online instructional design certificate

Best Online Certificate Programs – How to Choose


With so many choices available, how do you find the best online certificate programs?  Picking the right program involves a number of factors and each person weighs the factors differently.  Only you can decide what is most important, but here are eight elements to consider.

8 Factors to Consider when Hunting for the Best Online Certificate Programs


One of the most important considerations when purchasing anything is the price.  Determining the price of an online graduate school class can be a little tricky because of hidden fees.  However, it is pretty straightforward to just find the tuition rate per credit hour.  Check to see if the tuition is the same for in-state and out-of-state residents.  Many certificate classes offer online classes at a single tuition rate, regardless of residency.  Classes can be as low as around $400 to over $1,200 per semester credit hour.  Since most classes are three semester credit hours, that‘s a range of around $1,000 to $3,600 per class.  When checking the current tuition rate, be careful that you look at the graduate school rates and not the undergraduate rates (grad school is often a bit more expensive).  Also be sure to look for additional costs (technology fees, student services fees, etc.) that may be added to the tuition.

Program Length

The length of online certificate programs plays an important role in two ways.  First, the number of classes/credit hours is directly linked to the price you will pay for the certificate.  Most programs require 12, 15, or 18 semester credit hours to earn a certificate.  This equals four, five, or six classes at three credit hours per class. Taking an additional two classes (six credit hours) can add substantially to the cost of the certificate.  For example:

Total tuition at $400 per semester credit hour.

12 hour program = $4,800

best online certificate programs

15 hour program = $6,000

18 hour program = $7,200

Total tuition at $1,200 per semester credit hour.

12 hour program = $14,400

15 hour program = $18,000

18 hour program = $21,600

The second consideration involving length is how long it will take you to complete the program.  Taking four classes will obviously be quicker than taking six classes.  Some universities use an accelerated format where each class is only eight weeks long.  Others may use a more traditional semester approach.  Check the school’s calendar to see how many months it will take to complete the program.


You should review the course titles and descriptions to get a sense of what you will be learning about and what interests you.  Is the program geared more towards theory or application?  You may have to search the university’s website for the graduate school bulletin to learn more about the courses offered.  Another consideration is whether you get to choose any of the courses in the program (electives) or if the course series is fixed.   Some online certificate programs may allow you to pick electives from a list of approved courses.  Don’t expect too many electives though since the certificate will usually only consist of a total of three to six classes.

Institution and Accreditation

Generally, I suspect most people want their university to be accredited.  The most common form of recognition to look for is “regional” accreditation.  For example, the “North Central Association of Colleges and Schools” is a regional accreditation.  Institutions that are accredited usually make it readily known on their website.  You can also check accreditation on the  U.S. Department of Education’s website.

The name and reputation of the institution can also be an important factor.  Is the school nationally known or is it a small regional school?  How do you feel about for-profit schools?  Do you want people to instantly recognize the name of the school or do you care?  You may pay more at an institution with a better academic reputation, but this may be your chance to get a well-known school on your resume.


The focus of this website is online certificate programs and many schools offer totally online courses.  However, whenever you search for an online program in any subject you should check to be sure if the program is 100% online.  Some programs may require one or more visits to the physical campus.  These are often referred to as “blended” programs.  Some programs that require a campus visit simply make you attend an orientation at the beginning of the program.  Just remember that it’s easy to find totally online certificate programs that require no campus visits.

You should also understand whether the classes are synchronous or asynchronous.  An asynchronous class means you don’t have to be “in class” at a certain time.  Your coursework can be done when it works best for you (as long as you turn in the work on time).  Synchronous classes meet online at a specific time, likely once a week in the evening.  There is nothing wrong with either way.  Some people want complete freedom to do their school work on their own schedule.  Others enjoy making a connection with the instructor and their classmates that a weekly online meeting can provide.  Some asynchronous courses may have voluntary meetings once per week (or less) that are recorded and posted online for viewing when it’s convenient for you.

Application Process

Are you willing to take the GRE to apply to your favorite or the best online certificate programs?  Are you willing to write an essay and get professional and/or academic references?  Some institutions require that you formally apply to the graduate school before you are admitted into the program.  Other institutions look at certificate programs somewhat differently from their traditional graduate school programs and only require a few minimum qualifications such as a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school.  Most don’t require any specific undergraduate major.  It is pretty easy to find an online certificate program that does not require traditional admission to the graduate school.

Also be on the lookout for any prerequisite classes you might need.  Some programs require previous specific coursework in the subject, but many do not.  It is something to keep an eye out for.

Transfer to Master’s Degree

A consideration for some students is how the graduate certificate fits into the institution’s master’s degree program(s).  If you believe you may want to pursue a master’s degree, you might want to use your online certificate as a stepping stone into the master’s program.  Some schools allow you to transfer all credits earned for the certificate to a related master’s degree.  Some will only allow up to nine hours to transfer.  However, a few will not allow any credit hours to transfer even within the same institution.  You are even less likely to be able to transfer all of your credits to a master’s program at another institution.  If you think you may eventually want a master’s degree, it would be a good idea to see how the certificate and master’s coursework work (or don’t work) together.


What do actual students think about the program?  You can search the internet to see what current or former students feel are the best online certificate programs.    Try subject related forums for a little insight from current or former students.  For example, students interested in instructional design, online teaching, and e-learning certificates can check out  Conduct a search for the certificate or school you are interested in to see what others may be saying.

Use the “Search Programs” button below to find the best online certificate programs in instructional design, online teaching, e-learning and related fields.

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