Online Learning Fundamentals
An estimated 4,000,000 students are earning their degrees or upgrading their education through online learning. These numbers will continue to grow as more accredited colleges and universities take advantage of virtual learning technology and add online programs to their curricula.
What is Online Learning?
Almost every student has received education through a traditional school, attending elementary and secondary school or, in some cases, college or university. Online learning provides the same curriculum as traditional schools; it merely delivers courses through a different medium.
Online learning somewhat resembles what was formerly known as "distance education", but is offered exclusively through computer technology. Students require, at a minimum, regular access to a computer and, preferably, high speed internet service.
Dependent on the program, you might also need specific software to enable you to interact with your instructor and other students.
Is Online Learning Quality Education?
Prestigious educational institutes are offering degrees and programs online. It is advantageous for an educational institute to participate in online learning, in that the financial overhead of a physical building, instructors, support staff, equipment, library, maintenance and associated expenses that accompany a traditional school environment are reduced greatly.
Many colleges and universities provide online library services and, if the program requires hands-on applications, collaboration with an appropriate facility in your area. Instructors are not necessarily located at the college or university, but may reside elsewhere. This is an important advantage for online students, as they do not have to relocate to attend a specific institution for instruction from a specialized instructor.
Online learning programs are available from accredited colleges and universities. This means prospective employers view a degree or certificate earned through online learning just as valuable as a degree or certificate from a traditional educational facility.
Researching an Online Learning Program
Researching an online learning program should be as thorough as investigating a traditional school. There are differences, however, in what specifics you should examine. These include:
- Is the instructor experienced in teaching online courses?
- Instructor credentials
- How many students participate in the course?
- Student work evaluation methods
- Does the curriculum address your education requirements?
- Course prerequisites
- Length of courses and program
- Costs compared to traditional facilities
- Is there an online library or resources?
- What interactive tools are used?
- Are course management systems, such as Blackboard, Moodle or eCollege, utilized?
- Are handouts in Word or PDF formats and streaming audio and video provided?
- Do you need to purchase textbooks and, if so, how easy are they to locate or are they available in eBook format?
Queries common to both online and traditional schools are:
- Is the college or university accredited?
- Are students entitled to apply for financial student aid?
- Reputation of the facility
- Is the degree or certificate program recognized by the profession you plan to enter?
- Are student support services, such as career planning, counseling, etc. available?
Delivery Methods of Online Learning Programs
Typical delivery methods of online classes are:
Asynchronous: There is no specific time a student must be attend "class" (i.e. Monday evenings from 7 to 10 pm). This is the most common form of delivery as it permits students from across the country to attend courses. Communication and writing skills are important for asynchronous classes.
Synchronous: The instructor and all students must be in class online on predetermined days and times. Synchronous classes are much more dependent on technology, such as chat rooms, software and webcams.
Self-Paced: You set the pace at which you learn. Generally, however, there is a minimum and maximum amount of time allowed for completion of a course. There is access to faculty. Self-paced courses are recommended only if you are motivated, disciplined and able to set and comply with deadlines.
Cohort: A cohort study is a group of students who commence and complete a degree together. The number of students in a cohort setting depends on the individual college or university. This may be suitable if the idea of isolation while learning is unsavory or intimidating. Students build relationships through written communications with each other and build a communal environment where they help each other to learn, much as students in traditional colleges do in study groups.
Computer Based Training: Computer Based Training is taught solely through a computer program without an instructor facilitator. You follow the program sequentially and grades are based on assessment and test results.
Comparing Online Programs
Make a list of prospective online colleges that offer the program you are seeking. Then, draw a chart with each college's name at the top of a column. On the left-hand side of your chart, list important features you feel the college must offer. Some suggestions are:
- Instructor Credentials
- Admission Requirements
- Accepts Credit Transfers
- Wait List Time
- Tuition Costs
- Class times
- Delivery method
- Residency Requirements (i.e. none or a mix of on-campus and online courses)
- Testing Requirements (i.e. at your convenience, proctored)
Make notes in each college's column for easy comparison of features.
If you are considering online learning, be prepared for a different learning experience. Self-discipline and motivation are essential to successfully completing courses. You need to be able to schedule blocks of "class and study time" and strictly abide by them.
Feelings of isolation are not uncommon; you must feel confident this is not a major obstacle. If you are not technology savvy, consider whether you will be comfortable faced with learning new software, as well as your course materials.
Think carefully about all your obligations: family, work, children's extra-curricular activities. Be absolutely positive you can accommodate all your commitments, plus online learning, without eventually experiencing burnout.
Advantages of Online Learning
For some students, online learning is the only way they can upgrade their education; for others, it is a personal choice.
Online learning has a great many attributes:
- You can continue to work full or part-time while studying
- Less financial pressure
- Lower tuition fees
- No commute times or gas expenses
- No need to relocate
- You can study wherever you feel comfortable (at home, a coffee shop, the public library)
- You can study at your convenience
- You can learn at your own pace if desired
- Access to course materials 24/7
- All students receive equal attention
- Different learning styles are accommodated
- Noting taking is unnecessary as lectures are in written format
- Class content is current due to ease of modifications
- Student collaboration projects enhance student communications (and are less stressful for reserved or shy students)
- Wide selection of programs available
Online learning offers you flexibility in every aspect of your life; permitting you to upgrade your education with a quality degree or certificate that allows you to commence your ultimate career.