Delivery Method

Online courses can be completely taught at a computer, or they may be combined with campus-based classes. At some schools, textbooks and instructional materials are sent to your home, and only the lessons, assignments and exams are taken online. In fact, if you are not comfortable doing lengthy reading at a computer screen, you may prefer books.

Online courses can be synchronous, which means you are required to sit through online study sessions and lectures on a pre-determined schedule; or asynchronous, meaning you can study at your own pace without meeting deadlines. If you’re in a hurry to complete your course, the latter option is best.

Pay close attention to the course description to ensure the study method suits you. Even better, some schools let you sample a course by taking a short trial lesson and test for free.

Quality of Instruction

Better online schools use the same textbooks used in brick-and-mortar and residential colleges. If the course is 100 percent online, make sure it includes videos and interactive capability, and isn’t just words scanned from a textbook. You should have full access to bios of the instructors, who should have practical, in-the-field experience related to the course they teach. It’s perfectly acceptable for online schools to employ faculty who work off-site. But they should be available to give support and advice.

Support Services

Studying independently can be gratifying – but lonely. And what if you can’t understand a concept and get stuck? More sophisticated online schools provide the opportunity to instant-message or e-mail instructors or subject-matter experts with questions – or at the least contact someone toll-free. There may be chat rooms or discussion blogs where students can share information around the clock. And you should be able to contact “real” people if you want information about the shipping of course materials, tuition payments, exams, grades and more.

Whether you have an entrepreneurial spirit or just want the freedom to work your own hours, you can benefit from online study. Just be sure to do your homework when researching the right school for you.