How Online Continuing Education Courses Work

It seems like everyone is going back to school these days. An endless stream of TV commercials, magazine ads and brochures tout different continuing education (CE) programs and the importance of CE courses, but the overarching theme is clear. Continuing education has become a necessity for professional development. At least, that seems to be the case among the millions of Americans who are enrolled in these classes every year.

According to a study from the National Center for Education Statistics, 92 million adults in the U.S. are enrolled in some type of educational program – nearly two-thirds of them are taking a work-related course. What’s more, as with so many other things in life, these classes are now available online. This means you can keep up with the demands of your career without even leaving your home.


What are CE Classes

In a nutshell, CE classes are non-degree courses that provide valuable insight into a particular topic. Some of these classes provide basic overviews of a subject, while others cover updates or specialized topics in the learner’s chosen field. CE courses might be held at a college, university, trade association or most commonly online at a site like StateCE.

If you’ve never taken an online CE course before, you’ll recognize certain things from your time in a traditional classroom, but you might need time to adjust.

Is online continuing education the right choice for you? Learn more about the basics and see for yourself.

Why Take Continuing Education Courses?

According to the late magazine publisher, Malcolm Forbes, “Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one” – a lofty goal indeed, but certainly not the only one.

Yes, many people may take a class at a community center or college to fill up free time, learn a new language or satisfy their intellectual curiosity. More often than not, though, they’re back in school because it’s the best – or, in some cases, only – way to launch, continue, or move ahead in their careers. Some of most common reasons for adults taking continuing education courses include:


More Money: You probably heard that a college degree will earn you more money over your lifetime than a high school diploma. Continuing your education will extend that benefit even further. A new study from Northeastern University shows an advanced degree or certificate can increase your lifetime earnings by 35% more than those with a bachelor’s degree. Whatever position you currently hold, going back to school will not only increase your salary, but also your chances of advancing in your career and landing even more lucrative positions.

Career Requirements: For many learners, continuing education is more than just a personal goal, it’s also a necessity for staying employed.

  • Doctors, lawyers and other professionals need to complete a certain number of credits just so they can continue to practice.
  • Updates to the law, technology or business practices drive workers to brush up on their skills so they can keep up with the changes.
  • Turmoil within an organization or industry – or in the economy in general – make people nervous about their job prospects, so they acquire new skills in order to become more valuable to their employers.

We’re now living in an era where continuing education is just as important to job security as a college degree and prior experience. This is one reason why so many people went back to school in the midst of the 2008 recession.

Starting a New Career: Not every adult learner wants to advance in his or her career, instead, they want to change course and begin a new one. Whether they’ve discovered a new passion or just want to leave the office and start a new business, many people view continuing education classes as a way to make a fresh start in their lives. These classes help them build on their previous education and experience, giving them an even better chance of succeeding as a consultant, store owner or whatever new job they wish to pursue. The importance of CE for adults continues to be for career advancement.

Why Take Continuing Education Classes Online?

Up until a few years ago, continuing education classes made you feel like you were back in high school or college. You spent one or two nights a week in some makeshift classroom – maybe even in a high school – and walked out with assignments to complete before the next class. For some people, this scenario made learning impossible because they had no way to fit traditional classes into their schedules.


It’s also why you no longer have to give up on your continued education if you face one of these hurdles:

An Inconvenient Work Schedule: Most CE courses take place in the evening, after traditional business hours. However, that’s no help if you work the night shift, if your job demands a lot of overtime or you’re always on the road. It’s also not much help if you’re a classic early bird or night owl. Online courses take away the need to be in a specific place at a specific time. Lectures and assignments can be accessed anytime on demand, so you can go to class when it’s most convenient for you.

Family and Other Commitments: Of course, work isn’t the only demand on your time. Children, parents, church activities and other prior commitments can make it hard to stick to an educational program. Thanks to online courses, it’s now possible to take a class late at night while your children are sleeping or participate in a class discussion over the weekend when you won’t be riddled with work-related calls.

Difficulty Traveling: The perfect degree might only be available from that one school located across the globe. Maybe it takes two hours to travel to your class or it takes longer to get there because you live with a disability. To take an online course, you only need to travel to your computer. Also, numerous assistive technologies, recommended by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, are available from the learning institution or other places on the web.

A Tight Budget: Whether you’re enrolled in an online degree program or taking a class for the fun of it, you’re probably paying less than you would in person. Some colleges charge the same for online and traditional courses; a few charge more. However, students pay less for travel and may save a few dollars by downloading textbooks instead of buying them. If that’s still too expensive, many non-degree courses are available at low costs. Some sites, like Coursera and Open Culture offer free online courses from the world’s top universities.

What You Need to Succeed in an Online Class

As mentioned earlier, traditional and online classes have a lot in common, but not everything. You still have to complete assignments and participate in lectures and discussions, but online learning requires a different set of skills and competencies. Many students discover this too late and either perform poorly or drop out altogether.

A study from Columbia University’s Community College Research Center paints a bleak picture of online education in that so many online tend to give up compared to their traditional counterparts. However, success is possible with the right preparation and practice in the following areas:

Excellent Writing Skills:
In a typical online class, it isn’t enough to simply log on and complete assignments. You also have to actively participate in class discussions. That means giving detailed answers to questions instead of a simple “yes” or “no”. Some classes may include videoconferencing capabilities, but most require you to write down your thoughts. If writing comes naturally to you and you find it easy to organize your thoughts into coherent paragraphs, your chances of success increase dramatically.

Greater Technical Capacity:
Online classes usually take place on the school’s learning management system, but they also employ Microsoft Word, Adobe Acrobat, Skype and other tools. They also require certain technical specs, like the ones listed on If you’re going to complete a continuing education class and not get frustrated, you’ll need a fast computer, reliable internet service, and sound and video cards that enable multimedia experiences, as well as the expertise to know how to use them.

Better Time Management:
Traditional classes are structured in that you know where you need to be and when. This isn’t the case with online classes and many online students fall behind if they have a tendency to procrastinate or rush through the coursework. Different people use different methods of keeping on track, from calendars to timers to making a to-do list at the beginning of the day. Find the method that works best for you and you’ll have enough time to complete the class on time.

A Proactive Approach:
College students learn that it’s up to them to reach out if they have a question or concern. This is even truer in online continuing education. Many online classes have dozens or even hundreds of students enrolled at one time – some MOOCs have thousands. Large class sizes plus no face-to-face contact increases the likelihood of you getting lost in the shuffle. Success in online education will depend on your willingness to speak up if you run into a problem. Otherwise, the longer the problem persists, the further behind you’ll fall.

Heightened Concentration:
In a traditional class, there’s nothing else to do but interact with the teacher and students. At home or at work, there are phone calls, emails, disruptive children, demanding coworkers and social media. If you’re able to drown it all out, either by turning off distracting devices or holing up in a quiet place, you’ll do well. If, on the other hand, you can’t get away from the constant stream of interruptions, it’ll take a lot longer to complete your coursework and even longer to do it well.

How to Get Started

Continuing education is a broad term used to describe all post-college opportunities, from graduate degrees and certificates to free lectures at a community center. Some programs and institutions aren’t picky about who enrolls, while others have strict eligibility requirements. Wherever the course comes from, though, the process almost always involves completing the following steps.


There’s a class for every need and preference. Identifying your needs and preferences before searching for a class makes it more likely you’ll eventually choose the right one.

Applying for Admission: For some online continuing education classes, the registration process is as simple as giving a name and email address the day before the class starts. Other classes have the same stringent application standards as college courses, with deadlines weeks or even months before the start date. In either case, the process has to be followed step by step. This increases your chances of securing a spot in classes with limited enrollment or being accepted into classes with strict admission requirements.

Managing Finances: While some colleges are starting to offer financial awards to non-credit classes, and some organizations offer tuition reimbursement, the bill for online continuing education classes will most likely be your responsibility. Make sure you have the funds to cover your classes. Take heart though, because there’s a bright side. Any courses you take to continue in your current job are tax-deductible, so keep records of what you spend.

Preparing for the Class: Many rituals are associated with a return to school – online education is no exception, although the checklist looks a little different. Instead of buying new clothes and school supplies, you’ll be checking your computer’s technical specs, reviewing the course agenda, downloading required or suggested reading materials, logging into the school’s online portal, installing multimedia software, and finding a suitable time and place to take the course.

Doing the Work: It takes some work to get into an online class, but that pales in comparison to the time needed to complete the course. The simple advice is to just do it, but that makes light of how hard it can be to stay on track. Instead, give yourself a fighting chance by following a few tips from other learners. Find a suitable time of day to work and check in every day. Create a calendar of important dates like test days and assignment deadlines. Lastly, turn to your usual sources of inspiration to get through periods of frustration.

Continuing education is a valuable way to move forward in your career or personal development. Online education allows you to achieve these things without having to sacrifice other things in your life. The field is relatively new and still evolving, so it takes a little adjustment. With the right preparation and attitude, however, it can be fun, convenient and the path to the future you want.