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How to find the best online courses, according to experts

If you're looking to build new skills or hone existing ones, online courses — ranging from free to subscription-based — may be the answer.
Image: Young woman having video call on laptop computer at home
Universities around the globe have adapted to virtual teaching techniques — leading to an increased demand for fun and credit-based online courses. damircudic / Getty Images

With most states still advising most residents to isolate via stay-at-home orders, people around the country are getting creative with their home-based pursuits. For those who are interested in using some of that time to build new skills or hone existing ones, online courses may be the answer. Unlike the traditional learning model by which students are asked to commit to an area of study for admittance into a program, online learning offers the chance to test the waters — while working with educators from around the world. Whether you're looking to completely transform the way you learn or interested in a quick class on a specific topic, here's how to go about getting the most out of the online classes available now.

In this article

  1. What is online learning?
  2. How to choose the best online learning courses
  3. Best online learning courses

What is online learning?

“Learning online allows you to experiment with a lot of things until you find the skill or skill set that makes you content,” says Martin Perhiniak, founder of Yes I’m a Designer and an Adobe-certified instructor who has taught more than 150,000 students through online courses. “One of many success stories I can think of is a man in his 70s from Texas who got inspired to retouch photos after watching one of my courses,” Perhiniak told NBC News. “It didn't take him long to establish himself as a professional freelancer and get work from international agencies.”

How to choose the best online learning courses

As universities around the world have no option but to adapt to virtual teaching techniques in the midst of COVID-19, many top institutions already offer an impressive array of certificate and degree programs that might help advance careers. “With people shifting to online work, online certifications can be a big plus when taking a look at their resume,” says Anh Trinh, the managing editor of GeekWithLaptop, a fully remote company.

She adds that people wanting a professional boost should look for accredited programs, like those offered through edX or Coursera, versus other online learning platforms that are better suited for picking up hobbies or learning for the sake of learning. Whether you are looking to hone a skill or segue into a new profession, these virtual classrooms have you covered with both for-fun and for-credit courses, covering everything from watercolor techniques to artificial intelligence.

Best online learning courses

1. Udemy

With more than 150,000 courses like “Advanced Stock Trading” and “InDesign CC MasterClass” spread across 13 categories best suited to hobbyists and beginners, Udemy is a great option for feeling out a new subject—especially since most classes are less than $20. Anyone can be a Udemy instructor, which is good if you care more about ample course selection and variety than getting an accredited certification.

2. Coursera

With accredited certificates and degrees from world-class universities and companies, Coursera is tailored to people seeking career benefits like raises, promotions or altogether new jobs. Pick from approximately 4,000 courses ranging from “Using Python” from Google experts to “Financial Markets” from a Yale professor. Costs range from free to $20,000+ for master’s degree programs — and financial aid is available.

3. edX

As a nonprofit co-founded by leaders from Harvard and MIT, edX has earned its reputation for redefining learning opportunities for people around the world. There are tracks for students who want to earn transferable college credits, like “College Algebra and Problem Solving” from Arizona State University for $49, all the way up to fully online master’s degree programs, like “Nutritional Sciences” from the University of Texas, which comes with a slightly higher price tag: $25,300.

4. Codeacademy

The name sums it up: Codeacademy is best for anyone interested in learning how to code. From the free Basic plan to $20 per month to unlock the full library of offerings, there are options ranging from one-off courses like “Learn CSS” to more immersive programs like “Become a Web Developer.”

5. Skillshare

Want to play the field a bit? Skillshare is perfect for discovering “what fascinates you.” With options for both short and in-detail classes, you can spend tonight learning “Fundamentals of DSLR Photography”, tomorrow testing some new “Visual Journaling” techniques and the next night working on some “Instagram Poetry” with an instructor’s guidance. Premium membership allows access to courses taught from creatives and experts from around the world.

6 LinkedIn Learning

Integrated with the professional social media platform, LinkedIn Learning offers courses designed for career development and advancement. After a one-month-free trial, the $19.99 monthly membership unlocks access to more than 15,000 courses ranging from a nine-hour tutorial on using Excel to quick-hit lessons on pitching yourself or strategic thinking.

7. The Great Courses Plus

In contrast to other online learning platforms, The Great Courses Plus has a focused mission: To make entertaining, educational lessons from professors who teach at top-ranked universities available to anyone around the world. Tailored more to people who consider themselves “lifelong learners” rather than those looking for a professional certification, offerings include “Life Lessons from Great Books,” “The Everyday Guide to Wine” and more. You can start a trial for free — pricing for unlimited streaming starts at $10 per month.

8. Udacity

If adventures in working from home have opened your eyes to the potential for careers in tech, Udacity can help you get started. Specifically focused on serving people who want STEM-centric jobs like data science, machine learning and cloud computing, Udacity’s courses are immersive and thorough. Taking it one step further, you can build a talent profile upon completing a course to get your resume directly in front of major companies like Google and IBM.

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