Online Humanities Classes: Credit and Non-Credit Options

Online humanities class student studying
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Most bachelor of science and bachelor of arts degrees require coursework in the humanities. In some situations, taking a course online can be a good option. Be sure to be thoughtful when choosing classes—some subjects can be taught online better than others, and credits for online humanities classes don't always transfer.

Key Takeaways: Online Humanities Classes

  • If you want to earn college credit, always take online classes from accredited non-profit colleges and universities.
  • Before signing up for an online class, ask the college you attend or plan to attend whether they will accept the credits from that class.
  • Free online humanities classes generally cannot be used for college credit, but edX, Coursera, and other MOOC providers offer excellent courses for self-enrichment.

What Are the Humanities?

In simple terms, the humanities focus on the human experience. Through the study of history, language, literature, religion, philosophy, and other dimensions of culture, students learn about those who have come before them, and those who inhabit their world today.

At the heart of a humanities education is the idea of critical thinking. Through careful analysis, students learn to raise important questions, assess information, make well-supported arguments, and draw thoughtful conclusions about complex issues. Humanities students need to have nimble and open minds as they interrogate their assumptions and explore the implications of their arguments.

Colleges and universities require humanities classes not because a knowledge of Jane Austen or medieval art will make a better doctor, lawyer, or social worker (although a knowledge of history and cultural complexity certainly can help in many professions). Rather, the critical thinking, problem solving, writing, and communication skills taught in the humanities are invaluable for any profession. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, requires all students to take eight humanities courses because the requirement results in more informed, creative, and articulate scientists and engineers.

Who Should Take Online Humanities Classes?

No online class provides the experience of a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom, but they do have many advantages such as convenience, accessibility, and in many cases, cost. Online classes make a lot of sense for certain groups:

  • High school students looking to earn some college class credits when Advanced Placement courses in the subject aren't available at their school.
  • College students who are trying to graduate early, or who need to earn extra credits to graduate on time. An online class during winter term or the summer can help accelerate their progress.
  • Working adults looking to further their educations in area such as writing or a foreign language. For adults who aren't looking for college credit, there are some excellent free online options.

The Best Subjects for Online Humanities Classes

The humanities are broad, covering literature and classics, ancient and modern languages, philosophy, religion, history, writing, and geography. The term does not include studio arts such as painting and drawing, or performing arts such as acting, dance, and musical performance. However, topics such as theater history, art history, and musicology do fall under the humanities umbrella. At some colleges, subjects such as anthropology and political science are also grouped with the humanities.

Online course delivery has many challenges. Modern languages, for example, are best taught when students converse frequently with their peers and professor. Both creative writing and expository writing can be taught more effectively with frequent peer review of student work. College literature and philosophy classes often include a heavy element of classroom discussion and debate. Online environments can be created to handle some of these challenges, but they will often rely on real-time video conferencing and time-sensitive contributions to online forums. These requirements remove some of the convenience and flexibility of online courses.

When it comes to the best subjects to study online, the decision really comes down to the quality of the individual course and the likelihood that the credits for the course will transfer to your college. Topics that are most likely to transfer are broad introductory courses that will earn general education credits. For example:

  • College Writing
  • Introduction to Philosophy
  • Introduction to World Religions
  • Music Theory
  • Introduction to Film Studies

Which Course Provider Is Best?

One great advantage of online classes is that you can truly shop around. Since you'll be taking the class from your home computer, the college offering the classes can be anywhere. A few factors you'll want to consider when shopping for classes include:

  • Cost: You'll find courses that are free and ones that cost a thousand dollars per credit hour. Most free options are unlikely to transfer to your college. In general, you should be able to find a quality online class for a few hundred dollars.
  • Accreditation: If you are looking for self-enrichment only, courses from for-profit companies may work for you. However, if you want to earn college credit or impress admissions officers, be sure to take your online classes from accredited, non-profit colleges and universities.
  • Transfer Credits: If you are looking to receive college credit for your online class, make sure the credits will transfer to the college you attend or plan to attend. Don't take the word of the college offering the class—ask the registrar at your own university. Find out they accept any outside credits, as well as whether the credits will count for the specific class you plan to take. In most cases, you will receive unassigned elective credits that may not help much towards graduation requirements.

    You have a lot of choices when it comes to course providers, and the best option is going to depend upon your individual situation. Possibilities include:

    • Dual Enrollment Classes: If your high school has a dual enrollment program with a local community college or four-year institution, this can be an excellent option. The class will count towards your high school requirements, and it will also earn college credit. These arrangements are often an excellent value, and you may pay just $100 or so for a course. A dual enrollment course can be even better than an Advanced Placement course, for it is a true college class.
    • Community College: When it comes to value, community colleges do well. Tuition per credit hour is far less than both public and private four-year institutions. Depending on the state, you can expect to pay between $50 and $200 per credit hour. Even if you're taking a class at a school in a different state, you are likely to find the cost is less than at four-year institutions. Also, many community colleges have articulation agreements with four-year state universities, so your credits are likely to transfer within your state.
    • The College You Plan to Attend: If you're a high school student and you know where you want to attend college, see if the school offers online classes that are open to you. You may find that winter and summer sessions have the most flexibility. The advantage to this approach is that a college will always accept credits from its own courses.

      Free Options for Online Humanities Courses

      Free online classes rarely come with college credit. However, these opportunities are worth noting because many of the courses are offered by top colleges and universities:

      • Coursera: Coursera is a provider of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). In the humanities category, you will find classes including Introduction to Philosophy, English Composition, Creative Writing, and Music Theory. You can audit classes for free, or pay a monthly fee to get access to graded assignments and earn a certificate for course completion. Courses are taught by accomplished professors and specialists.
      • edX: On edX, you can take free classes from top schools like Harvard University, Dartmouth College, and UC Berkeley. Most edX classes will not provide college credit (though some will, in certain circumstances), but the classes are still great for exploring your interests and potential college majors.

      You may find a few situations in which Coursera, edX, and other MOOC-based certifications do earn college credit. You will also find that some colleges use Coursera or edX content to create credit-bearing courses.