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How to Choose the Best Online Courses for Business

In the corporate world, it is easy to see the value of professional development courses, especially when it’s on the company’s dime. You position yourself to climb the ladder faster, to negotiate a higher salary, and to stand out compared to your peers.

When you’re an entrepreneur or freelancer, however, continuing education often falls to the wayside. There is no ladder to climb. No peers to race against. No one to negotiate salary with. You’re probably already the expert in your field, and definitely the decision-maker at your company.

And let’s face it. If you’re like most solopreneurs, you’re just so overwhelmingly busy that the thought of spending another second in a classroom causes muscular strain from your eyes rolling back in your head.

Did you know that most successful business leaders never stop learning? It’s one of the few things that the upper echelon have in common with each other. 

If you’re still reading, then maybe you’re open-minded to the idea of keeping your brain fit. It is a muscle, after all. You never want to stop learning. You may already stay up-to-date with news and reading books and articles, but have you considered online courses? These are a great way to forge an advantage over your competitors.

Plus, if Bill Gates frequently takes online courses, we all have room for improvement in our own continuing education, be it about oceanography or biology (as he is known to take courses in), marketing, or leadership. The options are endless.

Whether you’re an entrepreneur, freelancer, solopreneur, manager, or you’re simply seeking success in the wide world of business, let’s address how to choose an online course that is right for your path before jumping in blindly and wasting your precious time and money.

Where to Start Looking for an Online Course

Years ago, when I got the itch to take online courses, I did what we all do—I headed to Google to search. Want to know what I found?


It was overwhelming. I knew I didn’t want another degree, I just wanted to take a course here and there to stay sharp and to learn new skills. I was annoyed by the unhelpful search results, but I knew the answers were out there for me. I asked around on social media for what other professionals had done in this situation, and the answers weren’t much more helpful than Google. 

So trust me, I’ve been where you are. 

There are plenty of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses that allow any number of students to interact with materials on the web), some are even actual courses that you can audit from major universities. You may also be a fit for webinars or online courses from business professionals themselves.

How then, do you know where to invest your time? 

Four Steps to Narrow Down Your Options

When you’re ready to find the right online course for your needs, here are four things you need to consider. 

1. Determine how much time you have
2. Know your learning style
3. Establish your key objectives
4. Figure out how much you can afford to spend

I did exactly zero of these things when I jumped into my first online course. It was a self-paced course online through an Ivy League university. I paid $99 for it, felt very eager and fancy about it, but got no value from it. The topic was sales negotiations, and the first four hours (yes, four excruciating hours) were explaining the Torah and the Law of Moses. It… it was not for me. It was dry, slow, boring, and most of all, time-consuming. But it’s my fault, not theirs—I just hopped right in like an excited child who saw a shiny thing.

What I really wanted was to learn more about the psychology of negotiation, a topic I’ve been reading about and obsessing over for years. I used the four steps above to find a short online course for $29, taught by a young psychologist who is in tech sales, and I knew immediately that it was a fit—and I had a blast learning! 

Hedgehog in front of piece of paper

You may lean more towards the Law-of-Moses-type of course, or you may lean toward the tech sales gal, but without narrowing down your options, you’ll end up on the wrong path, discouraged about online learning. 

1. Determine how much time you have

This is the first step because it’s what we are most likely to lie to ourselves about. We commit to New Year’s Resolutions we’ll never keep (it’s fall and I didn’t lose 30 pounds, I gained 20—thanks, carbs), and we set wild goals (I haven’t read a book a week, more like one a month—thanks, carbs).

When you think of online courses, professional development, sharpening your mind, and gaining a competitive advantage over others in your field, I’d challenge you to think of it as a fitness regimen.

Do you realistically think you can commit to an hour a day? Two hours per week? Do you intend on taking a course at night or during lunch? Or were you thinking more romantically about it and hoping to spend Sunday afternoons at a coffee shop with earbuds popped in?

Write down or type out what your time capacity is and commit to that before picking anything out. Obtaining an MBA is a wildly different time commitment than taking a webinar, so be practical about what is possible for what is currently on your plate—not for a dream reality where you hope to have endless time to invest. 

2. Know your learning style

Think back to when you were in grade school… were you the kid who remembered everything a teacher said but remembered nothing that you read (or vice versa)? Every brain works differently. 

There are five types of learning:

  • visual (a brain that prefers pictures and charts)
  • aural (auditory/musical)
  • verbal (spoken word)
  • physical (kinesthetic, using body, hands, and touch to learn)
  • logical (using reasoning and systems)

You may be wired for more than one learning style. Further, some people are social learners who work best in groups, while others are solitary learners. 

Unless you’ve already taken an assessment to discover your learning style, we recommend spending at least an hour on this topic. The investment of time will make sure you don’t get roped into an online course that is wholly wrong for you.

The VARK Questionnaire is the education industry’s standard assessment to uncover your learning style—don’t just assume you know it, take a few minutes to double check. If their format is difficult, there is a more aesthetically pleasing questionnaire option here.

Spend some time reading your results so you are firmly committed to what type of learning is most appealing to your brain. If you are like me and are a kinesthetic learner, you thrive by writing information down or using your hands to learn (like Phonics), and an audio lecture will go in one ear and out the other. You may need a high level of interaction from your course instructor, or perhaps you will do best reading text or watching video alone.

Can you see now how knowing your learning style can save you from choosing the wrong course? It can speed up your learning and make sure you actually enjoy your selection! 

3. Establish your key objectives

You may think this is common sense, but let me show you how it’s more complicated than you might think. 

Is your objective to get a piece of paper that says you took a course? Are you looking to shore up some of your business weaknesses and strengthen your acumen? Or do you want to continually make sure that your brain doesn’t get mushy because you stopped learning? Maybe you want to be a better leader and show by example how your team should stay educated? 

Those are all wildly different objectives. 

Spend a few minutes committing to why you are looking for an online course to begin with. Again, write it down (studies indicate that writing by hand rather than typing saves information in your brain for longer periods).

4. Figure out how much you can afford to spend

If you’re just starting off and your budget is zero, there are plenty of options. If you’re an industry veteran (or just financially flush (congrats!)) and can pay for a more in-depth course, that opens up even more options. 

Just as you spent time considering how much time you have to invest, consider how much money you are willing to invest. If you want to go all out and get your MBA, they’re available online now (at an average of $50-80K), or maybe you want to audit one course online from a major university (from free to a few hundred dollars), or perhaps you just want to get your toes wet and take an hour-long course (typically between $0 and $99).

Some programs are tuition-based (like coding bootcamps) and have tuition assistance options or deferred tuition, while others charge little to nothing for a one-off course. Be realistic about what your wallet can do without risking your financial stability!

Lastly, consider how long you’re willing to invest. Are you budgeting a hundred dollars a month or zero dollars? Maybe $20 a week. Perhaps $1,000 each month. It’s your call, but now is the time to commit to your maximum financial investment (and of course to write it down). 

Ready to Narrow Down Your Choices?

There are sites that allow you to do some comparisons and read reviews, like Class Central and Course Talk. These are a great place to start, but as you dive in, remember the four things you committed to above, and don’t just pick something that sounds cool. 

Hedgehog learning online

The most popular options right now are Coursera (for those looking for certifications or degrees from well-known Universities), Lynda (acquired by LinkedIn, it offers on-demand courses for a flat monthly fee), and Udemy (largest number of options, anyone can upload a course). These portals have outlasted all of the other major competitors, but they are each distinctly different—here is an accurate comparison of these three to consider. 

If you already went to college, you may get discounts or free access through them, so reach out to the alumni program at your school. Or call your local library—members often get discounts or free access that way, too. Some courses offer a money-back guarantee, others don’t. Some programs have a free trial, others don’t. Take that into consideration and save money where you can!

Remember—these days, most major universities offer online courses, but so do well-respected business professionals willing to share their expertise. 

It’s easy to fall for a course that is a thinly-veiled sales pitch, and that can happen to the best of us, especially when not going through an option like Coursera. If there are no reviews anywhere, but the course has been online for five years, that’s a red flag. If an instructor asks you to go through their personal website, that’s not a red flag, but if the students giving testimonials on that site are all “Jane D.” or “Bob R.” with stock photos, that IS a red flag.

Even if a course is free, your time is not, so trust your gut—and if it sounds like a sales webinar within the first sixty seconds, it’s okay to leave and unsubscribe.

Finally choosing an online course can change the trajectory of your career and your business, and you’re taking it seriously, so you’re already on the right path. We’re proud of you!

Please share this on your favorite social network to help others find their own way in the online world of education—and never stop learning!

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Tara Steele avatar

Tara Steele

Tara Steele is a national writer, dedicated to giving entrepreneurs and small businesses a competitive advantage. She watches way too much garbage television for someone with an English Literature degree, but does dream of the day when she can be a curmudgeon that writes novels on a typewriter. More articles written by Tara.

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