need to suffer through poorly designed online courses anymore. Use this checklist to find the best online courses, red flag weak ones, and thrive at remote learning!

Patricia Roy

Patricia Roy

Patricia Roy is a writer and professor who has helped students succeed for over 25 years. She started her career as a high school English teacher and then moved into higher education at Tuition Rewards member school, Lasell University in Newton, Massachusetts. Her practical guidance and enthusiasm motivate and inspire students to fearlessly explore their own passions. Professor Roy is also a freelance writer and published poet.
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