Watch Out for Online Learning Scams!

You may not have known, but September 15th is National Online Learning Day.

Nowadays, it seems like everything has its own “day”. There is even a day dedicated to Pancakes (September 26th, get your maple syrup ready) and apparently, May 15 is “No Dirty Dishes Day”. But before you laugh off National Online Learning Day as insignificant, think about the following statistics: currently, there are over 6 million people in the US taking courses online, companies that provide employees with online training see revenue increases of 26%, and the size of the online learning marketplace is 165 billion dollars. Clearly, online learning is a force to be reckoned with.

Online learning has helped millions of people get higher paying jobs, learn new skills and increase their knowledge. The truth is that the possibilities for educating yourself are almost limitless and the opportunities we have today are unprecedented. Right now, your ten year old could be learning astronomy on Khan Academy while you explore R Programming at Edx and your mom learns to play the saxophone on Udemy. Some of these programs offer standalone courses and others offer full-out degrees and certifications.

And then, a handful of them are outright scams.

Pie in the Sky 

Sure, you might be intrigued by promises of that easy BA or skills that will send your paycheck into the stratosphere, but when something seems too good to be true, it’s probably not true.

Before the internet, non-classroom based learning was called distance learning. And even then, while programs were legitamate, some were flat-out scams. Back in the 1970’s, there was Famous Writers School, led by some of the most famous writers of that time, including Rod Serling, creator of the Twilight Zone and Gordon Carroll, editor of Reader’s Digest. Ads for the school promised budding authors (and anyone with a pulse) fame and fortune, with just an enrollment fee of $900 (approx $6000 today). At its height, the school raked in millions of dollars annually until it was exposed as a complete fraud.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  

Today, there are online “universities”, or diploma mills, promising degrees in less than a month. They come with highly misleading names, like Harvard College and Columbia State University and claim to offer diplomas based on life experience and unaccredited tests and coursework. There are hundreds of these fraudulent degree programs, charging between $500-2500 per fake degree. And they continue to lure in students/victims who don’t know the warning signs to watch out for. So if you’re interested in enhancing your skills but aren’t interested in plunking down your hard-earned cash on a worthless piece of paper, here is what to look out for:

  • Less than clear-cut accreditation status: If the school is located in the US, the first thing to do is to check out it it’s recognized by the US Education Department. If not, that’s a huge red flag.
  • Promises of degrees/diplomas/certificates in record-setting time: Any program that claims to be able to furnish a degree in a matter of days/weeks is bogus.
  • Degrees based mainly on “life experience”: Sorry, nobody is going to award you with a Masters in Psychology, no matter how many hours you’ve spent trying to reason with your kids.
  • Oddly familiar names: Case in point, the aforementioned Columbia State University.
  • Shady websites: If you cannot find the information you need on a program’s website, such as a list of faculty members, their address (a P.O. box is another red flag), or student resources, run in the opposite direction.
  • Low/no admission criteria: Like in the Famous Writers School scandal, if the school admits just about everyone, you can be fairly certain that things are not what they seem.

But don’t fret; if you have your heart set on learning something new today, there are some completely amazing online learning programs offering a range of services from stand alone courses to full degrees. Here are some of the best programs out there:

  • Udemy – One of the largest libraries of online courses, you can find classes on virtually any topic you can think of.
  • Khan Academy – This non-profit educational organization offers classes in the form of YouTube videos on a range of subjects and provides teachers with supplemental resources.
  • Codecademy – Learn how to code for free.
  • Skillcrush – Learn everything you need to start a career in tech — from design to UX to web development.
  • Cybrary – We especially like this resource, where for free, you can learn everything there is to learn about cyber security — from the basics to expert level.

We are lucky to be living in an age where getting an education is not a privilege only granted to a select few, as it was for millennia. But know that it comes with some risks. By using your head, you can stay safe.

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