Online Schools: 5 Factors to Consider Before Choosing One
Online schools are growing at an astonishing pace.
Online education is such a popular option because choosing an online school allows students to learn at their own pace while balancing work, family, and social commitments. But with so many institutions now offering online delivery, how do you choose a school and a program that's going to fit your goals? And what characteristics should students realize are keys to succeeding in an online environment?
According to statistics gathered in fall 2010, online enrollment in the U.S. jumped by one million students from the previous year—a 21 percent growth rate.* Overall, more than 5.6 million students took at least one online course in 2009. The numbers also revealed that two-thirds of for-profit institutions considered online learning a critical part of their strategy.
The numbers mean you will have more schools to choose from and more programs to consider. To help you find the distance learning option that best meets your needs, here are five suggestions to keep in mind as you focus your search.
Finding the Right Online Course
It's important to explore your educational goals, first, to determine if you can pursue them online. It might be easier to complete a paralegal or accounting diploma from home than hairstyling or dental hygiene. Sometimes you need to get your hands dirty to learn best.
But that doesn't mean you're stuck. To overcome some of the obstacles, many schools will offer programs tailored to distance learning in fields you might not have considered. If you want a career in culinary arts, for example, and you want to learn online because of work or family commitments, maybe a hotel and restaurant management program will satisfy your cravings.
Consider the end result, too, before you begin. A certificate course may be measured in weeks or months, while diplomas and degrees can stretch into years. Your situation may change drastically during that time, so look for a school that allows you to switch from online to on-campus learning should the need arise.
Online Program Delivery Options
While streaming video is a popular tool, and virtual classrooms make sense to many, there's no accepted format for online schools. When doing your research, look for tutorials or "test drives." Many schools and colleges, through their web sites, offer students the chance to preview what the online education experience will look like once they've paid tuition.
This might be especially important if you consider the field you wish to study. For example, business administration programs may rely heavily on group projects. It should be easy for students to contact each other via email, or live chatting, to quickly divide coursework.
Delivery is another important word to remember. Understand, first, if the entire program is delivered online, or if it's a combination of print, video conferencing, CD-ROM, or even television. Ask about group work, too, since some schools may encourage students to meet in person.
Technical Requirements for Online Learning
Technology waits for no student, so ensure you have the hardware and software required, and that technical support is just a click away. Software and web site developers are constantly pushing the envelope, coming up with new tools hailed as the latest and greatest. But that may require the latest (and most expensive) computers to run them.
Ensure you have a capable machine by comparing what you have at home with the "technical requirements" on the school web sites. Remember, too, that many powerful software applications are free, so a school that uses them will help you keep up to date without spending a bundle. OpenOffice for word processing, QuickTime for video, Java for web sites, and Adobe Acrobat for document sharing are just a few examples.
Next, see if schools offer you discounted computers through an online store. Or, further still, ask if they require you to have a certain type of machine or software you'll have to purchase before you begin. Graphic design programs, as an example, may encourage you to use Adobe Creative Suite on an Apple computer.
And, to ensure you're totally covered, look for technical assistance options. Are trained experts available 24/7? The last thing you want is a technical glitch during an exam or a crash when you're trying to upload an assignment.
Face Time with Staff
The people evaluating you shouldn't be "virtually" impossible to reach. Look for instructor email links, toll-free phone numbers, and scheduled office hours. To help you with questions, professors and instructors should engage in group discussions or chat online during set hours.
Needless to say, that goes for teaching assistants and grad students, too. Many professors and instructors enlist assistants to grade assignments and lead discussion groups. You'll want access to these important resources.
And if online schools promote the ability to study anytime of the day or night, they should give you access to resources that fit your schedule. You may not be able to speak with an instructor at 3 a.m., but access to online libraries might make completing your assignments easier.
Do You Have What it Takes to Learn Online?
Sure, you can attend class in your bathrobe from your couch, but are you disciplined enough to thrive? Online schools are based around give and take. They allow you to learn at your own pace, avoid the long commute, and save on housing, but the rest is up to you.
So don't bite off more than you can chew. Ensure you have the time in your week to complete assignments before you enroll. Simply put, online learning doesn't mean it is easier learning.
Also, can you create a "classroom environment" at home? Not everyone has a second bedroom that can be converted into an office to avoid distractions when you need to study. Family and friends need to know you require "alone time" even if the kids really want to watch TV or the phone rings with an invitation for a night on the town.
Don't be Afraid to Continue Learning
If you're a self-starter, disciplined, dedicated, and you understand the importance of time-management, you'll make a good student. Those characteristics, and more, are just as important when it comes to pursuing an education online. So, if you're eager to take the next step, browse this directory of online schools and continue pursuing your goals.
*The Sloan Consortium, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Class Differences: Online Education in the United States 2010, web site accessed March 9, 2011.
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