Virtually Educated

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Online learning has experienced a surge in popularity-but is it right for you?

There’s no question that a college experience is different for everyone. But for a growing number of students, it means never setting foot into a classroom. Instead, they log on to a virtual classroom whenever they want.

While riding the train to work or after putting kids to bed, these students catch up on lectures, post homework assignments to an online content management system and work toward their degrees in a wide array of fields, from public health to organizational behavior to nuclear engineering.

Some skeptics may site unaccredited universities deceptively promising a master’s degree within two weeks when arguing in favor for the traditional collegiate experience. While there are scams online in every capacity, higher education included, the growing number of legitimate and respected online degree options cannot be ignored.

A 2010 study done by SRI International for the U.S. Department of Education found students educated online performed in the 59th percentile, while students educated traditionally averaged at the 50th percentile. Although college administrators can’t definitively say why this is the case, they do think it bodes well for the future of online education. “Online education is definitely growing and will continue to be a piece of education as a whole in the future,” says David Rauch, partnership director at Deltak, which partners with traditional universities to launch and run online programs. But that doesn’t mean the end of the classroom, either.

“There will always be a place for traditional classes,” affirms Caitlin Frano, director of distance education,Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies. “Online education is not meant to replace, but to compliment classroom experience and provide access for working adults.”

Busy women with full schedules may like the sound of earning college credit in their pajamas, and for good reason. But while Mr. Rauch asserts a vast majority of people could find educational success on the web, it’s important to decide whether or not you can thrive in an online environment before taking the plunge and dipping into your pocketbook.

“A big part of successfully taking an online course is being able to stay motivated,” admits Jeremy Joslin, assistant dean, School of Continuing and Professional Studies at Loyola University. “When there’s not a professor in the room, people may be tempted to have [another website] open in another window of their browser. But there are tricks both the instructor and the student can do to make these things less of an issue.” One simple tactic Mr. Joslin encourages is watching video lectures in pieces to make sure you don’t zone out of an important lesson.

And since online classes don’t typically have set times to complete work, students need to keep on pace individually. “Many times, we have working adults with one or two jobs, kids, what have you,” says Mr. Rauch. “What works for most people is figuring out how many hours a week it will take to keep up with your course. It varies, but let’s say there’s 15 hours in a course. Look at your schedule for the week and block out time in advance. Say the kids go to bed at 8pm Tuesday night – you can do three hours right there.”

University administrators know that proper support is key in doing well in school, especially online. So, they’ve put a bigger emphasis on web professors to accommodating to all types of students. “Professors know that online classes are populated with people from different learning styles, so they should tailor their material and teaching style to different students,” notes Mr. Joslin. “It’s not just PowerPoints anymore. Some people learn better by reading, discussion or visually. So, the ideal online course caters to any and all learning styles. The point is for these classes to be simple and accessible for the student, and maybe a little more work for the instructor.”

New advancements in web courses mean students don’t have to sacrifice collaboration and discussion, or even peer-to-peer networking, for the convenience of online learning. Students may Skype with their professors during office hours, group chat with all online students to problem solve and discuss coursework, and view live, interactive webinars in which they can have their questions answered in real time. Some students even find they get more from their instructors because they make a bigger point to answer questions in emails, and with a better response time.

“Online education has evolved over time,” says Mr. Rauch. Now, no student is left behind and nearly everyone can find ease and fulfillment with an online education. Like with any endeavor, all it takes is a little free time and a lot of dedication.

By Sarah Daoud

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