How to spot a tricky online course/ how to choose the right one

How to spot a tricky online course/ how to choose the right one

We’ve become disruption junkies. If you are in the process of finding a new career or if looking for an online learning solution you should probably read this…

In all areas of our lives, disruption is changing the way we do stuff.

Going on holiday has been transformed by Airbnb, giving us direct access to some of the most unique homes on the planet, or a drop in a nest for the night at a fraction of the price of a hotel.

Uber, though currently suspended in London, gave us a cash-free way to book a cab.

Online shopping means you can buy whatever occurs to you – books, music, clothes, juggling balls, houses, without leaving the couch.

And the world of education isn’t exempt either.

With tuition fees in the UK at an all-time high (£9000 a year) and University contact hours at an all-time low (an average of 10 contact hours a week), it’s high time that education was disrupted. With students leaving University with huge debt and extortionate interest (6%!!!! That’s double my mortgage rate), many of us are looking at the alternatives for reskilling for a new career in a more cost-effective way.


Online Learning Enters…Stage Left

The Open University was the first organisation to pilot online learning and distance learning using technology. The University improved access to education for those in remote areas, those who longed to study part-time or who needed a more flexible approach to achieve their degree.

For many years, they led the change. But degrees are an expensive and long-term way to retrain.

Billy Bragg once said that a degree ‘is a way to delay making grown-up decisions for another 3 years.’

I rarely recommend degrees for my clients, with family responsibilities, looking for a new career. In fact, a degree was and is never THAT useful unless you are an engineer, lawyer or doctor but it was at least RARE enough to make you stand out. Now with 50% of adults in higher education, the value of a degree has diminished and the costs have soared.

Understandably, this has made retraining prohibitively expensive.

This is important to me because my clients want to find a new career. And sometimes, but not always, they need to retrain to do so. Or they need to sharpen their skills to return to the workplace or enhance their employability.

It can be tempting to go down the known route. We know what a University is. What a degree is. What it looks and feels like. Yet there is an online revolution. And for a fraction of the cost of a degree, you can be part of it.

Hurray for the online experts 🙂

In recent years it has become possible to learn all sorts of things online. From languages to knitting and piano to project management, we are now able to access very specific support from experts all over the world – beamed into our living room courtesy of the interweb. Some are free, too.

Many are not. Some are offered via online platforms like Coursera, Skillshare, Futurelearn or Udemy, some from the world’s most prestigious Universities.

Some of these are terrific. And some of them are a TOTAL RIP OFF. Let me help you navigate these shark-infested waters, my friends.

Lot’s of good free stuff… and courses under £50

If you want to learn something specific and relatively niche – how to hula hoop, how to make felt, how to write a decent proposal you can find some terrific very low-cost courses on some of the sites above.

The School of Everything is another platform on which people generously share their skills in a relatively structured way. All the courses on Udemy these days all cost less than £50.

If you are paying £50 or less you can reasonably expect messaging contact with the tutor and a structured approach to the course. The materials should be set out in an orderly and easy to follow way. You will need to motivate yourself to complete them as you will probably be an independent learner. If you want to master a language or a craft or learn a specific employability skill online, these can be fabulous. Job done.

How to choose the right online course

Nowadays, courses can get a lot more expensive than £50. And I mean A LOT. There are online programmes out there retailing for several thousand pounds and promising the earth, moon, sky and a lifetime supply of cucumber sandwiches.


If you are considering investing over £500, you need to do a real-world comparison with a credible in-person training provider.

You may find that the real world course is more comprehensive and better value. This is particularly true for education that benefits from personalization, for example, business mentoring, project management, social media strategy or presentation skills.

You can still learn these things effectively online, but you will want to make sure you get enough individualised attention to justify the price – no less attention than you would receive in a face-to-face training.

This is less true for ‘hard skills’, such as accounting or learning code, where there are a defined route and a correct answer.

However, there are times when the flexibility to learn around your family commitments or alongside a full-time job can be really appealing. Maybe you want to learn from a particular person, an expert or specialist who lives far away or whose face-to-face courses are hard to access or prohibitively expensive.

In these cases, here are my top tips for consideration:

1. Know what you want to learn

Like a degree, an expensive course should not be stumbled upon. Often a bit more research beyond the initial excitement yields an even better opportunity.

This is also true in the real world.

For example, my hubby recently got very excited about a banner we passed at a National Trust house. It was advertising a year-long training in cabinetry for £12,000 – the kind of carpentry that results in snazzy furniture.

Well, we called up and the course was full.

The hubby was a bit deflated so I got on to Mr Google and what do you know? For that kind of money, he could have one-to-one training with a number of fine artisans plus create his own curriculum of great courses with a range of talented carpenters. So first, get clear about exactly what it is you want to learn. Then do some proper research. Don’t stumble across something and hit buy and leave yourself with buyers’ remorse.

2. Make Like Inspector Gadget and snoop

Once you have narrowed down your options get to know the course provider themselves. Check out their LinkedIn or their Facebook page or Twitter and search for independent reviews online. Read their blog and download their podcast. If they have a book, read it. Check whether the perception you have of them as an expert bears out in other less visible platforms. Call them up and ask some questions about them and the course. Ask to hear about some client success stories. See if you like their style of teaching. One size won’t fit all.

Credible courses, with happy graduates, provide great reassurance. Caution though…it’s super easy to lie on the internet – about your participant numbers, their joyful feedback, the money they made and their destination or success after the training.

A credible online provider will be happy to connect you with graduates who want to tell you the story of their success. Ask to speak to some of them. Find out what was great and less great about the learning experience.

When I was a kid I used to spend the summer holidays working through my parents’ bookshelves. When I ran out of stuff to read I would try again with the most boring book on the shelf. It was called How to Lie With Statistics.

Although I never got through the whole thing, I got the gist. Impressive numbers can hide a multitude of sins. Don’t just accept the numbers. Go for the qualitative as well as the quantitative to make an informed assessment of quality and results.

3. The form of learning suits your learning style

We all have a different learning style.

Some of us need to:

  1. be active and trying things out
  2. talk things through
  3. be left alone with the instructions and hit pause regularly to reflect
  4. see something happen
  5. write it down

Before you invest, find out more about how the information is presented. This matters more online because you do not have the immediate ability to say ‘I don’t get it!’ that you have in a real world class.

A good quality course provider will give you information in a variety of ways – maybe there are videos and workbooks, perhaps they have an audio download and a transcript.

There will be a range of ways to connect with your peer group and with the course organisers, moderators or coaches – via Facebook or other forum groups, via email and on the phone, webinar or 121 on Skype or a similar platform.

Make sure you get a sense of the whole offer before committing megabucks to it. Take some time to think about the learning experiences that you have got the most out of and choose a provider who lines up with your self-knowledge in this area.

4. Real-world access to a real person

I’ve heard some horror stories recently of my connections taking online courses that have cost four figures with no personal tuition. Think about it for a second.

Would you pay £2000 for a boxing class? To be in a large hall with many sweaty people, without any one-to-one support on technique?

Of course, if you are on a course with some huge guru and the course is huge, it may not be possible for him or her to give you their undivided attention.

But if you have paid this kind of money, you do deserve expert 121 tuitions, as you would get in the real world. This means, a tutor. Who really knows their stuff. That accompanies you on the programme; checks your work; monitors your progress. Who is available, in a timely way, to answer your questions.

Five minutes each on a fortnightly group hangout is not enough time to hone your skills in digital marketing.

An occasional group coaching call is not sufficient to help you develop a credible business plan to take to investors or to find a new career that will change your life…

A remote access online course is not sufficient to supervise your new coaching practice and give you meaningful feedback.

There are times when only personal attention will do. And if you pay personal trainer prices, the programme should be bespoke, tailored and offer you the personalised attention that the buff, demanding local fitness expert would…

N.B: Sometimes size really matters! Some courses you are going to fare so much better with lots of personal attention and some it won’t matter so much. Be sure to ask how many people will go through your cohort and what level of expert 121 access everyone can expect.

5. Money Back Guarantees

Providers with ethics know that one size doesn’t always fit all. They also know that we can be a bit trigger happy with our buying decisions online. If the course costs over £500, a good trainer will offer a money back guarantee. They will usually ask you to cash this in within 30 days of the programme and to provide sufficient evidence that you have taken some action on the course. Like any other pricey purchase, you should have the right to decide that it isn’t quite right for you and return your place, within a limited period of time. This takes the risk out of taking a chance on an unknown provider and helps to build trust.

We are learning machines. We were designed with an innate capacity to absorb new ideas and experiences and learn new stuff. Online can be a fabulous way to do that, as long as you take care of yourself and your investment.

Sources found in this article:

The Open UniversityFlexible education of the highest standard

DuolingoLearn a language for free. Forever.

Grannies, IncThere’s wisdom in the wool

Piano Play It: Free Piano Lessons for Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced Players!

Distance Learning Portal: Find your dream study.

Fitness BlenderWorkout videos for every fitness level.

MoogMassive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are free online courses available for anyone to enroll.

The School of Everything: The website that helps you learn whatever, whenever and wherever you want. From Biology to Beekeeping, History to Hula hooping, we’ve got it all (well most of it). And you don’t need to go to the end of the earth to learn what you want – we help you find teachers and lessons near you. That means you can make your brain bigger on your own doorstep.

University Course Finder: Get all the information you need to choose a university course. Compare detailed information about universities and the courses they offer.

How to Lie With Statistics: This book introduces the reader to the niceties of samples (random or stratified random), averages (mean, median or modal), errors (probable, standard or unintentional), graphs, indexes and other tools of democratic persuasion.

LinkedInFacebookTwitter: My social network

Your Life Plan: My book is crammed with practical career tips just waiting for you to meet your hero inside.

So, am I right or I am right? What is your experience with online learning? 

Don’t put up with a career that doesn’t work for you. Take control on your own terms with Your Career Plan Digital. This flexible, remote-learning career change course will help you find a career that’s right for you. Watch this video course teaser below so you can get a taste of the action and click here to learn more.

One comment on “How to spot a tricky online course/ how to choose the right one”

  • Leave a comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *