Online Certificate Courses: How Do They Work?

Certificate programs are available in a variety of disciplines, from business and education to the arts and sciences. Online certificate programs also might benefit those who want to undergo career training in a field that doesn't necessarily require a degree.

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Students who want to earn certificates can find online programs that utilize technology to facilitate distance learning. Certificate programs typically offer a shorter and more focused curriculum than degree programs.

Online Certificate Program Overview

Whereas degree programs can take years to complete and allow students to explore academic interests, certificates are highly specialized programs and allow students to complete coursework in much less time. Certificate programs are a good option for students who wish to focus on a specific area of interest or skill. For students with busy schedules, online programs are available and allow for much greater scheduling flexibility.

Find schools that offer these popular programs

  • Agriculture
  • Architecture
  • Biological and Biomedical Sciences
  • Business
  • Communications and Journalism
  • Computer Sciences
  • Culinary Arts and Personal Services
  • Education
  • Engineering
  • Legal
  • Liberal Arts and Humanities
  • Mechanic and Repair Technologies
  • Medical and Health Professions
  • Physical Sciences
  • Psychology
  • Transportation and Distribution
  • Visual and Performing Arts

Online Certificate Programs vs. On-Campus Certificate Programs

Online certificate programs generally follow the same basic curricula as on-campus programs. Lectures are given through video or audio recordings or transcriptions, which are available on a class website. Assignments are turned in via e-mail or other Web-based tools, and quizzes and exams are administered through the website, usually during a closed time frame. It is important to note that some online or distance learning programs have periodic on-campus meetings.

Often, the same faculty members who teach on-campus classes also teach online certificate courses. Distance education students might benefit from interaction with their professors and classmates via online tools, such as:

  • Message boards
  • Chat rooms
  • Email
  • Video chats

Technology Requirements

In order to complete an online certificate program, students need to have specific computer hardware and software. Specific requirements vary by program, but in general, students need to have a personal computer with the following features:

  • An up-to-date operating system
  • A certain amount of memory
  • Office software
  • Antivirus software
  • Speakers
  • Video camera
  • CD/DVD drive

Certificate Programs vs. Degree Programs

Like degree programs, certificate programs are available in a wide range of subjects. However, while students in associate's and bachelor's degree programs must complete core courses in subjects like math, English and the social sciences, students in certificate programs usually only take classes in the program's field. For instance, many schools offer certificate and associate's degree programs in culinary arts. The certificate program only includes culinary-related classes, while the associate's degree program includes those same classes, with an additional block of non-major courses.

Online certificate programs are available through both 2- and 4-year schools, although community and technical colleges usually offer a wider variety of online certificate programs. Graduate certificates, which are designed for the professional advancement of post-bachelor's degree students, are offered exclusively at schools with graduate-level programs.

Students who want to pursue discipline-specific academic studies in a particular field of interest can enroll in an undergraduate certificate program, where coursework is distributed through web-based platforms.

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