“Should I take an online class?” It’s a question many working professionals face as they look for opportunities to acquire new skills or advance their career. From here, more questions tend to follow:

More than 3.5 million people have taken at least one online course, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, and that number continues to grow. Given the flexibility and convenience of online learning, it’s proven to be a powerful tool in helping individuals reach their personal and professional goals.

If you’re thinking about taking an online class, there are some things you should know before getting started. Here’s a look at some common questions about online courses, plus nine considerations to help you decide if online learning is right for you.

How Do You Take an Online Course?

Learners have a variety of options when it comes to online education. There are online degrees, certificates, massive open online courses (MOOCs), and individual classes. Which option you decide to pursue depends on your goals.

Specialized online courses, such as those offered by Harvard Business School Online, are typically aimed at helping participants learn or develop a specific skill in a relatively short period of time. These more focused, standalone courses provide all the benefits of online learning without the commitment of a full-degree program, allowing learners to efficiently work toward their goals.

What Online Course Should You Take?

Before you apply for any online course, it’s important to understand what you hope to achieve by completing it.

Do you want to develop a specific skill? Do you want to explore a particular job function? Do you want to gear up for a position you will be, or hope to, move into? Understand your aspirations, then choose a course that will help you accomplish them.

For example, if you want to become a manager or improve your management skills, a course that explores the essentials of management could be right for you. If you’re interested in learning how to make better financial decisions for your business, you might consider a course in financial accounting.

Whatever your intent, find a course that aligns with your learning objectives so you can be better equipped to reach your goals.

How Long Should an Online Course Be?

As a general rule, an online course should be as long as necessary to thoroughly cover the subject and help you reach your goals.

For example, if your ultimate goal is to transition to a new industry or role, you may need to invest more time in a degree or certificate program that covers all the ins and outs of your desired job. These programs could extend several months to a year or more.

If your goal is to develop your skills and earn a promotion in the near future, a shorter course with a more specialized focus area could help you get ahead. These courses may last between four to eight weeks.

9 Things to Know Before Taking an Online Class

If you’re among those wondering whether taking an online class is the right fit for you, here’s what you should know before deciding to apply.

1. Online Classes Offer Flexible Scheduling and Added Convenience

One of the biggest benefits of taking an online course is the ability to learn on your schedule. Instead of commuting to campus during rush hour to sit in class for a defined period, you can log in and complete coursework when it’s convenient for you. For those looking to balance work and family time with their studies, this is especially beneficial.

Having that flexibility enables you to learn at an optimal time. Whether you’re an early riser, night owl, or prefer to use your lunch break as a study session, you can plan around when you’re most productive and apt to retain new information. If you need time to unwind after a long workday before diving into new material, an online course allows for that.

2. Online Courses Are Just as Rigorous

The convenience of online learning doesn’t necessarily translate into a lighter workload. Some online programs feature group assignments, while others require proctored exams or a series of assessments. Timelines are also often condensed. The work you’d complete over a nearly four-month semester might be squeezed into a three- to eight-week class.

Depending on your preferred learning style, taking an online course could prove more challenging. Because you’re not required to be in class on certain days, you’re personally responsible for carving out time to study, which is hard for individuals who need those in-person touchpoints to stay on track and motivated.

3. Time Management Is Crucial

Trying to juggle work, family, and other personal commitments isn’t easy. Throw an online course into the mix, and time management becomes even more critical.

To succeed in a virtual program, it’s important to feel comfortable in a self-learning environment. You dictate when you learn and how—whether it’s in a coffee shop around the corner from your apartment or hunched over your kitchen table. Map out when assignments are due and schedule dedicated, weekly time to complete them. If you know a project is ramping up at work or a conference is upcoming, work ahead of your deadlines and fight the urge to procrastinate.

Online learning requires discipline. When you sit down to study, eliminate any distractions. Turn off your social media notifications and avoid surfing the web to keep your focus on the task at hand.

Related: 5 Time Management Tips for Online Learners

4. You Can Learn at Your Own Pace

A benefit of online courses is that you’re able to learn at a pace that’s right for you. In a traditional classroom setting, it might feel uncomfortable to ask your professor to dive deeper into a concept you can’t quite grasp, particularly if your peers have moved on to the next lesson.

In an online course, you can spend more time with the material, and pause videos or brush up on content covered in previous modules. Rather than skimming over your professors’ talking points, you can research what they’re saying in real time and expand your knowledge on a given topic.

5. Expect to Flex Your Tech Skills

Completing an online class requires a minimum level of tech savvy. From learning on the course platform to teleconferencing with peers, there’s a series of technical checkpoints you need to get through to finish your studies.

With more of the workforce moving online, enrolling in a virtual program can help you prepare. In a recent Gallup poll, 43 percent of Americans said they spend at least some time working remotely. To be successful in that environment, employees need to show they’re motivated, can work independently, have strong written communication skills, and are up-to-date on the newest collaboration and content management software—all traits you can gain and demonstrate through online learning.

6. Networking Is Just as Important in an Online Course

One myth of online learning is that you miss out on networking opportunities because you’re not meeting classmates in person. But several virtual programs provide learners with the chance to meaningfully connect.

Introduce yourself on discussion boards and regularly engage in conversation. Respond to your classmates’ comments, share helpful resources, or ask any questions you might have. Through the process, you’re likely to form strong professional connections with a group of like-minded peers.

Related: 6 Networking Tips for Online Learners

7. You Gain a Global Perspective

Online learners log in from around the world to participate in programs, which enriches the overall educational experience. By discussing and discovering cross-cultural commonalities and differences, you can begin to approach problems from multiple perspectives.

In today’s global economy, it’s important to have an expanded worldview. Employers said in a recent report that they value individuals who can: work collaboratively with people from a range of backgrounds and countries; embrace multiple perspectives and challenge thinking; negotiate and influence clients across the globe; and form professional, global networks. An online program can help equip you with those skills.

8. Not All Online Courses Are Created Equal

As you’re researching online courses, it’s important to know what you’re looking for. Do you want to attend a respected institution? Is earning a certificate or credential important? How do you want to engage with the content?

Understanding what you want in an online program can help narrow your options. For example, some platforms offer limited opportunities to connect with peers, while others are built around social interaction and active participation. Not all online courses are created equal, so jot down the features you need to succeed to ensure you register in a program that’s the right fit.

9. Online Courses Can Help Advance Your Career

By completing an online course, you’re signaling to employers that you’re motivated, disciplined, and focused on your professional development. And focusing your online learning efforts in areas that are important to your role, like management or leadership training, can demonstrate your continued growth to both current and potential employers.

In a recent survey of Harvard Business School Online participants, it was found that taking one of our online courses led to additional responsibility at work, increased attention from recruiters, and improved confidence and self-esteem.

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Pursuing an Online Education

Online learning offers you the opportunity to build your professional network, gain new skills, and advance your career—from anywhere in the world. If you're looking to further your education in a way that flexes to fit your schedule, taking an online course could be the best fit.

Do you want to take your career to the next level? Download our free Guide to Advancing Your Career with Essential Business Skills to learn how enhancing your business knowledge can help you make an impact on your organization and be competitive in the job market.

(This post was updated on June 18, 2020. It was originally published on August 1, 2019.)

Lauren Landry

About the Author

Lauren Landry is the associate director of marketing and communications for Harvard Business School Online. Prior to joining HBS Online, she worked at Northeastern University and BostInno, where she wrote nearly 3,500 articles covering early-stage tech and education—including the very launch of HBS Online. When she's not at HBS Online, you might find her teaching a course on digital media at Emerson College, chugging coffee, or telling anyone who's willing to listen terribly corny jokes.