Web Dev Simplified Blog

Are Online Courses Worth It?

August 2, 2021

If you were trying to become a software developer 20 years ago the only real option available was to spend tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on a four year college education. Luckily, this is no longer the case, though, as there are countless cheaper options such as bootcamps, online courses, and even entirely free resources like YouTube and freeCodeCamp.

In this article I will be specifically focusing on the idea of online courses since there is already a ton of conversation around if bootcamps are worth it or not, but online courses are generally not covered.

If you prefer to learn visually, check out the video version of this article.

My Experience

Before I get to talking about this topic I first need to discuss my experiences with and without courses to clear up any bias I may have.

First off I have created multiple online courses myself. At the time of writing this I have courses on JavaScript, CSS, and React, so I obviously believe that online courses can be helpful otherwise I wouldn't create them. I also have tons of experience learning without online courses, though.

I went to college to learn computer engineering, and while I was there I realized that I loved web development. Unfortunately, the school I went to didn't teach web development and I didn't have the money to spend on online courses so I taught myself everything I know about web development using free resources like YouTube. More recently, I have purchased online courses to help learn some web development topics, but 95% of all my web development knowledge is self-taught using completely free resources.

Now with all the background information out of the way let's talk about the purpose of online courses.

What Online Courses Do

Most people I talk to generally view online courses in a negative light. They usually assume that an online course is pretty much the same as the free content online with the only difference being that one is free and one is paid for. While this does have some truth it is also missing the main point of online courses.

An online course does not generally hold any secret exclusive information that cannot be found anywhere else. The internet is too vast and pretty much everything you could ever want to learn is available for free somewhere. The vastness of the internet is also a curse, though, since you need to dig through hours of incorrect or outdated information to find the one piece of information you are looking for which wastes a ton of your time.

An online course is essentially a shortcut that lays out exactly what you need to do in order from beginning to the end with no misinformation or outdated content. Taking an online course saves you tons of time since you no longer get lost looking for information and best of all the entire curriculum is laid out in the perfect order so you don't accidentally skip important information simply because you didn't know it existed. A good online course can cut down the time it takes to learn a topic into a fraction of what it would be using just free resources.

This reason alone is why I wish I used online courses when I was learning web development. It took me years to become good enough at web development to feel confident in building anything I could think of. If I had used online courses I could have shaved this time down to a fraction of what it took me using free resources and the cost wouldn't have even been that high. I could have worked a part time job in the extra time I saved by using online courses and actually made more money than the courses cost me.

Also, if I had used online courses I would have filled many of the gaps in my knowledge. For the first few years of my career as a web developer I was pretty slow in developing software and this was entirely because I lacked knowledge of many basic topics. These topics were things that I never knew existed because I never saw them covered in the free content I was watching, but if I had purchased a good online course I would have learned all this information before even starting my first job.

Which Online Course Should You Get

Now hopefully at this point I have convinced you that online courses can be a good investment, but which online course should you buy? There are thousands of online courses, but not all courses are created equal.

First, if you have a particular teacher that you like and are able to learn from incredibly easily I would recommend getting their courses. It doesn't even matter if their courses aren't "the best" because the thing that really matters is that you understand their teaching style and will learn an incredible amount from them no matter what.

Second, if you are in a situation where you have more time than money or just don't have the money to purchase an online course I would recommend just sticking to free content. It may take you longer to learn the same thing, but the important fact is that you will still learn how to become a software developer whether you take an online course or not.

Now finally we can talk about which course you should take. In general I would say that programming courses can be broken down into three different tiers. Cheap courses, mid-priced courses, and expensive courses.

Cheap Courses

A cheap course is any course that cost less than $50 or $100. Places like Udemy are flooded with courses in this price range. These courses are a great option if you are unable to pay much towards online courses, but still want something that is more structured than just browsing YouTube content. These types of courses generally have one of more of the following problems, though.

  1. They are much longer than they need to be which wastes your time.
  2. They are too focused on teaching every single detail of a topic even if the information is outdated or leads to more confusion.
  3. They present the content in a way that makes you feel like you are learning the material when in reality you are just memorizing the code needed to build the one project in that course which leaves you just as lost as before you started the course.

Because of these reasons I recommend most people search for some of the more expensive course options. This does not mean that these courses are bad, though. They are still much better than free content in terms of structure, but if you are serious about trying to save time and really learn software development, then a more expensive course is probably a better fit for you.

Mid-Priced Courses

A mid-priced course is any course that falls in the range of $50-$500. These course are at the point where they are expensive enough that it takes serious consideration before making a purchase. Many people that sell courses on their own platform, such as Wes Bos, Kevin Powell, and myself, will price their courses around this price point. These courses I think are perfect for anyone that is serious about learning programming since they are generally much better structured than a cheap course while still being mostly affordable.

I personally believe the extra cost to purchase a mid-priced course is almost always worth it as long as you have the money to do so since the main difference between a cheap and mid-priced course is the structure of the course which is the main thing you are looking for when buying an online course. Most instructors that sell courses at this price point spend months just planning out the structure of their courses to make it as optimal as possible for their students. For me personally, I spend over 50% of my course development time on just planning out the structure of the course. If I were to sell my course at a cheaper price point I just wouldn't be able to justify the extra months of work on planning the structure of the content. This is the main differentiator between a cheap and mid-priced course.

Expensive Courses

An expensive course is any course that is over $500. These courses are priced so high that they start to compete with some bootcamps and private coaching options, but they generally come with additional perks that can be beneficial. These extra perks almost always involve one-on-one coaching/help, group mentoring, or just bonus content. If these extra features are something you really value then this may be a good option for you, but generally I find that the expensive courses cost a significant amount more for only a marginal increase in quality or even no increase at all.

In most cases a $100 course and a $1,000 course will have a very similar quality of course structure which is by far the most important and useful thing you get from an online course. The only main differences are the extra features the expensive courses come with, but those features are generally not very useful and not worth the price increase at least to me. Unless you really love the instructor or value the extra features of the expensive course I would recommend sticking with a cheaper option since you will still get the same level of quality from the structure of the course.

Conclusion

My personal opinion is that online courses are great. I wish I had utilized them when I was learning because it could have saved me years of frustration. Also, there are thousands of course options available which means it is easier than ever to find a course that not only fits within your budget, but also resonates well with you. If you haven't tried out an online course yet I highly recommend you give it a shot. I used to be incredibly skeptical of their value until I bought my first course and now I wish I would have bought my first course years earlier.

Also, most online courses have generous refund policies so you can always get a full refund if you find that online courses are not right for you. My courses for example have a 100% full refund policy with no restrictions since I never want anyone to feel like they wasted their money on something they received no value from.