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Online Certificate Courses: How Do They Work?

Jun 21, 2019

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.

Prerequisites for Online Certificate Programs

The prerequisites for online certificate programs can vary by the institution and the field. Some undergraduate programs might only require a high school diploma or the equivalent, while others -- typically at the graduate level -- may ask for prospective students to be professionals in a related field, have relevant experience, or meet specific course prerequisites. For instance, a Marketing Strategy graduate certificate program might consider a marketing professional over someone with no experience in that area. In addition, some certificate programs only accept students who have taken specific courses. A Financial Economics Certificate, for example, might require students to have taken undergrad courses in economics and mathematics.

How Long Are Online Certificate Courses and Programs?

Because certificate programs are designed to be laser-focused on one niche subject, courses can be more condensed. Program lengths can differ dramatically. Some courses are as short as two weeks and some programs can be completed in as little as 2 months. Others may be more involved -- courses could be more like 3 weeks and programs could stretch to 6 months.

Delivery Methods for Certificate Programs

Each school has its own methods for administering online certificate courses. Some may be self-paced, where students learn the material on their own time using downloadable books or videos. Others offer a more traditional 'classroom' feel, with students and professors using video conferencing technology to interact with one another in real-time. 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

Online Certificate Programs vs. On-Campus Certificate Programs

The biggest difference between online and on-campus certificate programs is where/how they are offered. Online certificate programs generally follow the same basic curricula as on-campus programs, however the 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.

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.

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