Check out these answers to common questions about virtual classrooms.
Are you thinking about pursuing an online degree? If you answered "yes," don't let your curiosity stop there.
By considering an online education, you could be on your way to joining the many people who are trying out virtual classrooms. After all, more than 6.1 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall of 2010, according to a 2011 study titled "Going the Distance" by the Babson Survey Research Group. And that total number represented an increase of 560,000 students over the previous year.
But in spite of expanding enrollment numbers, questions still abound regarding the merit, acceptance, and credibility of an online education. At the core of this topic, people may wonder whether an online education is on par with a traditional, face-to-face education.
To sort through all the information about an online education, we answer some of the more common questions to help you make a more informed decision.
Q: Is an Online Education Easier?
When determining whether going to school online is easier than traditional schooling, it generally depends on the individual student. In other words, what might be easier to learn online for one person could prove to be more difficult for another.
Andrew K. Miller, an online teacher with the Buck Institute for Education, says an online education might be more suitable for self-starters or self-disciplined types who can work better on their own.
"It's not easier," says Miller. "It's a more independent way of learning."
But the flexibility factor might help ease the learning process of an online education, according to Miller.
"We all learn differently," he says. "It might take a different amount of time going through the material for different people. The good thing is that if you need more time, you can take more time, but the onus is on you."
Q: Are Online Degrees Reputable?
How do employers feel about the credibility of online degrees? It is probably best determined on a case by case basis, according to the Miller.
"Depending on the employer, they understand that some people can't go back to (traditional) school full time," Miller says. "If they understand that, it helps eliminate some of the stigma of an online degree."
But if two similar candidates - one with a traditional degree and one with an online degree - were vying for the same position, would the traditional degree holder have an advantage?
That might not necessarily be true, according to Miller. Factors such as the school's overall reputation and history might play more important roles in an employer's decision than the type of degree.
"There may be some online degree programs that aren't reputable, just like traditional schools," Miller says. "It's hard to measure that, but people are embracing online education as a valued way of learning. It's changing the way people are looking at degrees."
Q: Is it Cost Effective to Take Online Classes?
When determining tuition costs, Miller acknowledges that online degree programs could cost about the same or, in some cases, more than traditional degree programs.
"A lot depends on the program," Miller says. "You might pay by the credit as opposed to one lump sum of tuition."
The savings associated with taking an online program generally involve secondary costs and expenses. "Saving on commuting, food, and lodging are big, cost-effective things for the online learner," says Miller.
But those savings aren't guaranteed. Some online programs could still require students to travel for tests, class assignments, clinical exercises, or lab work.
The most significant cost-saving aspect might be the flexibility factor. Online students could have better opportunities to maintain "day" jobs - keeping a 9-to-5 position while studying at other times of the day could offer cost-saving potential.
Q: Can Anything Be Studied Online?
Some online degree programs are clearly more popular than others.
According to the annual research programs "Continuing and Professional Education Learning Collaborative" and "Online Higher Education Learning Collaborative" by Eduventures - a Boston-based educational research and consulting firm - here were the top fields for online bachelor's degree programs in 2010: business, computer and information technologies, criminal justice, nursing, and health care.
But what if you want to study something a bit off the beaten path? Miller says advancements in technology and online teaching methods are making almost every subject available to virtual classrooms.
Anyone interested in taking an online tennis class?
"I have seen successful online courses that teach P.E. (physical education)," Miller says. "Students do projects together on their own, show their work, and turn the work in. The technology and content is out there nowadays, and it doesn't have to be in a building."
Q: What's the Biggest Drawback of Taking Online Classes?
The beauty of online degree programs might be the opportunity for students to take classes in the comfort of their own homes. But it could also be considered a curse.
When students feel like they're studying on a virtual island, they could lose focus or take too many "study breaks" due to a lack of engagement.
"Some people want to do their thing on their own," Miller says, "but I would argue that collaboration needs to happen."
When students feel connected to an interactive learning environment, online programs work better, according to Miller. Having access to fellow students and teachers can help online students stay more engaged in the material.
"Online learning has discussion boards and live meetings, but some schools are demanding collaborative work," Miller says. "I think group projects and group learning must occur for online learning to be effective."
Q: Can Online Programs Prep Students for Real-World Experiences?
Similar to traditional degree curriculums, online programs are intended to help prepare students for careers after graduation. According to the “Going the Distance” study, most chief academic officers (67 percent) believe the learning outcomes of online programs are comparable or better than traditional programs.
But do online degrees prepare students for the working world?
"Well-designed online courses or degrees should be applicable to what's going on in the real world," Miller says. "Online learning should mirror the real world."
For example, Miller says online business programs have the ability to connect students from different countries and teach them about multinational corporations through class projects.
"I think online learning allows you to break down walls and allows for a variety of learning that has no boundaries," Miller adds.
Q: How Much Tech Know-How is Needed to Study Online?
For people who lack computer skills, an online degree program might seem intimidating. But Miller says online programs generally provide technical support to students.
"Some universities offer an intro to online learning course," Miller explains. "Schools understand that some students may need more time to get up to speed on online learning."
What other online support is available to help online students succeed? Before starting your online education, find out if a program has access to online academic support tools.
"Students need to make sure the schools they're interested in have ways to help them," Miller says. "You should ask, 'What sort of help are you going to provide me if my computer blows up, or if I'm struggling to manage my time?"
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