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Understanding an Online Education

By Liz Smith

Today, the Internet is helping to boost the availability and popularity of distance learning programs. It is becoming increasingly common for adults who are working, or staying at home with their children to simultaneously earn their degree. There are more than 2 million students enrolled in online programs and over 80% of all colleges now offer some form of distance learning. Many people do, however, have questions about the effectiveness of an online education, what it's like to attend an online college, and what the major benefits of earning your degree from home really are. These are important questions to consider when determining whether online college is right for you, and, ultimately, it's you that must make that decision. Nevertheless, this article outlines some of the major issues regarding distance learning in order to help give you a better understanding of the industry and what the online learning experience is really like.

While distance learning is still a relatively new phenomenon, it has caught the public eye and, thus, there have already been many discussions and studies done on the industry. The general consensus is summarized in the results of a number of research studies conducted by the USDLA (United States Distance Learning Association). According to the USDLA, these studies have shown that distance learning programs are equally as effective as traditional learning, and that students' attitudes about their online experiences are typically positive. This applies to all subjects that distance learning programs offer. You may be aware that topics such as IT degrees and computer certifications are taught online, but you can also find subjects such as art degrees, medical careers, and interior design schools as well. Virtually anything can be taught online now, and more courses and programs are being created almost daily, but, since it's still a new field, not everyone really understands what it's like to learn from their computer.

Earning an online degree is still that, an earned degree-which means that you will have to work hard. You may have the option of taking your time with classes, and setting your own pace, but you will still need to "attend" all the lectures and complete all the assignments. You're able to do this because even though class typically "begins" at a certain time, you won't necessarily have to be there. You can communicate with your instructor via e-mail, chat rooms, bulletin boards, and instant messenger. Your classroom will reside in a special software program that utilizes text, chat, and bulletin boards, as well as streaming audio or recorded lectures. This contact with other students and the instructor is useful and oftentimes essential to your education.

Most instructors will respond to e-mail on a regular basis (within 24 to 48 hours) and can offer either synchronous (live) or asynchronous (non-live) class sessions. Transcripts and notes from these lectures are archived for your convenience. You will always be able to access previous discussions, live or not. Assignments can be completed using these archives and turned in to your professor via e-mail. Since instructors usually team up with web designers and instructional designers to create this high tech classroom, the result is an interactive and highly effective learning environment. Not only will you receive an excellent education utilizing the latest technology, but, if something comes up, you can miss a day of class without missing a thing.

You've probably heard this main slogan of online colleges: "attend class whenever and wherever you choose." And it's true that this is a huge benefit, but there are some lesser-known aspects that you may have not yet considered. Some other benefits include: little or no commuting, it's up to you where you study; easy access to learning resources, everything you need is online; no physical accessibility issues, you choose the most comfortable learning environment; total equality, appearance, race, and ethnicity will never be a factor for you or others; broadens your overall perspective, you'll have classmates from around the nation or even the world; keeps you up-to-date on the latest Internet technologies, you'll attend class online and use the most modern techniques for communication and research. Certainly some of these factors will be more important to you than others. It's up to you to decide which aspects of distance learning appeal to you and whether you think you'd enjoy creating your own schedule and utilizing technology on a daily basis (these may be assets or liabilities depending upon your personality).

Deciding to earn your degree is a major step and there's a lot to consider. Online colleges can make attending class easy and convenient, but that does not necessarily mean that it's right for you. Don't forget to look into programs at vocational or technical schools, depending upon your degree and career choices, if you're not certain about an online degree. Regardless of which route you choose to take, earning your degree drastically enhances your employment potential either now or in the future, not to mention the salary you'll receive once hired. If you're considering enhancing your education, it is certainly the way to go. Your degree will only be an asset. Just make sure to weigh all your options and consider your learning style to determine whether online or traditional learning programs will best suit you. •

© Liz Smith,

Updated 1/4/14