How Continuing Education Classes Work

Many professionals such as doctors are required to take continuing education classes.
Many professionals such as doctors are required to take continuing education classes.
© Somos/Veer/Getty Images

When you go to the emergency room, you expect the doctors and nurses to have the latest information and skills available. If you need a lawyer, you want that person to be up to date on precedents, case law and trends. Change is a certainty, especially in professional fields such as medicine, law and finance. Their dynamic nature demands continuous education for the people who practice them. That's where continuing education classes come in.

In many fields, continuing education isn't an option. But, Lawyers, doctors, nurses, architects, teachers and many other licensed professionals must complete a certain number of credit hours to maintain their professional certification. Licensing boards, often set up by state government agencies, set standards and ensure that individuals comply. The license holder is responsible for finding and completing courses -- and then providing proof to the licensing agency.

Continuing education protects everyone. It protects professionals by ensuring they keep their skill sets current, preventing those skills from becoming obsolete. Professionals also have the ability to network with each other.

At the same time, continuing education protects clients by making sure the professionals they hire are proficient, competent and familiar with the latest advances in their fields. Doctors, for instance, might be required to take a continuing education course on advancements in antibiotics, increasing their knowledge about specialty drugs they might need to prescribe. Dentists, on the other hand, might learn about advances in pain control so that their patients can undergo more pain-free procedures.

Advancements would work their way into the mainstream much more slowly without continuing education, and both professionals and their clients would suffer consequently. In recent years, the growth of the Internet has resulted in the availability of online courses, which makes it easier for professionals to acquire this valuable training.

In this article, we'll talk about finding courses online, how these courses work and the pros and cons of this type of continuing education

Finding Continuing Education Classes

Continuing education classes can often be found on the Web.
Continuing education classes can often be found on the Web.
© Noel Hendrickson/Digital Vision/Getty Images

The Web is a great place to find many things, including continuing education classes. Hundreds of accredited schools, trade organizations and businesses can be found on the Internet. These facilities provide opportunities for professionals. Some online-course providers are affiliated with brick-and-mortar schools, colleges or universities. Other educational organizations, such as the University of Phoenix, exist only in cyberspace. Still other Web-based continuing education sites are run by professional organizations such as the American Bar Association (ABA) or American Medical Association (AMA).

The ABA's Web site offers scores of Web-based continuing education classes for lawyers within areas such as antitrust and tax law, as well as criminal, health and family law. Clicking on the site's Family Law subhead brings up several classes, such as dividing military pensions among survivors or the tax implications of divorce. Each course costs anywhere from $80 to $120, and provides 1.5 hours of mandatory continuing education credit. The ABA's Web site offers many courses at no cost, some of which qualify for required continuing education credit.

Individual states certify schools and organizations, like the ABA, to provide courses that meet its mandatory continuing education requirements. In Illinois, for example, the state Supreme Court sets continuing education requirements for licensed professions and has established a board to oversee those requirements. Lawyers in Illinois are required to complete 20 credit hours of continuing education courses during their first two years in practice. The number of required credit hours increases over the next few years, eventually reaching 30 credit hours for the two-year reporting period.

After completing an online course through the ABA Web site, a student fills out a confirmation form and faxes it to the ABA Center for Continuing Legal Education. The center sends back a certificate of attendance. Attorneys are expected to track their own course attendance and then provide details to the licensing board.

Beyond the Internet, local community colleges and universities offer on- and off-site, traditional, classroom-based continuing education. These offerings are listed in course catalogs and on their Web sites.

Professional associations, such as the ABA and the AMA, also can direct professionals to traditional, classroom-based continuing education courses. In addition, certain government regulatory agencies such as the Federal Drug Administration, offer information on these courses.

For many professionals, however, online is the most convenient and affordable way to go.

Taking Online Continuing Education Classes

Continuing education classes can be classroom or Web-based.
Continuing education classes can be classroom or Web-based.
© Able Images/Digital Vision/Getty Images

The roots of today's online education environment started in the early 1950s. The University of Houston's KUHT-TV became the nation's first TV station to offer educational programming for class credit.

Technology improved, making two-way interactive distance learning possible. During the 1990s, the explosive growth of the home computer and the Internet opened up new horizons for the virtual classroom, culminating in today's online, interactive learning environment.

Almost any type of class can be found online. Many professional associations, such as the AMA, offer dozens of course titles. Clicking on a course title brings up detailed information about content, structure, requirements, fees and much more. In many cases, they also offer well-organized, detailed course descriptions.

During the course search, the prospective student learns about the minimum computer system requirements needed to enroll and participate in the class. While these requirements vary, course providers cater to commonly used hardware and software. High-speed Internet connections and up-to-date operating systems are recommended. Most courses use a combination of media delivery software such as QuickTime, Microsoft PowerPoint, RealPlayer and others, plus a variety of Web browser options.

Common search engines, such as Google, can help professionals locate online classes and the schools or organizations that provide them.

Ensuring accreditation is part of a continuing education student's course search effort. Finding and successfully completing an unaccredited course -- or one without the proper accreditation -- can be a waste of time and money.

As with anything on the Internet, you should maintain an appropriate level of skepticism. If you can't find a provider's credentials, ask for them. Also, always check with your specific licensing agency to ensure that any continuing education class you take -- online or traditional -- will meet accreditation standards.

Once you've found the appropriate, properly accredited course, you can register. On most online sites, this is an easy, multi-step process similar to a traditional school. You'll have to fill out identification and registration screens and submit them. You probably also will need to provide payment at this time, so have your credit card ready.

Registering and Completing Continuing Education Classes

© Jeff Cadge/Getty Images                          Lawyers have to take continuing education classes.
© Jeff Cadge/Getty Images Lawyers have to take continuing education classes.
Jeff Cadge/Getty Images

Typically, online-course providers send students a confirming e-mail after they've submitted registration information. The course provider also might send the student a password. This password will allow the student to log in to the course site and obtain materials or participate in class. Always save this e-mail so that the password is handy. Printing it out and putting it somewhere safe may be a good idea in case your computer malfunctions.

Online classes use different structures and formats. For example, some may meet in cyberspace at an assigned time once or more per week. At that time, the class may "gather" via two-way, interactive video so that students can observe the instructor lecturing or demonstrating concepts and skills. Students can ask questions or make comments via the video link or by typing them on a screen that the instructor can see. The instructor can react to this feedback as he chooses.

Many courses use online, video and DVD streaming, combined with downloadable written materials. Some require a few actual class meetings. A good course description from an accredited school should make requirements clear.

Another popular online format eliminates the classroom setting and allows students to work at their own pace. Students review the materials online, asking questions and getting feedback from the instructor through e-mail, chat rooms or both. When students feel ready, they can take the appropriate test to demonstrate they've mastered the material.

Not all online mandatory continuing education classes for professionals include testing. When they do, providers also take different approaches to proctoring, the practice of ensuring that students take tests fairly. In some cases, students can sign up to take proctored tests at their nearest community college or university. Other providers have started using Web cameras to watch students while they take exams. Some online courses use traditional hard copy testing, in which a student takes a written test and mails it to be graded. Usually the student is responsible for making test-proctoring arrangements.

Some classes allow students to print or e-mail their certificate from their computer. In other cases, such as the ABA, the provider mails the certificate, once their attendance records are verified.

Pros and Cons of Online Continuing Education Classes

© Imagenuvi/Datacraft/Getty Images                    With online continuing education, busy professionals take classes when their schedule permits.
© Imagenuvi/Datacraft/Getty Images With online continuing education, busy professionals take classes when their schedule permits.
Imagenuvi/Datacraft/Getty Images

As we've seen, online continuing education courses offer many advantages. The courses often give more flexibility at lower cost, because the professional doesn't have to waste time and money commuting to class. For those with mobility issues related to physical limitations or transportation needs, online courses also offer advantages.

By choosing courses from the Web, professionals can choose from a larger menu of classes. They also have a better chance of finding exactly the classes they want, as well as those that are accredited and specifically meet their mandatory continuing education requirements. Professionals can also keep working while they take online courses. Tuition is usually less expensive, as well.

However, taking continuing education classes online can have a downside. While video conferencing is quite effective, communication often is best face to face. The online student may miss the nuances of information in an actual classroom. These students also can miss out on the interaction with other professionals. Networking and sharing experiences with peers over lunch and during class can be a valuable part of continuing education. Finally, technical issues can arise, sometimes at the most inopportune times. Hitting such a snag at the wrong time could jeopardize a professional's certification.

What Does the Future Hold?

Most education-trend watchers agree that online education will continue to expand. Technology continues to improve, along with connectivity. People everywhere are becoming more comfortable with and dependent on technology to pass information back and forth. Hardware and software with better interactivity are expected to make the virtual classroom experience more "real." And though few foretell the demise of the traditional classroom, online classrooms are expected to become a bigger part of the continuing education movement.

On the next page, we'll talk about the increasing number of ways to continue your education from home.

Continuing Education From Home

Home-based continuing education from home lets students obtain degrees based on their schedules.
Home-based continuing education from home lets students obtain degrees based on their schedules.
Photographer: Mihaicalin | Agency: Dreamstime

Continuing education from home -- or distance learning -- started in the 1950s via public television. But those virtual classrooms are a far cry from the accredited, interactive, Web-based programs of today. Through the Internet, a motivated scholar can earn an associate's, bachelor's, master's and even a doctorate degree online.

The Internet plays host to scores of online universities, such as the University of Phoenix, which exist in both cyberspace and campus locations. Classes range from the basics, like English and math, to advanced graduate courses such as health care strategic management.

A basic search engine brings students basic information on these Web-based schools and their many programs. However, when considering a class, make sure to examine the school's accreditation credentials. Reputable Web-based and traditional colleges make these easy to spot.

In addition, a large number of traditional universities have active and growing distance-learning programs. The Associated Press reported in late 2006 that one in every six students enrolled in higher education took at least one online course the previous fall. The 40 percent growth that number represented seemed to alleviate fears that online course enrollment was leveling off. Many universities are continuing to invest heavily in online course offerings, the report said [source: USA Today].

Students can attend classes from the comfort of their home, though sometimes they must pick up study materials at the school or bookstore and travel to the university to take exams. Such institutions usually already are accredited and have offices where students can easily track down answers, giving prospective students less to worry about.

Just like cyberspace-based institutions, most brick-and-mortar colleges and universities make it easy for students to browse course listings and register for class. The University of Illinois, for example, created University of Illinois Online, a Web site that allows students to search for courses by subject area, keyword, level and other ways. It also allows students to register by acquiring a login ID and pin number and proceeding to an online registration form where the applicant types in basic identification, address and educational background and test scores information. The applicant also can choose to download the application, fill it out and mail it in to the university.

With research companies reporting growing numbers of students who plan to take online courses, Internet-based students can look forward to easier access, better selection and improved content in their online classrooms.

Check out the next page to find out about the variety of options available for continuing education.

Continuing Education Options

Online continuing education classes
Online continuing education classes
Stockbyte/Getty Images

You don't have to be a professional looking for continuing education to take advantage of the countless accredited classes offered through Web-based schools. If you're looking to start a new career and need to earn a certificate, or if you're interested in acquiring a new skill, chances are you can find a class on the Internet.

Finding continuing education options online isn't difficult. A report released this spring by Eduventures, a leading research and consulting firm for the education industry, found that 37 percent of the 163 institutions surveyed offered noncredit programs. Many of the surveyed institutions also plan to increase online generic credentials, particularly among noncredit and certificate courses.

And more people are taking courses online. A 2006 survey by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation looked at more than 2,200 colleges and universities and found almost 3.2 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall of 2005, a large increase over the 2.3 million who reported doing so the previous year.

Online continuing education offers a variety of options in the way such courses are offered and course topics. Some Web sites, such as, provide a directory of online courses at dozens of schools. You can also easily conduct a Web search by course, interest or school. These education options allow non-degree-seeking students, part-time students or the lifelong learner to enrich their lives without leaving home.

For instance, some careers, such as real estate broker, require certificates to pursue. A student might choose to study for a real estate broker's license by taking online continuing education classes such as real estate marketing, appraisal and real property law. Such courses of study, which can last one to three years, generally allow individuals to earn a certificate while preparing for a state licensure test.

Many colleges and universities also offer multiple courses aimed at teaching people to start their own business and market it on the Web. There are also classes in Web site design, graphics, digital photography, video and personal development. Or, classes are available in landscaping, arts and crafts, personal health and fitness, or other health-related areas.

There are many specialized continuing education options, as well. For example, emergency service workers can take the online course offered by federal and state government agencies. These agencies offer dozens of courses in areas such as hazardous materials response, scene command structure and rescue operations and awareness. Such courses often can be found on government sites, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or at fire and rescue training academies.

Those students who are already settled in a career can enhance their chances for advancement by examining their online continuing education options. Someone in the construction business, for example, might supplement their skills by taking a course in home inspection that prepares them to take a state licensure exam. An information technologist might be interested in courses that will certify them as system engineers or administrators on certain software platforms.

Whether beginning student or experienced professional, the options for continuing education are seemingly endless.

For more information about continuing education and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links