How to Decide if You Should Pay to Learn to Code Online

What to consider when searching for the right tech education program for you

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These days, you can learn just about anything you want online — whether it’s building a birdhouse or learning to play guitar. You can even learn to code. The global crisis has motivated many people to get digital skills and start working in tech. There is a huge amount of free coding content available, so it can be tough to decide if you should pay to learn to code online.

There’s a lot to consider. First off, is it actually possible to get a good education online? And if it is, how do you know whether you should invest money in online coding classes and bootcamps, especially when there are options like Codecademy where you can learn for free?

In this article, I’ll break down what questions to ask yourself and what to look for in an online coding program…before you open your wallet.

Table of Contents:


Why online education is so huge

According to a Research and Markets report from December 2019, online education will be a $350 billion industry by 2025. Throw the COVID-19 crisis into the mix, where everyone is turning to digital spaces for just about everything, and that dollar amount may end up increasing.

Course Report’s Coding Bootcamps in 2020 guide notes that in 2019, there was a 171% increase in the amount of students graduating from full-time online coding bootcamps, which is a higher growth rate than those graduating from in-person bootcamps. And this number only takes into account 14 full-time, instructor-led bootcamps. It doesn’t include the number of students taking advantage of free classes or other self-guided online classes (like Skillcrush, for example).

The popularity of online learning isn’t surprising, even in non-pandemic times. Online learning means you can learn without ever having to leave your home, and you can learn at any time of the day that’s convenient for you. Online learning can also be more cost-effective, depending on the program.

Is online learning effective?

So we know that online education is extremely popular. And we know that its popularity is growing. But it’s even more important to know whether or not it’s effective. Does online learning actually work?

According to Forbes, a 2018 Learning House, Inc. study showed that “85% of students who had previously enrolled in both face-to-face and online courses felt their online experience was either the same or better than the classroom course.” And, 37% of them thought that online learning was a better experience.

The article also mentions a recent Gallup study that compared student outcomes at Western Governors University (WGU), an online institution, to student outcomes from those who attended in-person schools. The results showed that the graduates of WGU had a full-time employment rate almost 20 percentage points higher than the national average. Plus, the WGU graduates were “nearly twice as likely to be thriving in their wellbeing, and were more likely to be engaged employees.”

Not only that, but out of all the institutions Gallup measured, WGU had the highest satisfaction ratings in terms of whether or not they had a mentor who encouraged them. It suggests that a great mentorship relationship can exist outside of in-person education.

Alexander M. Kehoe, Co-founder and Operations Director of the web design agency Caveni, had this to say about learning tech skills online:

“We’ve found that many of our most effective team members are at least partially self-taught from online sources. Those on our team that have a more traditional experience also seem to have supplemented that experience heavily with online learning…[it’s] is the norm in our industry and I suspect many others in our field have similar experiences.”

That’s true for us here at Skillcrush, too, where our hiring managers often don’t even look at whether or not a candidate has a degree from a university. It’s much more important to us to look at a candidate’s actual skillset, what they say in their job interview, and their portfolio and professional online presence.

All of that said, your personal success largely depends on knowing what you specifically need from a course, and finding the right program that matches those needs. This will help you avoid any pitfalls that might get in the way of your success.

So, how do you decide what kind of coding education is right for you?

But should YOU pay to learn to code online?

When deciding whether or not to pay for online coding classes, one of the main factors to consider is your objective. What is your career goal? What do you want your life to look like? What is success for you?

Do you want…

  • A total career change?
  • To supplement your income with a side job or freelance work?
  • To level up in your current position?
  • To change the way you’re working—for example, do you want to work remotely, part-time, or at a different type of company?
  • To make this change as quickly as possible, or is slow and steady better for you?

So the real question isn’t, “Should I pay to learn to code?”

It’s, “What does success look like for me, and will I have to pay for that?”

Let’s dive in a bit more.

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What to look for in a virtual classroom

Once you know what your goal is, you have to think about what conditions will help you achieve that goal so you can set yourself up for success. And while course curriculum is important, that’s not the only thing you should look for in a virtual classroom.

As Skillcrush curriculum writer Blair Mishleau explains,

Of course [curriculum] is huge when looking at online courses, but I think sometimes students forget to think about the support they’ll get and the type of projects they’ll complete. A lot of online classes are simply video tutorials. If a student gets stuck or needs more guidance, they’re mostly on their own. So I’d really focus on the trifecta of course content, projects, and the types of support the company is offering.

When considering if an online learning environment will support your needs, think about your learning style, and what atmosphere and features will help you learn best.

Self-guided vs community-supported classes

If you’ve already started learning to code online for free, chances are, you’re pretty self-motivated. But that doesn’t mean that a supportive community won’t help you achieve your goals faster. So how do you decide if you can learn to code independently for free or if it’s worth it to pay for some personal attention?

Think about it this way:

Do you feel more comfortable figuring things out on your own through lots of googling, reading, and going deep into online forums? Or are you someone who needs some feedback, guidance, encouragement, and maybe even just a kick-in-the-pants every now and then?

Knowing which environment brings out the best in you will point you towards community-supported or self-guided learning choices. And, if you’re an “ambivert”, you’ll know to look for a program that offers both collaboration and independence to play to both sides of your personality.

More about self-guided tech education

Self-guided study is often free, which is one of the best reasons to go that route, if it works for you.

Examples of self-guided tech education include:

  • Working through self-guided free classes like those from Codecademy, freeCodeCamp, or Coursera (which offers classes from top universities that you can audit for free)
  • Learning independently through Internet research and free tutorials, including YouTube videos
  • Using a good old-fashioned beginner coding book (or e-book) like HTML & CSS: Design and Build Websites by Jon Duckett or Eloquent JavaScript by Marijn Haverbeke

self-guided options when you pay to learn to code online

If you’re very organized and don’t mind doing some digging to find answers to your questions, the self-guided route could be right for you. More than that, if you already have some experience in tech and know what you need to learn (and in what order), self-guided learning could be a good fit. It will mean deciding what you’re learning and when, along with evaluating your own progress and being strict with yourself about meeting your goals.

The cons of self-guided learning when getting started in tech? This option is the most demanding and requires you to keep yourself on schedule and constantly motivated. If you face any challenges, you’ll have to be able to get yourself back on track. You’ll also have to be careful that you don’t stay stuck too long on certain topics or move through them before you’ve really learned what you need to know.

But if you’re a lone wolf and are able to be tough with yourself, the good news is that self-guided options are more likely to be free! (including our free Coding Camp)!

And, all of that said, even if you choose to go with a more supportive learning experience, you’ll still be able to learn independently outside of class.

A self-guided learning platform is a good idea if you:

  • Know what to learn and in what order
  • Are motivated and positive
  • Work best independently and without external feedback
  • Are supplementing knowledge you already have


What community-supported tech education looks like

Of course you can search StackOverflow in lonely desperation (okay, I love StackOverflow, but you DO need humans sometimes!) or stare endlessly at your code wondering why it just returns error messages. But sometimes getting an explanation from an expert or feedback from other learners is what you need.

That’s where community-supported tech education comes in. Community-supported learning options usually cost money, because they require a team of experts to answer your questions and moderate the virtual classroom.

community supported environment when you pay to learn to code online
Examples of community-supported learning include:

  • Taking courses at a college or university
  • An online tech education program like Skillcrush

Why go with a community-supported option? Even if you love all things tech, it doesn’t mean you’re a complete robot. You want to discuss and debate, and who doesn’t need some encouragement and understanding every now and then? That’s why having fellow students and instructors to learn with and to learn from can be so valuable.

In-person classes or bootcamps come with this option built in because you have to literally sit in a classroom together (or, you did, before the pandemic). But, nowadays online platforms make it possible to learn with others without going to an actual building.

Online tools can take the place of classrooms, lecture halls, and office hours. For example, online student forums on Slack and Facebook, email support, live video chats on Zoom, and even online career counseling are just some of the ways you can have a community when you’re learning to code online.

So, distance — or even time zones — won’t stand in your way if you want a network to support you through your education and beyond.

Another reason to try community-supported learning is that the contacts you’ll make are valuable in themselves, beyond the classroom. That’s why it’s smart to start building relationships with others in tech while you’re still studying. That gif-loving student living on the other side of the globe might be your classmate today, but she could be your teammate tomorrow. In fact, we see students working together on client projects all the time here at Skillcrush.

Most community-driven experiences cost money, but there are a lot of options to choose from, including full-time developer bootcamps, like General Assembly (which offers online and in-person options) and online community-oriented programs, like Skillcrush.

Community-supported courses are a good option if you:

  • Love collaborating and learning from others
  • Like talking out problems and seeing multiple ways of solving problems
  • Aren’t sure where to start and need guidance
  • Don’t have local (or digital) connections in the tech world and need to meet other developers

How do you know if a program is community-supported? Be on the lookout for elements like:

  • A thriving Slack community or other online forum where both instructors and students are active
  • Individual feedback on your work from instructors
  • Video, live chat, and/or email support where you can ask questions and receive timely responses

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Evaluative or not?

Just because you’re learning online doesn’t mean you should miss out on the benefits of a teacher-student relationship, and that includes getting feedback on your work from an instructor. But most free programs don’t offer much in the way of one-on-one feedback.

At Skillcrush, for instance, you have the opportunity to submit several projects per class to your instructor for direct feedback. Your instructor will look over these “Feedback Challenges” and provide any tips and suggestions to you through email so you’ll know how to keep moving forward as you continue learning.

As Skillcrush WordPress Instructor Ann Cascarano explains,

Receiving feedback on your code is an instrumental part of your learning process as a developer. An instructor can meet you where you are and give you suggestions and pointers to help you improve in incremental ways, allowing you to grow without overwhelming you.

When you’re working on a project, especially as a newbie, you may not recognize tiny mistakes or realize there are fixes you could make so the work is easier for you to complete. And that’s where an experienced instructor comes in. “There are many moving parts to a development project,” Ann says. “And feedback can provide guidance in finding small errors, honing in on the details, and seeing the overall bigger picture and how your code fits in that context.”

With an instructor evaluating your projects, you can be sure the work you’re doing is accurate and that it’s done in an efficient way.

To determine if a coding program is evaluative, ask if personalized feedback is part of the class experience before you sign up. Sometimes grades can be generated automatically, so make sure to ask if you’ll get one-on-one evaluation from an instructor or teaching assistant.

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Curated lessons vs. one-off classes

Another element to look for in a virtual classroom is the work that went into the course materials. Some courses are designed as “one-offs” that cover a specific topic, and that’s it. Other courses are designed to work together as part of a program, and take into account your larger journey in tech, from beginner to job-hunter.

If you’re simply wanting to learn a new skill or two for fun, you should be able to find one-off classes for free that fit the bill. But what if you want to make a total career change and you’re brand new to tech with no idea where to start?

It can be difficult to know whether or not you’re picking classes that will teach you the right skills — the skills you need to get hired. You’ll also want to make sure your classes give you the opportunity to work on real-world projects that you can add to your portfolio, which will be key to getting jobs in tech, either as a freelancer or at a company.

Furthermore, if you want to be able to change careers as quickly as possible, paying someone else to design a learning plan for you can really pay off. With a program that has a strong curriculum, you won’t have to worry about digging through endless amounts of free classes to find the ones that will — fingers crossed — teach you the right skills. Not only will you save time searching for the right classes, but you also won’t have to worry about wasting time taking lessons that don’t actually end up teaching you what you need. And you won’t have to worry you’re wasting time on out-of-date or fringe tech skills that won’t help your career.

As Blair says, “When you buy a Skillcrush course, you’re not just buying information about coding or design. Rather, you’re getting an experience that was built from the ground up to be beginner-friendly.” As a beginner, the last thing you want to worry about is trying to understand confusing tech jargon while learning.

“We are laser-focused on the core skills our students need to find work in their field,” says Blair. “We take care to not teach superfluous skills, and to ensure our class projects demonstrate the skills employers and freelance clients are looking for.”

Plus, you’ll want to easily be able to build upon the skills you learn in your first class without having gaps in knowledge. Blair explains, “Our lessons and classes build on each other, giving you a smoother experience compared to trying to learn on your own. ”

Even if you’re more of a self-guided learner, getting the direction from step-by-step lessons alongside a supportive community can be helpful. “Look for content that you can work through at your own pace, so you can work independently, as quickly or slowly as you’d like,” Blair says. “You’ll have help there if you need it, but you can complete the thoughtfully-designed classes on your own, too.”

When determining if a class has been curated well for beginners in tech, look for these factors:

  • Courses that start at the very beginning of the learning process, without any prerequisites required
  • A step-by-step program of classes to follow, with lessons that build upon one another
  • Project-based classes that allow you to build your skills through real-world practice
  • Classes created together by BOTH curriculum experts who can make learning easier AND industry professionals who can offer their expertise and ensure that the content is both accurate and relevant in today’s world

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Career support or not?

If you’re looking for a complete career change, getting career support may be critical to meeting your goals with online learning. And this kind of support doesn’t have to happen in person.

Whether it’s job search assistance or resume and portfolio review, having an expert to individually guide you can make the career change process so much smoother.

Some virtual programs even offer one-on-one career counseling through video chat. During the private sessions we offer at Skillcrush, you have the opportunity to speak with a career counselor, tailoring the conversation around your specific needs and the challenges you’re facing.

Erin Denton, one of Skillcrush’s career counselors, explains it like this:

When I do career counseling with students we talk about their background, previous experience, goals, and anything else going on in their life. This helps set a foundation for how to forge a path forward that makes sense for the individual, because a winding path into tech is SUPER normal. We figure out which direction to go, what to learn, and even help prepare for interviews and the job search. Also if they have a dog or cat I must meet them!

You may see some coding bootcamps boast about their impressive job placement rates. But what you should really be looking at is the amount of individual support the program provides to help you land a job you really want and not just any job that will boost their placement rates (which unfortunately occurs quite often!).

Everyone transitioning into the tech world is coming from a completely different situation. So having personalized support will help you know exactly what you need to do to be prepared to make the switch.

To determine if a program offers career support:

  • Ask if the program includes curriculum on topics like getting ready for the job marketing and interviewing
  • Ask if you’ll be able to spend time one-on-one with a career counselor or mentor
  • Read the fine print when it comes to placement rates (watch out for fudged numbers, misleading promises, and bad deals like income share agreements)

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When you should pay to learn to code online

Let’s recap. When exactly does it and does it not make sense for you to put up the money and pay to learn to code online?

You should pay to learn to code if you:

  1. Know you want to make a complete career 180 as quickly as possible
  2. Are a newbie to the tech world and don’t know where to start
  3. Want an in-depth curriculum to guide you, so you can ensure no gaps in knowledge
  4. Prefer having extra help from an instructor and/or a career counselor so you can get your questions answered and work through any challenges you’re facing
  5. Want to learn alongside other students and have the comradery you would expect to have if you were taking in-person classes

You can ease your way in and stick to learning to code for free if you:

  1. Simply want to boost a specific tech skill or learn for fun
  2. Are already familiar with coding and/or the tech world
  3. Know exactly what skills you want to learn
  4. Can take your time finding the right courses and learning the necessary skills
  5. Are extremely self-motivated and a pro at powering through on your own, even when you hit roadblocks

So what’s the bottom line? Depending on what your goals are, paying to learn to code online can definitely be worth it. But whichever path you take, we know you’re cut out to find success in the tech world! All you need to do is get started.

woman in glasses with hand on face, thinking

Is Tech Right For you? Take Our 3-Minute Quiz!

You Will Learn: If a career in tech is right for you What tech careers fit your strengths What skills you need to reach your goals

Take The Quiz!

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Lori Fimoff

Lori is a stop motion video creator who made the switch to the digital world several years ago and loves helping others do the same. Lori is a former sign language interpreter with a passion for storytelling. She spends her spare time dreaming up her next travel adventure, and singing any chance she gets (good thing her neighbors don’t seem to mind!).