My company is a leading provider of technology and services that enable online continuing education (CE). From that perspective, you could assume a bias towards certain kinds of CE. On the other (less cynical) hand, I have been exposed to a tremendous amount of online professional continuing education over the years. From this perspective, I would like to offer a few things to consider when shopping for professional continuing education:

Tip 1: You get what you pay for (and sometimes you get much more than you pay for)

I was doing a bit of online research this week and I came across a CE site that offered an all-you-can-eat type CE scenario. You pay a small fee—an amount less than dinner for two at a mid-priced restaurant—to get access to CE content for one year. Honestly, it made me wonder how much of the content was up to par. I’m not saying that you couldn’t find some quality CE content among the offerings, I don’t know for sure, but I had to question what I would be getting for my money. It reminded me of the way radio stations bundle air time for advertisers. In order to get the two “drive-time” slots you want, you have to buy three a.m. on Sunday and two a.m. on Monday—times when almost no one will be listening.

My suggestion is to vet offers carefully to make sure you know what you’re buying. And, vetting should go beyond the basic content of the course. Look at the way it’s being delivered (you can waste a lot of time trying to take a course delivered via sub-par technology); make sure, in the case of content for certification, that it’s accredited by the organization responsible for overseeing your certification; and review any participant references they have as well as their tech support capabilities.  If it turns out that you’re getting what you need, great.

Personally, I would look to professional organizations if you’re looking for good value. I consider them to be the “you get more than you pay for” scenario. They are well-versed in certification requirements (and often responsible for them). They are non-profit organizations set up specifically to serve members—so prices are very reasonable, and they typically have the resources to get or create high-quality CE content for whatever group of professionals they serve.

Tip 2: Time (in the case of CE) is actually money

Online CE was created to make it easier for busy people to access the continuing education they need where, when, and how it is most convenient.  This is a wonderful thing for professionals who lack time and, in many cases, need to focus on client hours.  CE would be very expensive for professionals, like lawyers and accountants, if they were forced to participate in courses at the expense of billable hours. In the past, there wasn’t a lot of choice. Courses (especially when required for certification) were in-person events held at a “central” location. It took a while for in-person events to transition online. CE organizations had to trust that technology would ensure reasonable participation and completion of courses.

Now that online is an accepted way to participate in CE, consumers need to make sure that CE providers use state-of-the-art technology to ensure a quick, quality, no-hassle experience. I find it interesting how quickly things have evolved—first, providers of online courses focused on the ability to save participants time that was calculated in days. Now they are focused on the quality of delivery, saving additional time, and providing more convenience by offering better and better (register, attend, test, and certify) technology.

Tip3: Gain can be achieved without pain

CE may be a requirement for you, but that doesn’t mean it has to be painful. Earlier, I mentioned state-of-the-art technology. Let me delve into this a bit more. When I talk about state-of-art technology, I don’t mean engineering for engineering’s sake. I’m referring to technology that gets the job done behind the scenes while making it easier for the participant to accomplish what they need to accomplish. This includes ease of finding the right content, ease of registration, ease of participation, and ease of proving completion, all on the device of your choice at the time and place of your choice.

Is it any wonder that the latest version of the iPhone is impossible to get right now? Power at your fingertips, but there is no need to know how it works… it just works. It’s a very attractive idea. It’s the same with online CE. You should be able to get the CE you need on the device of your choice without a huge technology learning curve or the need to be a technology expert. Add access to round the clock tech support (because there will always be times when you have questions) and you have no pain CE.

Tip 4: The grass may be greener on the other side, but the CE you need is in your backyard

Most professionals don’t have to look far beyond the organizations they are familiar with, or already members of, to find the CE they need. Professional organizations are a good place to start when you’re looking for CE, CME, CPE, CLE, etc. Begin with your state organization or look to your national organization to direct you to local resources. There are also a number of quality CE content providers who have been in business for many years. They are accredited by state agencies and sometimes provide course content to professional organizations as well as offer courses directly to professionals.

Tip 5 Distance learning is anything but …distant

There is a plethora of quality CE content out there, if you know how to find it. Check state requirements regarding the number of online CE hours allowed.  It varies, with many forward-thinking states allowing 100% online (It’s likely they will all end up there at some point). You may still be required to attend some live events, but it only makes sense to take advantage of online CE when possible. It’s just too easy to sit down at your computer and take a course, attend a live event remotely, download content to your iPod, etc.  And, unless your organization is the exception and has a huge travel budget, they will appreciate it.

These five simple points should help you enhance your online CE experience.