Online classes: no classroom, no schedule. Enormous responsibility but equal flexibility. They are appealing for many reasons, from making up credits to taking advanced classes to meddling for the fun of it. Computer and internet access are incredibly high; 27 states have virtual schools set up. Some students opt for dual-enrollment with their local school, while some go as far as to take all their classes online. Roughly 96 percent of universities offer at least a few online classes. There are private and public schools, those that are free and those that cost thousands of dollars.

“The class was kind of not great, but it got me out of having to actually take geometry,” says Morgan McClain-Smith, sophmore.

“I’d do it again,” says Zofia Ahmad, sophomore, smiling.

Ahmad, sophomore, took AP European History online last winter. Since she started a few weeks “late,” she was behind on work for most of the course, sometimes doing up to two units a week to catch up.

“It was fun, a lot of work though,” she says of the experience. Because it was online, open to anyone, she still had to work through Thanksgiving and winter break. Lessons comprised of a few video lectures and readings from an actual, physical textbook textbook, as it were. She submitted her assignments through a class Dropbox, and there was a forum for discussion. The teacher would grade her work and was available over email. Ahmad said she learned a lot and got a B with barely any effort.

She took the class of her own initiative, and ended up liking the subject. “I could have gotten credits, but I sort of forgot,” says Ahmad.

“I’d do it again,” she says.

McClain-Smith took Geometry Honors over the summer. She’d heard geometry was very easy at Mountain View High School and wanted to be able to take more AP classes. Her parents had to pay nearly $500, and the software itself was out of date, clunky, and often poorly phrased. To make matters worse . . .“I procrastinated,” she says. “[I] sort of did lots of it before school.” Regardless, she got her 10 credits and an “A,” and is glad she took the class.

If you can motivate yourself, find the money to pay the fees and as long as aren’t looking to escape heavy textbooks, maybe online classes are for you. You will be able to do “school” at any time, from the comfort of anywhere in the the world that has wifi. You’ll also miss out on fun science labs and whispering with your friends during class.

However, f you’re disorganized, if you procrastinate, or if you’re already busy with six or seven classes, they are not recommended.

Your Best Free Options:

Udemy’s classes are different in that they are not screened by website managers. Anyone can make, publish, and sell a course. This means that there is a staggering palette of classes, from academic to frivolous, from long to short, free of charge to expensive. It also means you can’t guarantee anything you learn from there.

However, it is a very good platform. Teachers can make videos of themselves as they lecture, upload documents and slide shows, as well as make short (ungraded) quizzes. While you must sign up to access the classes, nothing is graded and you will be unable to get any kind of official proof you have taken a course here.

What makes Udemy flawed and what makes it great is that anyone can make a class. Some classes are rip offs; at the same time, plenty of people are incredibly specialized and skilled, without being certified in any way. You can learn about a religion or language directly from someone who practices it.

Saylor’s website is clean and impeccably organized. Classes can even be taken without signing up, because courses are made up entirely of links to relevant online texts. They also offer a beautiful array of classes, not just sciences and technology but also history, language arts and corporate skills. Saylor also claims that its classes can be worth college credit in some places, so long as a proctored final exam is taken and passed.

However– the classes, while very tidy and clearly labeled, lack any sort of interesting content. There is no interaction at all– not with teachers, not even with the classroom. There are no quizzes, assignments, practice questions or even tests, only one single final exam. You are expected to do a semester’s worth of learning in reading that is often very dry, without images and tediously lengthy from a computer monitor. My eyes began to hurt and water before I had even completed a sub-sub-unit. While the texts are high-quality and rich with information, it’s doubtful one could make it through an entire course like this. And, without any way to practice what is read, it’s doubtful anyone could retain the information.

Udacity offers courses in computer science, business, math and physics. Its highlight is the interactivity of its classes. After signing up (a simple and easy process), one can access the classroom, which is essentially a very long playlist of short instructional videos. The teachers use a kind of digital whiteboard, so you can see them work out problems and diagrams as they speak. At times it gets annoying, because the computer overlay is disjointed, and sometimes does not match up with the actual whiteboard image. Ungraded mini-quizzes and practice problems are liberally sprinkled throughout, and after each unit, a long section of practice problems is offered, with teacher walkthroughs that clearly explain each step. All of this is wonderfully complemented by the class wikis, which contain detailed and complete notes for every unit. There is also a convenient forum system, which is slow but seems to guarantee at least one answer, and which can be filtered by unit or by problem set.

Udacity does not give out degrees, certificates or credits, and is meant to be used more as a skill-builder for professionals. While its teachers are in many cases more useful and helpful than actual teachers at Paly, for high school students, it’s more of a tool for hobby techies or students who need help with physics homework.