When lockdown started, we were all bombarded online with encouraging words from course providers, colleges and training companies, begging us to use the quarantine period to develop our skills, knowledge and learning. But with so many courses and training opportunities being advertised at very low prices or even free, how do you know which course is right for you? 
 
This blog will explain some of the key questions to ask when you’re searching for a course to make sure that, if you do decide to spend your lockdown time learning, you’re choosing one that is a good use of your time and that you’re going to end up with the qualification or knowledge that you want. 
Last week, Reed.co.uk, who we advertise our courses with, told us that since the start of lockdown, queries for online courses on their site were up by 300% and queries via Google for online courses have doubled. So people are really thinking about improving their knowledge at this time! But why does it have to be so confusing? Today alone on my Facebook feed, I’ve seen adverts for free courses, courses that promise CPD points, courses that are super-cheap but if you want your certificate at the end you need to pay an extra £10 for the PDF version and £20 for the printed version (why would I want a course with no certificate?!), courses that are free but only if you live in Somerset and courses that have accredited and non-accredited options. And that’s just today. So let’s look at some questions to ask when you’re looking to study. 
What do you want to achieve from studying? 
This is one of the most important questions to answer before you start looking for a course. Are you looking for a qualification to add to your CV? Do you need a particular qualification for work or a job you’d like to do? Or do you just want to increase your knowledge or skills? Sometimes it won’t matter if you get a qualification from the course you’ve done. But more on this later. Maybe you’re studying now because you want to see if you enjoy a topic that you’re considering studying at a higher level later. For example, maybe you want to do a taster course in Mental Health Awareness because you’re considering a career longer term in Mental Health nursing. Whatever you want to do, the first thing you should think about is what you want out of the course you end up choosing. 
What is the difference between accredited and non-accredited courses? 
An accredited course is one that has been approved by an awarding body. There are loads of awarding bodies out there, for example Open College Network, City and Guilds, NCFE, AQA… If you’re doing an accredited course, no matter which training company you do it through, the qualification you get at the end should be the same.  
 
For example, three people could do the same business administration course but each of them could do it through a different organisation. The way that they study is likely to be different – so one could do distance learning, one in a classroom and one could do a combination of distance and classroom learning (blended learning) but the qualification should be the same at the end. 
 
An accredited qualification should be recognised by any employer. It doesn’t matter who you have studied with: it’s the qualification that counts. 
 
You might choose a non-accredited course if you simply want to increase your knowledge and don’t need a specific qualification. The mental health awareness example we used earlier is useful here. Other examples of courses that don’t need to be accredited include topics such as equality and diversity, fire safety, employability training or basic computer training. 
 
The problem with non-accredited courses is that, unlike with accredited courses, there are no particular standards the course needs to meet. This sometimes means it might not meet the standards of employers or even insurers, in certain industries such as beauty. For example, if you’re looking to open your own beauty salon and spend hundreds of pounds on training that you think is accredited only to later find that the certificates are simply in-house training certificates, you may well find it impossible to get insurance to carry out treatments in your salon. 
 
This is why it’s important to know first what YOU and your future plans want and need from your training before booking anything. If you know your insurance requires accredited training, you can check with the course provider whether the training you’re doing is accredited before you pay. 
How can I tell if a course is accredited? 
OFQUAL is the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation. It is a non-ministerial government department that regulates qualifications, exams and tests in England. If a course is accredited, it should be on the OFQUAL register, which is easily found by Googling ‘Ofqual register’, or just use this link. Simply use the search box on the website and check that your course is on there. 
 
Any provider advertising a course should know if the course is accredited and should be making it obvious on their advert, so you could just ask them if they haven’t made it clear. However, where it gets slightly confusing is when providers are offering parts of courses or where they want you to pay for the accredited part of the course separately. These sorts of discrepancies make the difference between a course being exactly what you’re looking for and exactly what you should avoid. Always ask if it isn’t clear. 
What are CPD points? 
CPD stands for Continuing Professional Development. We all need to keep our CPD up to date: it doesn’t matter what we do for a job! However, in some careers it is more important than in others: for example, teachers and nurses are required to carry out a certain number of CPD hours every year. Many other organisations also ask this of their employees as standard. 
 
CPD doesn’t just mean going on training. It means tracking and documenting the skills, knowledge and experience that you gain both formally and informally as you work, beyond any initial training. Reading, job shadowing, attending conferences, keeping reflective journals and of course attending training all count towards CPD. 
 
Here’s where it gets a bit more complicated though. Some courses will be listed with a number of CPD points, CPD hours or CPD credits. 
 
An example of this could be 1-day accredited CPD training course on the topic of Managing Conflict. If the training starts at 10am and ends at 4pm, with a 1 hour break, the CPD Hours would be 5 CPD hours. Most organisations use CPD hours to measure CPD and 
1 hour usually equals 1 credit. So this course would equal 5 CPD credits. 
 
You can also get CPD accredited courses. The CPD Certification Service is the independent CPD accreditation centre working across all sectors, disciplines and further learning applications. They formally accredit many of the courses and sessions you might attend to keep your CPD up to date. 
 
This is confusing because you might see a course advertised that is accredited by CPD; another that is listed as having CPD points attached and another with “ideal as CPD” in its description! 
Why is this course so cheap? 
Cheap courses are always appealing… at a first glace. But again, I refer to the first question: what do you want from your course? There are only a few reasons why a course is cheap – and by cheap, we are talking anything under £150, depending on what the course is – and here are some of those reasons: 
 
It is already funded by another means – this is a good reason for a course to be cheap or free. Some level 1 or 2 courses are free to the learner if the learner meets certain criteria because the course provider is able to draw down funding from another source. Level 3 courses are less likely to be funded. Always check whether there are any hidden costs to you, even if the course is listed as free, such as whether you have to pay for your certificate or registration. 
 
It isn’t accredited – if a course isn’t accredited then a course provider can make it fairly cheap because there are less likely to be assessments that a tutor will need to mark, so what you’re paying for really are the course materials rather than tutor time. There also won’t be any registration or certification costs for the training provider, which in turn means a cheaper course for you. But, again, what do you want from your course? Just learning? If so, carry on. A cheap, non-accredited course may be fine. 
 
It’s not very good – one of the main things you’re paying for when you buy a course is your tutor. The more tutor time you have, the more your course is likely to cost. If you have a good, experienced tutor, the course is less likely to be cheap because a good tutor won't come for free! It’s easy to make online courses that give automated feedback or results cheap because the work is already done. If you want something a bit more bespoke with robust feedback written for you personally, you may need to pay more. 
Why is this course so expensive? 
Firstly, is it expensive or is it more than you want to pay? It can be tempting to think that all courses should be £29, which is the price that so many of them are listed as at the moment! But a decent, accredited course will come with its own costs that the training provider has to meet, such as registration with an awarding body (which can cost anything from £300 - £1000 per year), individual registration and certification so that you can receive your certificate (can be anything from £10 - £75 per registration), postage, printing, venues (if a classroom course) a tutor, an internal quality assurer… ultimately most training providers are businesses so it makes no sense to offer a course that makes no money whatsoever – or worse still, runs at a loss. 
 
The bigger your course, the more expensive it is likely to be. Accredited courses are now delivered as Awards (the shortest, smallest qualification), Certificates (bigger than an Award) and Diplomas (the biggest). A diploma will almost always be more expensive than an Award or Certificate because there is more that you need to do (and more that the tutor needs to mark) for you to achieve your qualification. 
 
If you’re going for a classroom course this will also be more expensive than distance learning – again because there are more costs associated with this type of learning. 
 
This said, sometimes training providers will overcharge for courses in the same way that there will always be places that overcharge for goods and services. If you’re not sure, shop around. Websites such as Reed have so many courses listed it is easy to see if your chosen course is more or less expensive than others. 
 
Just make sure you’re comparing like for like: if a distance learning course is £150 with one provider but the classroom version is £700 elsewhere, that’s not necessarily overpriced. But if you’re comparing two identical classroom courses, one of which is £700 and the other is over £1000 then you may be about to be overcharged. 
Should I study via distance learning or in a classroom? 
Yes, we're referring to the first question again: what is it that you want from your course? 
 
Do you know your learning style? We use this questionnaire in our courses to find out how our learners prefer to study. 
 
Generally, if you’re in a practical job and liked practical subjects at school, you’re more likely to be a kinaesthetic learner, which means you learn better by doing. If you’ve got this far in this article, you may be more of a read/write learner, which means you may enjoy distance learning. 
 
While your learning style is important, preferring to learn in a certain way doesn’t mean you can’t learn in another way. If you’re practical but need to do distance learning because that is what your budget or circumstances will allow, you may not enjoy the course as much but it shouldn’t mean that you won’t be able to do it. That said, it is advisable to go with what your learning style wants because you’re much more likely to achieve your full potential if you learn in a way that is enjoyable to you. But that isn’t always possible, particularly as an adult learner with many other commitments! 
When will I get my certificate? 
Maybe you’re in no rush but it’s always good to find out when to expect it. Often with a non-accredited course, you’ll get your certificate of completion (which isn’t a qualification) straight away. Sometimes you’ll need to download it and sometimes it will be posted to you. Check if there are any additional costs there. 
 
When a training provider has direct claim status, their awarding body has deemed them have excellent quality assurance procedures. It means the awarding body trusts the training provider to make the right assessment decisions with minimal supervision. From a student’s point of view, it means you can get your certificates really quickly because, as soon as you finish your course, your tutor should be able to claim for your certificate. When an organisation doesn’t have direct claim status, there is likely to be some delay because they will need to wait until someone from their awarding body has been out to check their files. Normally this happens once or twice a year, so if you finish your course in February but their visit was in January, you may not get your certificate until July or even the following January! 
 
So check this. Ask if they have direct claim status with their awarding body and, if not, how long you’ll have to wait for your certificate. 
What happens if it goes wrong? 
Whatever you choose, check your course provider’s terms and conditions: do they have a cooling off period? If you’ve chosen distance learning, this is especially important. Even if you’re not intending to start the course straight away, make sure you look through the learning materials when you get them and see if you understand them and want to continue. Your course provider may have a short cooling-off period and if you leave it and don’t like the content, you could lose all of your money. 
 
We at SKL Training are advertising like mad during lockdown: while primarily we are a face to face training company, we also offer lots of distance learning options and, as a small, independent business, we are extremely keen to still be in a position to trade once all of this is over. If you’re thinking of doing a course, have a look at what we have available. We’ll always be honest with you about whether a course is right for you and if we don’t have the course you’re looking for, we’ll help you find someone who does.  
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