December 15, 2008

Distance Learning, Part I: Is An Online Degree Right For You?

Not everyone graduates from high school at the age of 17, packs up all their worldly possessions in the back of a beater car, and drives across town — or across country — to enroll at a quaint little college on the hill.

Whether it’s because you need to earn money NOW, or you just aren’t sure if college is the place for you, or any of a myriad of other reasons, the traditional four-year plan to a Bachelor’s Degree at a brick-and-mortar college is definitely not for everyone.

The good news is that in the last decade, your options for education have grown exponentially. Choosing not to GO to college no longer means you can’t earn your degree.  Online education, also known as distance learning, is an increasingly popular, viable and reputable way to pursue higher education.

But just like attending a traditional college, enrolling at an online school isn’t for everyone.  How do you know if an online degree is right for you?  Factors will include your work and personal schedule, your learning style, your personality, and your technical savvy.

If you are contemplating pursuing an online degree, ask yourself these five questions to see if distance learning is the way to go:

1) Are you currently employed?
Most online learners are also full-time workers.  In fact, one of the major benefits of getting a degree online is that the schedule can be compatible with a full-time work schedule.

2) Are you prepared to study full-time or will you need to take some breaks in your schedule?
Traditional students do best when they attend college full-time for four or five years, tops. Online degrees, on the other hand, are betters suited to non-traditional students, who need to take some breaks in their learning — whether it’s too earn some more money to pay for school or to focus on family responsibilities.

Breaks in learning are more common and less distracting from your overall educational success with an online degree program. That said, just like when you enroll in classes in a traditional college or university, enrolling in an online class means you have to finish the class to earn the grade.  And even if you do drop out for whatever reason, you still have to pay the bill!

3) What kind of learner are you? Visual, auditory or kinesthetic?
Doing well in an online learning environment requires strong visual learning skills.  Some professors stream their lectures, as well, which is good news for auditory learners. However, if you are a kinesthetic learner, you should know that they do not do as well in online situations since there are few to no opportunities for hands-on learning.

4) Are you a self-motivated learner or do you learn better in groups?
While many distance classes offer online forums and networking, that interaction does not provide the same kind of feedback that you can get from a seminar or discussion group at a traditional college.

Online learners, therefore, need to be internally motivated.  Many students do their best work on their own; others do better when they have a lot of interaction and idea-sharing with fellow students.  Which kind of student are you?

5) Do you own a computer and have high-speed Internet access at home?
Today you can buy a brand-new, fully outfitted desktop computer for less than $1,000.  Even top-of-the-line laptops run less than $2,500 (with several models under $1,000). High-speed Internet access is also not a huge monthly expense.  When bundled together with your phone or other cable services, it can run as low as $20/month.  We have neither cable nor a landline and still pay just $35/month for the highest speed our provider offers.

My point is this: Being properly set up for online learning requires, at a minimum, an up-to-date computer and high-speed Internet.  A printer would also be helpful.  These are not huge expenses, but they are not optional. You cannot be a successful online student if you are borrowing your brother’s computer when he’s at work and surfing for free at the public library.

To learn more about distance learning, do some research about online degree programs, schools and their reputations. And stay tuned next week when I talk about accreditation and financial aid for online degree programs.

Have you ever taken (or taught!) classes online? Tell us about your experience.

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