Online Learning's Many Options

Online Learning’s Many Options

lindabird-8969674by Linda Bird

Linda has experienced the phenomenal growth of online learning from all three vantage points of higher education: as an administrator, instructor, and graduate student. Here she addresses frequent questions.

Question:  I’m hearing a lot these days about online and distance learning, but I am not quite sure what they are.  Is online learning the same as distance learning?

Answer:  Distance learning, which has been around for decades, offers students many options for taking classes or earning degrees without commuting to a physical campus. You may live down the street or thousands of miles away from your preferred college or university. In fact, you may even reside in a different country – and so could your instructors!

Online learning refers to one specific distance learning format that involves courses and degree programs accessed through the computer. It is sometimes referred to as eLearning. Most online classes and programs offer the tremendous advantage of empowering you to take your classes anytime and anyplace you wish. In recent years, online has emerged as the most widespread form of distance learning. Other distance learning formats include, but are not limited to, correspondence and print-based classes delivered by mail; telecourses; and audio and videocassette formats. There are also hybrid formats that combine in-person instruction with online coursework. The beauty of online and other distance learning formats is that you benefit from the double bonus of convenience and flexibility. That means you can personalize your class schedule around your lifestyle.

Question:   How popular is online learning in higher education?

Answer:   The 2010 Sloan Consortium Survey of Online Learning reports that approximately 5.6 million primarily adult students were enrolled in at least one online course during Fall 2009, the most recent term for which figures are available.  This is an increase in enrollment of nearly one million students over the previous year. The survey polled more than 2,500 U.S. colleges and universities nationwide.

Question: How do I know if I am a good fit for online learning?

Answer:  If you are self-disciplined and motivated to learn independently, you are likely to enjoy the online learning format. However, just about everyone has the potential to benefit from online classes. That includes busy adults with family responsibilities; working adults; people who reside in rural areas without a nearby college or university campus; and physically disabled individuals.  Even the U.S. Army and other military branches take advantage of partnerships with online institutions to educate soldiers who are deployed. Online classes are not limited to higher education; there are numerous virtual high schools and also programs for elementary school children.

Question:   I want to return to college, but I’m a single mom with three kids. A neighbor suggested I look into online colleges.  Is this just a fad, or are people like me really completing degrees this way?

Answer:  Online learning is highly credible and not a fad. In fact, it is a great fit for adults with busy schedules, and that includes moms like you as well as working adults. Possibly the biggest reason more adults are taking classes online is that it frees them to complete their lessons at times and places that are convenient for them.  As a mom, you might prefer to study in your pajamas after the kids are in bed. Others will prefer to tackle their lessons while munching their lunch at work. The flexibility of online learning means the how and when is left completely up to the individual.

Question:   What should I expect my online college classes to be like?

Answer:  The majority of online classes and programs are self-paced, although a few still have students log on at scheduled times and verify your attendance.  You have the right to expect easy online access to all relevant course and program information, descriptions and assignments. This includes instructions for how to register, a complete schedule of classes, an academic calendar, and contact information for support services.  Your course syllabus will likely be posted online through a specific course delivery system that also includes an email component. You will have full access to this delivery system after you register. There may be tutorials to help you get started or to learn how to access the online library. It is likely that you will also be required to purchase either hard-copy textbooks or ebooks.

You also have the right to expect consistent contact with your instructors through virtual office hours and/or email. Your online class or program may also offer opportunities for chats and forums with your classmates, although that is not always the case.  However, some instructors may state that your grade is based in part on your participation in online forums and chats.

Finally, you should not expect or assume that online learning is easier than in-person classes; in fact, the reverse is often true. (More information about what to expect from an online class is available here.)

Question:  I’ve read a few articles about colleges and universities with online programs. Some of them use a word I don’t understand-asynchronous. What exactly does this word mean?  What does it have to do with online learning?

Answer:  The term asynchronous, as it pertains to education, is closely associated with online learning.  Don’t let this word scare you! In general, it refers to programs of study that do not depend upon students sitting together in the same classroom at a specific time and place. A simpler definition is formal learning that occurs any time and any place.  In asynchronous learning, a group of students may be registered for the same class, but individually they are empowered to study and complete their assignments at places of their own choosing that are most convenient to their personal preferences.  These students may reside in the same or different geographic areas, or even in a variety of countries. Online learning is one type of asynchronous learning.

Asynchronous is the opposite of synchronous, which refers to real-time learning, such as the kind that occurs in traditional in person classrooms at fixed times. Some colleges and universities are now finding value in hybrid formats that combine the best of asynchronous and synchronous learning.  For example, students may study and complete their coursework online, but also meet in person once a week for class discussions.

Question:  What types of student services and support should I expect from my online college or university?

Answer:  You have a right to expect a full array of basic services that are accessible online, such as registration, a library with professional journals, financial aid forms, and the ability to purchase textbooks. Upgraded online student support services might include the ability to preview a course syllabus, academic advising, tutoring and even 24/7 access to major support services. The majority of credible colleges and universities with online classes and degree programs will also offer support by phone or in person as well.

Next, any institution truly committed to online learning will offer free technology support in the form of an accessible team of helpdesk experts.  While they cannot trouble shoot problems with your PC or Mac, they can provide direction if you are having technical difficulties accessing your coursework, navigating the course delivery system or downloading a document.

Question:  I’m thinking of taking a class online, but I have lots of questions. For example, how do I communicate with my instructors and learn their expectations?

Answer:  In most cases you will communicate with your professors through email or even phone. Many higher education institutions require their professors to post their virtual office hours. Your assignments will most likely be submitted as attachments through a course delivery program that you access after you register. This system will also provide an email component for you to use with your instructor, who may allow you to submit assignments through it as another option.  Each instructor will have individual preferences.  Find out what your instructors require by reading the course syllabus, reviewing the course materials and asking them upfront. You can also ask the department chair what the official policy of a specific college our university requires in terms of response time from instructors for answering questions and posting grades.

Question:  How and where do I take tests for my online classes?

Answer:  The method will vary based on your institution’s policies.  Many place their exams online. To maintain academic integrity, some colleges and universities work with students to retain proctors. Others send students to designated in-person testing centers where they are monitored. Another option is to replace tests with essays for certain courses, particularly at the graduate school level.  Be forewarned: online detection programs do exist that can notify the academic institution when cheating is suspected.  Ask the student support center what you can expect from your particular institution.

Question:    I’ve done some research about online colleges, but I am somewhat confused. How can I separate the legitimate online colleges from diploma mills?

Answer:   Great question! Not every college that offers diplomas online is legitimate or even accredited.  Unfortunately, there are so called online “diploma mills” that award bogus diplomas and collect so-called “tuition” or “fees” without providing coursework. Such a diploma is worthless in the job market. One way to protect yourself is to find out if an official accreditation body has accredited the institution you are researching. The purpose of accreditation is to encourage colleges and universities to meet acceptable standards of quality.  Start by visiting the Web sites of those colleges and universities that appeal to you. Search for their accreditation status and the name of the accrediting body that granted it.   Then check out a full list of national and regional accrediting bodies that are officially recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. It pays to do your “homework” and avoid being scammed!

Linda Bird served 14 years in Public Relations management for Rio Salado College, which has more than 21,000 students enrolled in online courses, and as an instructor and graduate student at Cal State/ Dominguez Hills.