By Tracy R. Stewart, Special to StudentAdvisor.com
As online education, online learning and the online student continue to expand nationally—growing in both popularity and reputational acclaim – it will naturally become a viable learning option for more college goers. With so many online educational options available, every prospective online student should decide what they want from an online education and then research the many quality online programs that will satisfy those needs. The following tips may help you determine if an online educational option is right for you and, if so, how to go about selecting the right online program.
1. Decide what you what from an online education
Today, it’s hard to find a university that does not tout online course delivery. From large state-funded institutions to small private colleges, it seems everyone offers some form of online delivered courses. In 2008, the Sloan Survey of Online Learning found that 2,500 colleges and universities nationwide enrolled 3.94 million students in at least one online course in fall 2007. This enrollment trend grew nearly 12 percent from the previous year. In spite of this growing interest in online education, it’s important to recognize the wide range of universities promoting online learning. Some colleges merely offer occasional online courses, while others offer complete online programs that never require a campus visit. For the typical adult learner interested in online education, it’s important to find a program that provides 100 percent online delivery.
The other critical factor in online education is timing. Most online programs today are delivered asynchronously—meaning there are no set class times. This does not mean that there are no due dates or test dates, rather, it means that courses do not have set meeting times when students are required to log-in or “attend” a virtual class. For working adults or busy students, this aspect of online learning is most appealing because it allows students the flexibility to complete course requirements around a specific schedule within any given week.
2. Accreditation, Accreditation, Accreditation
When selecting an online college, it is all about “accreditation, accreditation, accreditation.” Make sure the online college you select is accredited through one of the six regional accrediting bodies recognized by the United States Department of Education (USDE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
Specifically, these are the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement (NCA), Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges (MSA), Southern Association of Schools and Colleges (SACS), Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), and Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges (NWCCU).
Transferability is another reason to play close attention to a college’s accreditation. Many students today attend several institutions before obtaining a degree. Being able to transfer coursework from college to college is critical, both from a financial perspective and for the purpose of graduating on time. Credits earned at schools not accredited by one of the six regional accrediting bodies are typically not transferrable to other institutions.
3. Understand your learning style
Online education is not for everyone. Understanding how you learn can greatly assist you in determining if online education is for you. Although a bit simplistic, one way to determine if online education is right for you is to understand how you best learn. Learning styles can be roughly categorized into the areas of listening, seeing or experiencing. Although most individuals actively engage all three styles during the learning process, that is not to say that individuals do not lean more toward at least one of these learning styles. If you learn best through reading material, then an online program that relies heavily on online written material may be ideally suited for you. However, if you learn best through experiences or listening, then you may want to enroll in an online program that relies heavily on virtual chat, interactive group projects, and web-based video lectures. You need to be able to work independently, be self-motivated and self-disciplined, manage your time wisely, and communicate effectively in writing. Understanding your learning style and seeking an online program that is fashioned accordingly, will greatly increase your chances of success in college.
4. Technology Skills
An online student needs technology skills to succeed in an online program. You must be familiar with the following at a minimum: sending and receiving emails, opening or sending an email attachment, searching the Internet, using Microsoft Word, and downloading files. You need a reliable computer and Internet connection. You will have quizzes and tests to complete, papers to write and submit, discussions to participate in – on your own schedule, all with submission deadlines.
5. Test Drive an Online Course
Most people would never buy a car without first test-driving it. Similarly, prospective online students should examine the various online formats available to today’s online students. Colleges on the cutting edge of online learning are using many innovative and powerful online course platforms such as Web CT and Blackboard and are transforming the online environment to become more interactive and engaging. Many schools can provide you access to a sample online course that will give you a glimpse of learning in the virtual space.
6. Remember, it’s still college:
Ask anyone who has attended a regionally accredited online university and they will tell you online education is not easy. Potential students should never chose online education based on erroneous perception that it will somehow be “easier” than more traditional education settings. On the contrary, online education can be more challenging because it requires a level of self-directed learning that is not always required in traditional classroom learning environments. Students who chose online education must be highly motivated and develop strong organizational and time management skills to be successful. Online learning requires students to take ownership of their own learning.
Online education is here to stay. Although it should not be viewed as a replacement for traditional, classroom learning, it is a viable learning option depending on a person’s interests, learning styles, and lifestyle. Finding an online college that meets your needs will be the first and most significant step that will ensure a successful college experience.
Ms. Tracy R. Stewart is the Vice President of Information Technology & Executive Director of Undergraduate Studies at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA.