IT is an important field with a wide variety of disciplines within it. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in IT, you’ll find it much easier to get a job with a major employer if you have some qualifications behind you.
One of the best things about IT is that it’s something people can learn from anywhere. Computers are near-ubiquitous today, and thanks to the power of cloud computing, it’s possible for an online student to experiment with software and tools that are used in industry, even if their own laptop or tablet device isn’t powerful enough to run them.
Online learning is a great leveler, and there are courses for any level of student, from simple online boot camps to an associate degree or even a full bachelor’s degree in computer science.
Studying an online program takes commitment and motivation, but it’s a good way of advancing your career. Many bricks-and-mortar universities now offer online classes that are based on their classroom programs, giving remote students the chance to complete a high-quality degree program from home.
These programs are often more affordable than an on-campus degree and they may still qualify for financial aid, making them a good option for students who would struggle to pay for a course out of their own pockets.
The IT job market is projected to grow by 11% between 2019 and 2029, with a total of 531,200 new jobs becoming available during that time, spread across a variety of specializations. This means there will be many opportunities available for people who are willing to take the time to learn new skills.
Types of online IT courses
Online IT courses vary from short certificates offered by commercial organizations such as LinkedIn Learning, to full programs from a traditional university or college. Depending on your time and budget you have the option of pursuing a full degree, following a short online guided project to learn a new skill, or anything in between.
If you’re considering trying online learning, you’ll want to look at different course options and consider how much time you have, what it is you want to learn, and what your learning style is so you can make the most of your online education.
How can your learning style dictate what types of online IT course are right for you?
Some people learn best by watching and doing. Others find reading about a topic motivational.
Some people respond well to videos, some learners need the interaction of working with a lecturer or their fellow students. Self-paced courses can work well for a busy professional who has a lot of self-discipline and motivation. Some other learners need a fixed schedule and the accountability of having someone to check in with.
These are all things you should think about when you’re doing an online course. One challenge that learners face is finding the motivation to see their course through. This is particularly true with free online courses, where there’s no financial ‘penalty’ to motivate the student.
Codecademy reports that just 28% of the people who start their courses complete them. It’s unclear how many of the people who signed up for a Codecademy course were serious about seeing it through to the end, and how many were signing up just out of curiosity, but such a high drop-out rate is still alarming.
Courses that cost money tend to have a higher completion rate. Coursera, for example, reports that learners who sign up to the Coursera Plus program or who pay for individual courses and certificates have a higher completion rate than those who sign up for free.
Before you pay for a course, however, consider how it’s structured. Some course platforms are very heavy on video and multiple-choice tests. It’s easy to sit and watch these courses without learning much. Others use online labs or guided projects, or have browser-based ‘playgrounds’ where you can experiment with code and learn by doing. Many learners find this is a better way of learning that allows them to retain more information.
What are the major differences between types of online IT courses?
Online courses can vary from short projects to more detailed certifications, or full online degree courses. Some computer science courses focus on specific job skills, such as Google’s IT Support Professional Certificate. These programs are an interesting option for people who are at the very beginning of their career, who want to learn a new skill in a way that’s affordable and accessible to them.
Those who are further along in their careers can learn new skills online too. For example, cybersecurity experts can learn new tools and practice real-world skills with Cybrary.
Mid-career professionals who want to expand or update their skills could consider going the traditional degree program route, for example studying a second degree in data science, or studying a master of computer science online. Many universities offer such options. The University of Texas at Austin offers a Master of Computer Science Online for around $10,000, which makes it far more affordable than similar on-campus courses.
The time commitment of studying an online IT course can vary massively from just a few hours for a simple guided project to a few months for a professional certificate, or years of study if you’re hoping to go the degree route.
Since online courses are usually entirely self-paced, however, it’s possible to pursue them part-time, while working, looking after loved ones, or even traveling or doing other things on a career break.
The flexibility of part-time study means it gives people a chance to improve themselves at their own pace.
Benefits of enrolling in online IT courses
Online IT courses democratize learning and make it accessible to people regardless of their prior academic history, experience, or even financial status. Anyone, anywhere in the world can pursue an online IT course.
There are many organizations that offer free online courses, allowing people to try new subjects, play with new tools, and sample IT-related topics. Some popular free online courses include:
- W3Schools for web development
- Udemy for a variety of computer science, math, and other similar topics
- Google Digital Academy
- Codecademy for the foundations of computer programming
Some free courses are simply an introduction to a topic, but others may pay off in the future. For example, if you complete Google’s IT Support Professional course you can apply to have it counted as Recognition of Prior Learning, saving you money on the cost of a distance learning Computer Science degree studied via Coursera in the future.
Who could benefit from enrolling in online IT courses?
Anyone who is interested in working in IT, or simply wants to have a better understanding of the subject, could benefit from studying an online IT course.
Some people choose to study IT courses online because they’re passionate about the subject and want to do something to pass the time. The structure of following a course makes it easier to learn a subject than it might be if you tried to ‘self teach’ a new programming language.
There are courses on almost any topic, from big data and machine learning to artificial intelligence, computer programming, robotics, statistics, digital marketing, usability, and computer security.
For many young people, studying an online course is an appealing way of learning, and far more affordable than buying books on a topic. It’s also more interactive, and, if the course is produced by a reputable organization, has other benefits too. Books, once printed, are fixed and can’t be updated. In the world of IT when things are being patched and changed quickly, a digital course that can be revised and corrected will have a longer ‘shelf life’ than a book.
Even those who are already working in IT could benefit from studying courses from time to time. Programming languages change and evolve. New concepts and technologies become popular, and new skills are always in demand.
Security specialists need to stay up-to-date with the latest threats. Coders need to learn the development stacks that are becoming popular. Systems administrators need to stay up-to-date with the latest tools and best practices. Continuing education is vital in the world of IT.
How does accreditation for online classes work?
One thing learners should be aware of when they’re looking for an online course is the issue of accreditation. This is particularly important for those who are studying a course with the hopes of getting a job in the IT field in the near future.
Many free online courses are not accredited at all, nor do they claim to be. Free courses are simply there to introduce a learner to the subject and give them the chance to do some self-directed learning. These courses still have value and can be sufficient to allow someone to access entry-level jobs in tech support, testing, and other similar roles.
If you’re paying for an online education, however, you’ll want to make sure what you’re getting at the end is worth the money. For an online degree, this means checking that the awarding body is actually accredited.
The World Higher Education Database keeps a list of internationally recognized higher education bodies. If the university that offers your degree program is on this list, then that’s a good sign that the qualification you get from it will have some value.
Professional certifications are slightly different. Companies such as Microsoft, Google and Cisco offer their own certifications to indicate to employers that a person is well-versed in how to use their tools. These certifications carry the weight of the company behind them, and the higher-level ones can be useful, however, some employers only place value in the certifications if the person who has them also has extensive real-world experience.
There are other certifications issued by independent bodies such as CompTIA that are also valuable and show that a learner has the real-world skills required to work in network administration or security roles.
Not all certifications are created equal, however, and many courses offered online are not recognized by employers. If a course makes claims such as “study with us for a few months and you can get a job paying X amount per year”, that’s most likely a red flag. Even the best certifications are only useful if you can back them with experience or a robust portfolio.
How do you stay in touch with classmates and teachers while learning online?
Talking to other students is a good way of motivating yourself when you’re studying online. If the course you’re studying is a programming one, you may find benefit in being able to chat to students and work on a project together.
Most online course platforms have student forums. For example, the Open University in the United Kingdom has a virtual learning environment with discussion rooms and learning spaces. Coursera has course-specific forums, and other learning institutions have MOOCs that include chat spaces too.
If the institution you’re studying with doesn’t have that sort of environment, or it isn’t very busy, you could set up your own space on Facebook or a Discord or ClubHouse chat room to communicate with other learners.
Depending on the course you’re studying, you may have a lot of contact with tutors, or you might communicate with them only when you’re submitting assignments. Coursera, for example, offers a lot of free or low-cost online courses. The teachers upload the courses and learners watch them at their own pace, take the multiple-choice tests and complete the guided assignments.
Because the courses are free or priced very cheaply, there are tens of thousands of students taking them every year. Compare this to student/faculty ratios of 70 to 1 at a more traditional institution and you’ll see why it’s not practical for teachers to be hands-on with every student.
When you study a course at an online college, you’ll most likely find most of your interaction will be via forums or other open chat environments. If you have paid for a more formal course such as a bachelor’s degree or a master’s, then you might have more one-to-one time with a tutor, but with open admission courses, you’ll get less attention.
How to choose an online IT course
If you’ve decided that you’d like to take a course, your first consideration should be how much time you’re really willing to commit. Do you have a goal in mind? How long do you want to spend studying? How much money are you willing to spend? What are your long-term expectations?
How do your goals shape what online IT courses you should take?
Your goals will make a big difference to what sort of course you take. If you’re someone who enjoys IT as a hobby and you just want to learn a new tool or take on a hobby project, you can do that quite inexpensively by following a short course.
You may be able to find free videos on YouTube that cover the material you’re interested in, or an open college course that gives you an introduction to the subject. If you want something more polished than the material you can get for free, a short Udemy course or Coursera guided project could be the answer.
If you’re planning a career move or change, then you’ll want to find a course that will give you the knowledge you need for the next step in your career. That could be a master track certificate, a bachelor’s degree, or a career-focused certification.
Even if you’re studying a degree, be aware that in the field of IT portfolios and experience are very important. For a programmer, that means completing portfolio projects and publishing code on GitHub, or contributing to open-source projects.
For a UI designer or a would-be webmaster, that means having a website live for people to view. For a systems administrator, that could be running your own dedicated server or network. Would-be cybersecurity experts should be aiming to contribute to bug bounties.
Having a formal qualification is useful, but real-world experience counts for a lot more in the world of IT.
What are the requirements for acceptance into an online IT course?
The entry requirements for online training courses can vary significantly. Some have no entry requirements at all. You can simply sign up and start studying. Others may ask that a student have a certain level of competency in the English language (or the language the course is delivered in) and a foundational experience of mathematics and IT use too.
It’s common for online bachelor’s degree courses in IT to offer what’s known as progress-based admission. This means mature students can start the course even if they don’t have the grades/transcript required to enroll in a course at a traditional university.
Students who are admitted to a course by this kind of pathway will have to complete one module at a time, and can’t enroll in the next part of the course until they’ve passed the part they’re currently studying. This means they’re less likely to get overwhelmed and will have a better chance of completing the course.
In addition to having some academic or performance requirements, students will of course need access to a computer and a stable Internet connection. For most courses, a basic laptop running Windows, OS X, or Linux will do.
Today, thanks to the existence of cloud computers, virtual machines, and Software as a Service offering, it’s possible for students to receive training in enterprise-level systems without needing a computer powerful enough to run these at home.
Quickest online IT courses
IT jobs have become quite fashionable, and a lot of people are looking to move out of other job roles, such as hospitality, leisure, or the arts, and into IT. If you’re looking to switch careers quickly, you may be wondering which jobs are the easiest to learn.
What IT skills can you learn online quickly?
IT is a huge field, and there are many different areas a person could focus on, such as:
- Tech support
- Systems administration
- Database administration
- User interface design
- Software testing
- Web development
- Online marketing
These fields are quite diverse, and some people may take to one area more quickly than another.
In general, testing, web development, and database skills can be learned quite quickly, because these are highly focused fields. Tech support is also something that a person can learn reasonably quickly since it requires a broad understanding of how computers work, and good people skills, rather than an extensive study of a specific ‘way of thinking’.
If you’re looking for something that’s ‘online’ but that isn’t a highly technical field, online marketing could be a good option. You’ll need an understanding of how the web works, and a decent level of computer literacy, but the work isn’t as dry and focused as that of a web developer, for example.
What online IT courses are designed to be completed quickly?
There are several entry-level professional certificates that can be completed within a span of a few months. Popular courses include:
These short entry-level certifications could help someone who is new to the world of IT demonstrate that they have an understanding of those areas of computing. The ICDL is a ‘computer driving license’ that demonstrates a basic level of computer literacy for office work and other day-to-day purposes, while the other courses are focused more on networks, tech support, or cloud computing.
If you want to pursue a career in programming, web design, or security, you’ll need to commit more than just a few months to your studies. There are some boot camps for web development that don’t take long to complete, but it’s unlikely an employer would be interested in a student fresh out of boot camp with no portfolio.
If you’re considering enrolling on a short course or boot camp, block out some extra time to focus on building a website, creating a mobile app, or otherwise finishing some projects for your portfolio.
How long does it take to complete a typical IT degree?
A bachelor’s degree in IT will most likely take three to six years to complete, depending on whether you study it part-time or full-time. Certifications, foundation degrees, and associate degrees can be completed more quickly.
You can speed up how long it takes to complete an online course through recognition of prior learning or experience. If you’re someone who has been working in the industry for a while or who has a portfolio already, you may be able to have that taken into account and turned into credits for your degree. This saves you time and money by allowing you to skip the modules you’ve already covered.
The same applies to certifications, to an extent. Someone who has been using computers for a long time at work or as a hobby may want to earn a certification such as CompTIA A+ or Network+ to increase their chances of getting a job. If they’re already comfortable with basic computing concepts, they might be able to take the exam after some online revision, without spending a lot of money on a long training course.
Since most online courses are self-paced, the main barrier to completion is how much time and effort you’re willing to put into them. There’s no waiting for a specific course to start, or having lectures occur at a fixed time every week.
As with almost every other profession, the best-paid jobs in IT are the ones that take the most expertise and dedication. There’s no shortcut to this kind of job. You’ll need to study hard, get lots of practice and have a good portfolio before you’ll have a chance at getting a job at a large, respected organization.
So, while you’re studying, work on some personal projects to show off your skills. Whether that’s practicing your tech support strategies by helping family members, making some WordPress themes to sell online, putting up a website for your local sports group, or making a game for your younger siblings, there’s plenty of projects you can work on for fun and to improve your skills.
One good strategy is to start a blog where you share things that you’ve learned. If you encounter a problem while you’re studying your online IT course, write about what it was you were trying to do, why you found it hard, and what the solution was.
Over time, the problems you solve will become more interesting and complex. Prospective employers can refer to the blog and see how far you’ve come, what you learned, and, perhaps more importantly, how good your problem-solving skills are.