Online learning platforms promise convenience, flexibility, and the opportunity to study a wide range of subjects in different formats, but the variety of options and jargon can also be overwhelming. How can students identify a class that will meet their needs? How can IECs help guide families in making appropriate choices? Students, families, school counselors, and IECs need to consider a number of practical and pedagogical factors to determine whether a particular online class would be a good fit for a specific individual student.

Goals for Studying Online

The student must first identify their goal(s) in seeking a way to learn a particular subject, as well as why they want to study it through an online course.

For many students, online courses provide opportunities to take classes that they can’t take at their school, whether because the school doesn’t offer that class or scheduling conflicts don’t allow a student to take a desired course. Similarly, a homeschooled student may seek out online courses for a variety of reasons, including situations in which they don’t have a local mentor or group of peers for that particular subject.

Digital educational platforms can also offer options beyond those subjects typically offered in a school curriculum, ranging from essential life skills to the exploration of esoteric and specialized niche topics. Students who want to study at a more advanced level can find college courses online. Those who identify gaps in their knowledge may seek out an online course or tutorial that can help them progress to where they want to be.

The following list of practical issues should be considered when deciding if a particular course might meet a particular student’s needs. While some may be addressed by the student and their family, others must be directed to the student’s school counselor.

  • Is it affordable? If it exceeds the student’s budget, is financial aid available?
  • Does the student have to apply to take the course? Is admission competitive?
  • Does the course have academic prerequisites? Can the student demonstrate that they’ve met those requirements?
  • Does the student have access to the technology and any other materials required for participation?
  • What kind of documentation will be available to show that the student completed the course? Will that meet the student’s needs?
  • Will the student’s current or future school accept the course? Will their school give the student credit toward graduation, or appear on their transcript?
  • If the student is seeking credit replacement to improve a previous grade in a similar course, does the school consider this online course as a direct replacement for the previous course?
  • Does the student need official approval from their current school before enrolling in the course?

Once it is clear that an online course is possible, there are many other factors to consider.

Schedules and Pacing

When and how long is the online course available? Are there predetermined dates for turning in work or taking tests, and do those fit the student’s schedule? Is the course synchronous, asynchronous, or a hybrid? Knowing the student and the style of the course is critical when deciding if a course will be a good fit.

Asynchronous courses are generally self-paced, so the student can study and do assignments when and as quickly as they like. Some asynchronous courses have a pre-set schedule of assignments based on when a student begins the course, but students may be able to have that adjusted as needed. This is helpful when a student participates in activities that are seasonal or periodic, as they can take time away from the course when they have competitions or performances. Asynchronous courses often use automated grading systems; they may or may not have the option to speak with a teacher or tutor.

Synchronous courses often require students to proceed at a predetermined pace that is set by an instructor; attendance at regularly scheduled online meetings is generally required. Class sessions may be lecture-style, but they can also be discussion-based, and students may be required to watch pre-recorded lectures on their own time. These courses often follow a typical academic calendar.

Hybrid online courses vary in the level of flexibility. They often have fewer class meetings per week, and real-time attendance at such sessions may be optional. Recordings may be available for those students who cannot attend. Students may be able to request flexibility in the pacing of assignments due to outside commitments.

The format can vary by provider or even by course. For example, the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY) offers three formats for their online courses and label them as “session-based,” “individually paced,” or “LIVE.” A student can apply to an individually paced CTY course and start within two weeks; session-based and LIVE courses start on predetermined dates.

Quality and Content

Like anything else online, it can be difficult to assess the quality of a course in advance, especially when some providers share very few details openly. Look for indicators of depth and rigor, including the amount of time expected to complete the course, materials used, and the type and amount of student work expected. If a student has accommodations for school-based courses, it’s particularly important to consider what accommodations may be needed or available in the online learning environment. Some providers will share more information on request, but it can be difficult to reach a person who knows course content. To learn about student experiences, try to contact someone who has taken the course, and reach out to IECs whose clients use online courses.

Reviews of courses or teachers can be helpful. Poor ratings are not necessarily an indicator of poor quality, however, since some students object to doing significant work while others seek out challenges and are disappointed in an “easy A” class. Look to see if a negative review includes what in particular was considered objectionable. Reviews and articles about a class or provider may also reveal reports of problems, including recurring technological difficulties, inaccurate course content (including answer keys that impact grading), inability to reach a person when an error occurs, poor treatment of students, and biased or hateful course content.

It can also be important to identify the original source of the material for a course. Some providers depend on platforms and courses created by other companies, while others develop their own classes to be able to innovate or follow a particular pedagogical approach. Many states have a public Connections Academy (by Pearson). Private online schools sometimes use multiple providers, while some such as George Washington University Online High School are “Powered by K12” (Stride). Dwight Global Online School has a partnership that allows students to pursue the International Baccalaureate Diploma. Stanford Online High School creates their own courses based on their founding principles. Each of these providers offers some Advanced Placement courses, but the style of the courses vary.

Technology and Pedagogy

Both pedagogy and technology impact the student’s experience in an online course. Some courses are in a traditional lecture style with assignments and tests, while others are project-based, discussion-based, or experiential. Lecture-based courses can be flipped so students watch pre-recorded video lectures and come to live class sessions to discuss what they’ve viewed. Students may be required to produce independent work or group projects.

Adaptive learning technologies improve the educational experiences of a wide variety of students, including those who are advanced, those who have gaps in their knowledge, and those with learning differences. Some courses include a diagnostic pretest that allows the system to assess a student’s readiness and knowledge, and then skip over sections of the material that the student has already mastered. More advanced ed tech will adapt throughout the course, individualizing it for each student. For example, an online algebra course might be similar to a traditional school course: it could require all students to solve many similar problems for each assignment and give the students grades based on how many of the questions they answered correctly on assignments and tests. An algebra course that is adaptive can allow students to proceed more quickly since it can confirm in real time that a student has mastered a concept after answering a few questions. If a student is struggling, however, once they input a wrong answer on one or more problems, such a system could identify if errors are due to a misunderstanding with the current material or due to a gap in previous knowledge, and then provide an opportunity for review of the appropriate material.

Some subjects have a lab or studio component when taught in person; it’s important to know in advance if these aspects of the subject would be included in an online course, and if so, how they are handled. Does the chemistry class have wet labs or only dry labs? Are supplies sent to the home? Are there extra fees? What safety precautions must be observed? Do art courses have a physical studio component or strictly digital? Do students need to pay for specific applications, supplies, or tools? How are performance arts handled?

It’s also important to consider the ease of use of the technology by the student, both for receiving content and doing and submitting their own work. If the material to be learned is presented in a text-heavy fashion, is there also an audio version? When there are lectures or other videos, can students turn on closed captions, or read a transcript? What style suits the material and the student?

Assignments and Assessments

Online courses may or may not have required work or exams, and may or may not give students grades. Some online educational platforms provide opportunities for a student to do exercises and get immediate feedback on whether they understood and correctly completed the work, while teachers grade student work in other systems.

Providers such as Crash Course or the Great Courses offer many series of video lectures, and students can choose to watch any or all of the videos for a subject. Khan Academy also allows students to choose what lectures to watch; it has exercises for students to complete for practice, and gives automatic feedback as to whether an answer is correct. For each course a student begins at Khan Academy, the percentage of the material mastered is shown.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) were built to provide free educational content from elite universities to anyone who would like access. Such courses provide all their materials online, including video recordings of lectures by professors, and have varying amounts of work and assessments. Most offer the option to obtain a certificate that shows that a certain percentage of the course material was mastered, but they don’t provide grades or a transcript. Coursera and edX are both well-known MOOC platforms that include rigorous courses from a wide range of respected universities.

Online courses which provide grades may assess students’ learning in a variety of ways. Some require projects or papers that are graded by a teacher, while others rely on students answering questions that can be graded automatically. Some have a final exam that a student must pass to obtain any credit for the course, while others include scores from all work done.

Knowing the student’s goal for taking the course, as well as the type and amount of work required to complete it, can help determine whether a particular course can be completed in the allotted time with the desired results.

Accreditation and Approval

Some families and some schools prefer online courses from institutions who have been accredited, even though the implementation of accreditation for K-12 institutions is somewhat controversial, not required by law in most states, and not a guarantee of quality. Some online course providers may be in the process of obtaining accreditation, while others have decided that obtaining accreditation would diminish their ability to offer innovative and rigorous courses. The FAQ page of the Lukeion Project provides details about how they conduct their courses and also explains why they have chosen to forgo accreditation. It remains important to know if a student needs to restrict themselves to taking courses from accredited institutions to receive credit for them.

Other institutions may have specific requirements for courses as well. Student-athletes may want courses that have already been approved by the NCAA, and those who want to apply to California public universities should consider if the course has been A-G approved. Scout from the University of California (known as UC Scout) provides many classes that are A-G approved courses; most of the UC Scout on-demand courses are also NCAA-approved. The University of Nebraska High School is an online public high school that offers students the option to enroll in single courses, and provides grades and a transcript. Their catalog indicates on each course description if the course is also “UC A-G Approved” or “NCAA Approved.”

Courses that have successfully gone through the College Board’s Advanced Placement Course audit process can be labeled “AP” on a high school student’s transcript whether or not they were offered by an accredited provider.

Mentorship and Community

Connections to teachers, tutors, mentors, and/or peers form an important part of learning, although it’s not always required for each subject a student studies. Online courses may provide or even require such connections, or they may be done individually. Some self-paced courses provide opportunities for asynchronous communication with a tutor or teacher, and some have open office hours where students can join a video conference if they have a question. It’s important to consider which environment would best suit a student when they are studying a particular subject. Gifted or advanced students may want the flexibility to go through one subject at an accelerated pace, while they may be seeking peers with whom they can discuss another topic in depth. Similarly, a student may need significant assistance from a specialist in one subject while others are less challenging for them.

Some providers intentionally help students connect with one another, whether during live classes, online clubs, or even periodic in-person special events. For example, the administrators of Dwight Global Online School want students and teachers to get to know one another and have designed their offerings accordingly. They have live synchronous classes in a seminar style, and invite all of their students (part-time and full-time) to participate in virtual clubs as well as to attend residential experiences such as their annual STEAM weekend.

It’s important to note that some online course providers require students to have their video cameras on so they are visible to all attendees during live classes, while others allow or even require privacy so students don’t necessarily encounter each other even during live sessions.


Online courses provide necessary and helpful opportunities for students to learn a wide variety of skills and subjects. No matter how popular or exciting a class is, however, personal considerations remain the most important. When deciding on an online course, a student must consider if they are ready to learn the chosen subject in this format. Do they have the skills to manage their time, prioritize their responsibilities, and balance all of their classes and activities? It’s critical to consider whether a desired online course will meet their needs and provide the right kind of environment for them to learn and thrive.

Disclaimer: Please note that mention of any provider in this article is not an endorsement of their online courses in general or for any individual student.

Try one! If you’d like to try a no-risk online course today, I recommend going to and searching for “The Science of Well-Being” by Dr. Laurie Santos—there’s a version for everyone as well as one that is specifically for teens.

By Michele Evard, PhD, IECA (MA), Evard Educational Consulting