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Online Classes Guide & FAQs

Online Classes Guide & FAQs
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Noodle Staff profile
Noodle Staff March 21, 2024

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Online learning at the college level has passed through numerous phases during its brief history. While distance learning is nothing new, it was only in the early 2000s that online classes and degree programs at the college level started making headlines. That’s when the world saw a massive explosion of online for-profit colleges advertising the convenience and cost-savings of studying online widely, attracting hundreds of thousands of students—and then millions.

In 2000, for-profit institutions made up less than 5 percent of the market for distance-learning degrees. By 2010, 70 percent of students in online degree programs were enrolled in for-profit institutions. That left colleges and universities (which had formerly invested in remote continuing ed and extension services) scrambling to launch their own online classes and degree programs.

Ultimately, the balance shifted. Ten years later, nearly all colleges and universities in the US (including Ivy League schools and other top-ranked institutions) offer some form of online classes, online certificate programs, or online degree programs for bachelor’s degree and master’s degree students.

The ease of access that could once be found only at for-profit schools is now commonplace across disciplines at high-ranking universities. You can earn an MBA, a Master of Science in Computer Science (MSCS), a psychology degree, a master’s in teaching, or any number of other degrees from a famous-name school without ever leaving your living room. What you’ll need to do to earn that degree depends on which school and which program you choose. Online classes usually follow the campus counterparts’ curricula, but there can be as much variation among digital coursework as there is between traditional in-person classes.

In general, distance learning is a good option for students who need to continue working while pursuing a degree, have personal obligations that can make attending classes difficult, or merely prefer not to spend their days in a classroom. Right now, it may be the only option, as some colleges and universities have decided to keep campuses shut down in the fall in preparation for a possible second wave of Covid-19. Whether the trend toward online continues when the pandemic subsides remains to be seen, but many suspect it will.

In this article, we dig deeper into how online classes work and cover the following:

  • When did colleges and universities start offering coursework online?
  • What drives students to take classes online or to choose online degree programs?
  • How do undergraduate and graduate students access online classes?
  • Do online college classes usually have set times?
  • Are online classes larger than in-person classes?
  • Do online classes run longer than on-campus classes?
  • How can students interact when they’re taking courses online?
  • Are there proctored exams in online classes?
  • Do professors teaching online classes offer students the same level of support?
  • Are courses in online bachelor’s degree and master’s degree classes easier?
  • How can I make online classes work for me?

When did colleges and universities start offering coursework online?

The precursors of online courses were correspondence courses—which were developed in the 1800s—and the educational broadcasts that went out over radio and television in the 1900s. In 1982, the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute opened its School of Management and Strategic Studies and launched a distance education program in which business executives completed assignments using computer conferencing. The first accredited online graduate program (which conferred a Master of Science in Computer-Based Learning) was launched along with one of the first-ever electronic classrooms by Nova Southeastern University in 1985.

From there, some of the big for-profit schools began offering education programs through the evolving internet. Even so, online classes didn’t come into their own until the first web browsers were developed in the early 1990s. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that the first fully online education programs were founded at New York UniversityWestern Governors UniversityTrident University International, and the now defunct California Virtual University.

These early forays into bachelor’s degree and master’s degree-level classes delivered via the internet tended to be text-heavy and low on engagement. There were no online classrooms. Most students wouldn’t have had enough bandwidth to support large images, online video was still in its infancy, and the only way to engage with classmates and faculty would have been through basic chat room programs. On top of that, many colleges and universities offering online classes weren’t seeing the same kinds of graduation and job-placement results as in their traditional programs.

Today’s online classes and online degree programs are very different. Live classroom instruction and discussions are possible, collaboration is encouraged, and schools can incorporate high-def streaming video, virtual field trips, and interactive experiences into coursework delivered online. There are also online classes, certificate programs, and even entire bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and doctorate programs offered by top colleges and universities. Some people still question whether online degrees are worth it, but the stigma that once discouraged students from taking online classes has all but disappeared.

What drives students to take classes online or to choose online degree programs?

Most often, students opt to take some online classes or complete entire degree programs online because they’re looking for flexibility. Sometimes, these students can’t take time off work to study; online classes allow them to view lectures and complete assignments during their off hours. In other cases, students have personal obligations that make traveling to and from campus difficult or impossible.

However, don’t assume that everyone in online classes is there because they’re overscheduled or have young kids at home. Some people simply feel more comfortable in self-directed educational settings or prefer to take classes at home, or even on the road. Others enroll in remote courses because taking virtual classes allows them to study at a more prestigious institution.

What most people in online classes have in common, however, is that they’re older than the average student and have jobs. The average student in online bachelor’s degree classes is 32, 25- to 29-year-olds make up the largest group of online college students, and most students taking online classes are 30+. Surprisingly, most of these students live within 100 miles of the college or university they attend remotely.

How do undergraduate and graduate students access online classes?

Different schools use different learning management systems (LMS) or portals—e.g., Blackboard, Canvas, or Moodle—but most colleges and universities employ some form of electronic platform to deliver classes, host discussions, and gather coursework for grading. Students log in to the LMS via a web browser to access courses, ask questions, submit homework, collaborate with classmates, take tests, and check grades. The content hosted on the LMS might include:

  • Assignment pages
  • Downloadable files
  • Interactive apps
  • Slide decks
  • Streaming video (live classes)
  • Syllabi
  • Textbook pages or entire textbooks
  • Quizzes

How students interact with these materials depends on the platform a school uses and whether content is delivered synchronously or asynchronously. In most cases, LMS platforms are extremely easy to navigate. Schools are aware that students should be able to engage with the course material without having to learn how to use an entirely new computer system, and they work hard to make course design intuitive. Often, materials are organized into modules that guide students through a linear sequence of content and quizzes.

In many ways, online classes are very similar to traditional in-person classes. Teachers develop a syllabus and deliver lectures, students complete assignments that supplement those lectures, and mid-semester and end-of-term exams assess each student’s mastery of the material.

Do online college classes usually have set times?

Most online classes have a mix of synchronous and asynchronous content. In these courses, students have to log in at set times to attend mandatory live classes delivered through streaming video. They may also have to participate in regular class meetings or group project work. All other course content, like slide decks, texts, or videos, is delivered asynchronously, which means students can access it at any time once they’ve reached that module.

There are also 100 percent asynchronous online classes in which students learn at their own pace, on their own time. In these, there are no live courses or mandatory live study sessions. Students may be able to access all course content and assignments from the very first day of class and complete them as possible. In some instances, later content may be ‘gated,’ i.e., inaccessible until earlier modules and assignments have been completed.

There’s a third type of online class that can best be described as a hybrid course. These classes take place primarily online, with synchronous and asynchronous content. The course requirements include a weekend-long immersion, one or more group excursions, or lab work that can’t be completed remotely for practical reasons. In all three formats, success is mostly determined by students’ ability to self-motivate.

Are online classes larger than in-person classes?

Class sizes in online university programs are limited only by what the technology will support.Some colleges and universities pack students into these courses as a cost-cutting measure—possibly to the detriment of course quality. Johann Neem, professor of history at Western Washington University told Inside Higher Ed that “scalability is limited if we care about the quality of students’ experiences. Assessing complicated work, such as papers and discussions, requires professors’ expertise, wisdom and judgment. And all students, whether online or on campus, deserve opportunities to interact closely with their teachers.”

That may be why the best colleges and universities treat online classes no differently than in-person classes when it comes to enrollment. Research has demonstrated that to be effective, online undergraduate classes should have no more than 12 students and graduate courses should have no more than 14 students. As more students are added to online students, classroom discussion boards become chaotic, it becomes impossible for professors to offer one-on-one advisement, and assessment becomes challenging. Smaller class sizes allow professors to provide students in online classes the same attention and support that students on campus receive.

Do online classes run longer than on-campus classes?

Many online classes are slotted into the traditional semester-based schedule. However, because courses for distance learners don’t take up classroom space or require faculty to travel to and from campus, schools can schedule online classes at any time of the year. Some colleges and universities divide the school year into smaller terms for online classes. These classes may be shorter than those held on campus, and students pursuing degrees may graduate more quickly. Every institution structures its academic calendar differently, so it’s essential to make sure that you’re comfortable moving through the material at the pace your chosen school has deemed appropriate for online classes.

How can students interact when they’re taking courses online?

The image of a lonely online student staring mutely at a laptop for hours at a time while doing solo work is outdated. Modern LMS platforms promote classroom discussion and collaboration between classmates. Participation in discussions and group projects is often mandatory, but if you’re worried about having to do it all through message boards, don’t be. Zoom and other video conferencing apps are often built into distance learning platforms, making live interaction possible.

Are there proctored exams in online classes?

Most online classes don’t require students to sit for proctored exams. Where proctored exams are part of the syllabus, students may need to travel to local testing centers, libraries, or community colleges that have proctors on site. There are also virtually monitored exam platforms like Proctorio on which live proctors use student webcams to watch for cheating or software that’s designed to detect cheating is built into the examination platform.

Some programs require students either to travel to campus to take proctored exams or to secure their own proctors, who must be approved by the school. Make sure you know ahead of time whether you’ll be required to take any proctored exams as part of your online classes so you can be prepared.

Do professors teaching online classes offer students the same level of support?

In the best online classes, professors and other faculty members are frequently available via email, chat, text, or video conference to answer questions and address concerns. Some offer tutoring services or make themselves available to review assignments before they’re submitted. Some online degree programs even make a point of having professors proactively reach out to students on a regular schedule for check-ins, which may bolster student engagement and help shy students meet a class’ participation requirements.

That said, not every professor teaching an online class will be that hands-on. Students in online classes can still access support from professors and other faculty, but they may have to seek it out proactively.

Are courses in online bachelor’s degree and master’s degree classes easier?

There was a time in the early 2000s when web-based distance learning was relatively new. It wasn’t clear whether online courses could be as rigorous as traditional courses because of the limitations of the existing tech. Since then, technology has evolved, and most online classes are every bit as challenging as those offered on campus. Students have to meet the same kinds of participation requirements, complete the same kinds of projects, presentations, and exams, and meet the same benchmarks. At schools that offer specific bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees both on campus and online, the curriculum in each program is often the same. Research also suggests that student performance in online classes is comparable.

There are some things you should consider, however, if you’re trying to decide whether to take a class on campus or online. Acing an online class can take more self-discipline and organization, and if you’re not a self-starter, you may do better in live classes. You’ll probably do better in online classes focused on subjects you’re comfortable with. If you struggle with math, for example, taking calculus or other higher-level math classes online could be a lot more difficult.

How can I make online classes work for me?

Because online courses function much as on-campus classes do, the keys to success are similar. Make sure you log in for all live lectures. Complete your assignments on time and to the best of your ability. Participate in course discussions. Reach out when you need help.

Don’t expect to do less work in online classes. You’ll do just as much reading, writing, and other work in online classes. In some courses, you’ll do more. There’s still accountability in online classes, but not as much as there is when classes meet on campus.

The best thing you can do is always to treat online classes like “real” classes. Too much flexibility or autonomy can lead to bad study habits, so create a schoolwork schedule you can follow without having to rush or let other commitments slip. Create a distraction-free workspace. When you sit down to study, don’t let your mind wander (as tempting as it might be to quickly check email or Facebook because you have a browser window open).

Finally, look into what kinds of support your college or university offers students enrolled in the same classes on campus. As a distance learner, you may be able to access the same tutoring services, career support services, and alumni network—all of which can add a considerable amount of value to your online experience.

(Written by Christa Terry)

The idea that online classes and online degree programs should be more affordable than on-campus classes makes sense in theory. Online programs have no physical classroom spaces to maintain. Classes can be a lot bigger. And the course content, one created, can be recycled until it’s in danger of becoming out-of-date.

In practice, however, it’s unusual for college students in online classes to pay less than students on campus. In fact, it’s not uncommon for online degree programs to actually cost slightly more than traditional, in-person offerings.

The handful of higher education institutions that charge less for online classes (e.g., Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), which charges $1,281.50 per credit for undergraduate programs on campus and $320 per credit online) are often able to do so because they’ve gone all-in on distance learning. SNHU was a small regional school until it invested hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising and student recruitment for its online programs. Today, the school has 130,000 students and is one of the three largest higher-learning institutions in the United States. SNHU’s business model is all about scale—something that’s not possible for most colleges and universities.

The factors that go into calculating the cost of online college courses are much more complicated than more-students-equals-lower-tuition, however. In this article, we answer the question are online classes cheaper? and cover the following:

  • Why do many people assume online classes are less expensive?
  • Do online courses cost schools less to deliver?
  • Are there fees that students who take classes online don’t have to pay?
  • Do colleges and universities ever charge more for online classes?
  • When are online classes more affordable than classes held on campus?
  • Is taking online classes or earning a degree online really worth it?

Why do many people assume online classes are less expensive?

One of the most pervasive myths about online degree programs and online schools is that they’re less expensive than traditional college programs. It may be a holdover from the rapid rise of online for-profit colleges in the early 2000s. These programs attracted large numbers of students because they were widely advertised, billed as more convenient than studying on campus, and relatively inexpensive. People probably still associate distance learning at the university level with those types of low-cost, poor-outcome programs even though today, nearly all Ivy League schools offer some form of online classes, online certificate programs, or online college degree programs for bachelor’s degree and master’s degree students.

The popularity of affordable or even free Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, may also have played a role. These open-access classes (sometimes developed and administered by universities) are especially common in the tech world, where best practices, techniques, and tools evolve rapidly.Their ubiquitousness has probably contributed to the idea that an online education should cost less.

This is where the scale issue comes back into play. Affordable online colleges and universities like SNHU, Arizona State University – Tempe (ASU), Western Governors University, and Georgia Institute of Technology (Main Campus) adapted the model created by for-profit colleges and made it work.

Still, the reality is the best online classes and the best online degree programs have less in common with MOOCs than with the traditional on-campus experience. Small class sizes, face-to-face interaction, synchronous online discussions, virtual office hours, similar graduation rates, and a lot of pre- and post-graduation support are typical of today’s online degree program experience.

Do online courses cost schools less to deliver?

Some colleges and universities have found ways to make online courses cost less per student. Again, scale may be the most crucial factor—the larger a school’s enrollment numbers and class sizes, the bigger the savings—though it’s worth noting that it’s not the only factor. If online courses are offered continuously throughout the year (which is possible with 100 percent asynchronous online classes), schools can quickly recoup the cost of each course.

How about the cost of teaching? An ASU Action Lab study of online learning at the university level called Making Digital Work found that colleges and universities frequently assign online classes to “less costly” adjunct or part-time faculty instead of tenured professors. This does, indeed, reduce the school’s costs.

On the other hand, the best online degree programs can cost more to deliver. That’s because it can be quite expensive to adapt hands-on, high-engagement courses and degree programs for online learners. It can also be costly to run them; online programs require a large, capable support staff to ensure everything runs smoothly and that troubleshooting, when necessary, is quick and effective.

Are there fees that students who take classes online don’t have to pay?

The frustrating answer is ‘sometimes.’ Many schools make it difficult for prospective students to figure out how much individual classes and entire degree programs cost. Tuition rates are published in one place. Fees are published in another, and there may or may not be an explanation of what expenses those fees actually cover. Other schools combine a semester’s tuition costs and fees into one big number, making it impossible to know at a glance how much you’ll pay in fees if you enroll. When public universities charge in-state and out-of-state tuition rates, it gets even more confusing. Some schools treat all online students as non-residents. Others don’t. Others still charge all online students the in-state rate.

Part of the problem is that many colleges and universities haven’t updated their fee structures to account for the influx of distance learners. Consider that fees often fund shuttle buses, tutoring centers, campus maintenance, fitness facilities, health clinics, cultural events, and other extras that only benefit on-campus students. In some cases, online students are automatically exempt from these fees, though it’s unusual for schools to publish that information online. Sometimes, distance learners have to pay these fees up front but receive a refund partway through the semester. And at some schools, online students may be able to request a waiver of some fees—particularly if they’re taking just one or two classes.

Do colleges and universities ever charge more for online classes?

Again, the answer is sometimes. One study conducted by BMO Capital Markets found that the average per credit hour, in-state cost for an online bachelor’s program was higher than the per credit cost of analogous on-campus programs. ASU, for instance, charges full-time online students close to $1,000 more per semester for its bachelor’s degree programs.

That’s not unusual. While most colleges and universities charge the same tuition for online and on-campus classes, some charge more, and only about five percent of schools charge online students a lower cost, according to the latest Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE) report.

Students may end up paying more for online classes because they have to pay technology fees that students in on-campus programs don’t have to pay. According to the CHLOE report, those added fees pay for additional costs related to “online instruction and support services,” “online course and program development,” and “online program marketing.”

When are online classes more affordable than classes held on campus?

Affordability, when it comes to online classes, often has nothing to do with tuition or fees. While traditional degree programs and online degree programs may come with the same price tag on paper, students who take classes online or who complete entire degree programs remotely can often save money in other ways. Consider that students who study on-campus pay for on-campus housing or commuting costs, dining plans or meals on campus, books and other physical course materials, and even mandatory health insurance and vaccinations.

Enrolling in a traditional degree program can end up costing tens of thousands of dollars more than taking online classes even if students have to pay the same per-credit tuition and fees. More importantly, students who take community college, bachelor’s degree, and master’s degree courses online may be able to continue working.

Is taking online classes or earning a degree online really worth it?

Absolutely, provided you enroll in a well-ranked, accredited college or university program that offers the same classes or degree program you’re taking on campus as well as online. That’s a surefire way to ensure that you get the biggest ROI. You’ll earn the same certificate, bachelor’s degree, or master’s degree that you would have if you studied on campus, and you’ll get the same level of post-graduation support. You’ll complete the same coursework alongside peers who met the same admissions criteria on-campus students met. Chances are that your experiences after completing your program will be similar to the school’s published student outcomes for that program.

The bottom line is that online classes at top colleges and universities (or even mid-range schools) will probably never be less expensive than on-campus classes, even as institutions expand their offerings for distance learners. What’s important is that students get what they pay for. The days when online courses and degree programs were a pale imitation of what was offered on campus are over. Online classes at schools like Harvard University and Columbia University are as rigorous and can lead to a degree that’s every bit as respected as you would expect.

(Written by Christa Terry)

Online education has grown significantly over the last decade, thanks mainly to its ability to teach vital skills and deliver qualifications in a flexible learning environment. From the get-go, its convenience has attracted students looking to maintain full- or part-time work as they advance their education. It’s also ideal for parents looking to balance learning with childcare and other life commitments.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, online learning has become even more central to where and how students learn. When the pandemic forced the country into lockdown last spring, elementary and secondary schools, as well as university and college campuses, transitioned to remote instruction. Most people assumed the shift was only temporary. With the threat of the coronavirus continuing into the fall and next year, temporary doesn’t appear to be so temporary after all. And the longer online learning remains the primary channel for education, the more it becomes “the new normal.”

While some schools have opted to reopen their campuses in the fall with social distancing regulations in place, many others have planned either to focus exclusively on distance education or to provide a mix of online and on-campus learning. If your school is part of the latter group, here’s what next semester’s online classes will require of you in terms of time—and time-management skills.

How online classes work

You will access your online class via a web browser. Courses typically reside in a learning management system such as Blackboard, Canvas, or Moodle. You’ll receive login credentials to access each course in which you are enrolled. Each course will be divided into discrete web pages, each corresponding to an assignment in the curriculum.

Online courses can deliver a wide variety of content, including:

  • Streaming video
  • Slide shows
  • Interactive apps
  • Text pages
  • Downloadable pdfs
  • Quizzes
  • Assignments

How you interact with the course materials, your instructor, and your classmates depends on whether the material is delivered synchronously or asynchronously.

Synchronous classes

You’ll likely come across the words “synchronous” and “asynchronous” as you begin planning for online learning. Both refer to how course content is delivered. Only synchronous classes operate within set time frames. Synchronous courses require students and instructors to meet in an online platform at a specific hour.

One of the most significant advantages of synchronous classes is that they facilitate the sort of meaningful interactions typical of a face-to-face learning environment. Thanks to real-time interaction through video conferencing software like Google Meet and Zoom, students receive immediate feedback to their questions and comments and stay active in the learning process.

The interaction and collaboration that’s typical of synchronous learning help students and instructors maintain connections and feel part of a group—which may be more critical now than ever. Often, this sense of community stems from formal course-related interaction—like group teleconferencing and collaborative brainstorming—as well as more informal social interaction through online discussions, live chats, and self-scheduled study sessions.

Many instructors use online learning as an opportunity to implement “flipped classroom” strategies. Rather than lecturing during live sessions, teachers deliver lecture material in text format or via pre-recorded lecture videos. Live class sessions are then devoted to conversation, question-and-answer session, and problem-set review. Many students report that classes in this format are actually more interactive than their live classroom counterparts.

Asynchronous classes

Unlike synchronous online classes, asynchronous courses don’t require students to log in to learning platforms at a set time. Instead, students can access reading materials, pre-recorded lectures, tests, and coursework at any time, 24/7. Are you a night owl? Early bird? Last-minute crammer? Doesn’t matter. Asynchronous content is available whenever you want it, wherever you can access an internet connection.

You’re not entirely on your own. Instructors of asynchronous courses are usually available during specified office hours. Even so, students tend to participate more independently, completing self-guided lesson modules and streaming video content in isolation.

Asynchronous courses offer maximum flexibility by allowing students to design their own learning schedules. Because of this, asynchronous online classes are especially convenient for students who need to balance their education with jobs, family care, and other outside responsibilities.

As much as interaction and collaboration may enhance the learning experience, some students may feel uncomfortable participating in real-time online discussions. They may wish to confirm concepts before sharing with a larger group. Or, they may have difficulty speaking up over other, more dominant students. For these students especially, asynchronous learning can help by eliminating social anxiety or fear of failure, providing opportunities to reflect and collect their thoughts before responding.

Strategies for online learning success

While plenty of online courses require fully asynchronous or synchronous learning, many blend both. They combine real-time lectures]and self-paced reading assignments or a mix of scheduled live chat sessions and group projects that allow students to contribute in a self-paced manner.

No matter the format, one of the universal challenges faced by online students is balancing their education with everything outside of it. Because of this, having strategies for managing their time, staying organized, and minimizing distractions are essential. We recommend these.

1. Create a schedule—and stick to it

Ink in your scheduled synchronous classes and create windows during which you will review asynchronous content. Also schedule time for studying and completing assignments. Don’t forget to set aside time for work and family commitments as well as any other events and personal activities in their week. Planning time to play, relax, or do whatever also acts as a great reward for sticking to a schedule—and may even help students enjoy their free time more.

2. Block out on-screen distractions

Avoiding distractions is essential to student success. It can be easy to lose focus on school-related tasks with one-click access to mail, trending news, addictive games, and viral videos at hand. Instead of forcing students to rely on willpower alone, download one of the many website blocker tools that can help you overcome the temptation of whatever sites tend to hamper your productivity. Since mobile apps are often the sneakiest of all distractions, turning off their push notifications is always a good idea, too.

3. Create a study space

Studying in front of the TV, at the kitchen table, or in a local coffee shop may seem harmless enough, but these spaces can be jolting—and can often have adverse effects. In contrast, a quiet corner can help students enter “study-mode” more quickly, which is especially valuable before tests or when they’re crunched for time. Ideally, students should look to designate spaces in their homes and arrange them so that they’re organized, functional—and a place they’ll want to be.

4. Leverage community

Compared to students in traditional in-person classes, online students sometimes get the sense that they’re learning entirely independently. To avoid the feeling, students should build relationships with their online network as early on in a course as possible by introducing themselves to their instructors and peers. Many built-in tools, like discussion boards and video conferencing, are useful for collaborating and sharing information. With an instructor’s approval, these outlets may also be used for non-academic student group chats. Social media is also a great way to build deeper relationships, whether students introduce themselves to peers via Instagram or forming study groups on Facebook.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

There’s something to be said for finding answers to course-related questions on your own. It can, however, also become a huge time suck. Don’t hesitate to seek assistance. Fortunately, online courses provide a wide scope of options for asking instructors and peers for assistance. Email, for one, is ideal for questions or requests that do not need an urgent answer. Video conferencing may be best for students who need an immediate answer to a question, or if their concern is best-explained face-to-face. Rules and introductory material, like course FAQs, are also helpful when dealing with inquiries related to the course basics, and can prevent students from asking questions that have already been answered.

(Written by Mairead Kelly)

Colleges were among the first US institutions to respond to the coronavirus in the spring of 2020. As the country went into lockdown, campuses closed, transitioning all classes to remote instruction. Now, as college administrators contemplate how life on campuses will resume this fall, their plans paint a much different picture of how the traditional college experience will look.

Schools are considering a range of options. Ithaca College, for example, has delayed starting its in-person fall semester until October 5. The delay will allow the school to assess conditions at other schools and adjust health and safety planning appropriately. Purdue University Main Campus expects to hold in-person classes from the fall until Thanksgiving to avoid exposing students and faculty to the highly contagious virus through holiday season travel.

As a second round of Covid-19 cases remains “inevitable” in the fall and into the colder months, many schools are preparing for hybrid instruction with limited in-person classes. Others, like the University of Texas at Austin, plan to move thousands of fall courses to an exclusively online learning environment, allowing students to continue their education without returning to campus.

Of all of the changes to the higher education landscape as a result of the pandemic, the rapid move to online learning may be the most significant. However, it’s only accelerating a trend that has been growing over the past several years. As online learning has developed and evolved, more students have embraced the format and helped push it to the mainstream. Yet some misconceptions remain, including that accredited online courses are generally less difficult than their on-campus counterparts.

Are they really? To answer that question, let’s take the following factors into account.

The workload doesn’t change

Online classes typically follow the curricula of their on-campus counterparts, meaning that the workload in both is identical. In both traditional and online formats, students are expected to interact with their instructors and peers and to engage actively with course content and instructor feedback. The availability of message boards and other interactive tools often results in greater student participation, particularly compared to large on-campus lectures, where it’s much easier to hide in the back of the room.

The real difference in coursework isn’t how much there is, but how it’s done. In in-person classes, it’s common for students to expect virtually every type of assessment, from written work and tests to performances and presentations.

Online classes, on the other hand, are often more limited when considering the types of assignments students complete. Typically, online instructors grade students through papers, open-book examinations, and student contributions to online class discussions. Some online courses include live student presentations, but only when the professor is motivated—and technically proficient—enough to make it happen. Once you reach a certain age, Zoom apparently becomes an unsolvable mystery.

They require a greater degree of self-discipline

With the misconception that online classes are easier comes the idea that students can participate in a more lackadaisical manner. In reality, most online courses require students to have stronger organizational skills, polished academic writing skills, and a greater sense of self-discipline than in the traditional classroom. When classes are entirely online and asynchronous—i.e., without any live sessions—students must work at their own pace, which requires a significant degree of self-motivation.

Many online courses also require a rigorous schedule of biweekly, weekly, or daily assignments and contributions to group discussion boards. What they lack is the built-in pressure that occurs naturally in in-person classes. That makes it easier to fall behind until the workload becomes insurmountable. You will definitely test your time-management skills in your online courses.

They may require more participation

In online courses, participation is typically mandatory, usually through written discussions in chat rooms or message boards. As a result, students may hear a broader range of perspectives, including from those who struggle to participate during in-person classes, where participation is often voluntary.

Some online courses deliver content asynchronously, i.e., via pre-recorded online lectures. In such classes, the lack of face-to-face interaction with instructors and peers can complicate learning, especially for students who prefer to learn in groups or with other people. On the other hand, students who prefer to work alone may benefit from online classes, where they won’t be overwhelmed by group discussions.

Not all online courses operate asynchronously. More and more, in-person instruction—facilitated through an online meeting platform such as Zoom—is being integrated into online learning. In some programs—especially in graduate programs—live sections are limited to 15 or 20 students, virtually ensuring that everyone will get called on at some point.

They’re often pursued by students with significant outside obligations

According to Educationdata statistics, the average age of full-time online undergraduate students was 21.8 in 2018-2019, compared to 27.2 for part-time students. At the graduate and professional level, full-time online students were, on average, 29.7 years old, while the average age of part-time students enrolled in online programs was 34.9. Until COVID-19 came along, most online education served part-time students.

Given the findings, it’s clear that online education is well-suited to older students, who are most likely to balance school with work, family, and other obligations. While the decision to go back to school as an adult isn’t easy, it’s not the idea of juggling competing priorities and responsibilities that turns prospective students away from enrollment. A recent national survey from Champlain College Online found that 60 percent of US adults age 23 to 55 without a bachelor’s degree have considered returning to school, but costs and student debt were deterrents.

Cheating is difficult—and only becoming more so

The evidence for whether online or face-to-face students are more likely to cheat is inconclusive. But thanks to tools that monitor academic dishonesty in online courses, schools have been able to minimize cheating among online students with the hopes of eliminating it entirely in the long run.

One way they do this is through proctored exams, which require students to report to campus or official off-site testing centers for testing. Online proctoring—or eProctoring—is also on the rise, a service that combines machine learning and artificial intelligence to ensure academic integrity is maintained during testing.

Keystroke verification software is another common tech-based method. Students type a short phrase, which is then analyzed by a software program. The program learns students’ IP addresses as well as their typing speed, rhythm, and other characteristics, such as how long they tend to press specific keys.

Simplest of all methods for deterring cheating in online courses may be honor codes. Schools that enforce them typically require students to sign a written agreement at the beginning of their program, vowing that they will not cheat.

The repercussions of breaking an honor code typically depend on the specific school and circumstances. In the event of a violation, some students may face a reduced grade for the assignment. Others may find that their final grade for a course will take a hit. It’s also common for students found guilty of academic misconduct to receive additional academic work. In some cases, cheating can get you expelled.

Is it easier to cheat artificial intelligence than a live proctor in a traditional classroom? Our advice: don’t try to find out.

(Written by Mairead Kelly)

Pity the poor college and university administrators. Yes, we know: that’s not a sentiment you hear every day. During normal times, school administrators get along just fine without our sympathy, thank you.

But these are anything but normal times. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the entire world into disarray, and that of course includes institutions of higher education (IHEs). Administrators at these schools are now figuring out how to manage the fast-approaching fall semester. They have precious little time to decide whether to reconvene on-campus, continue with distance learning, or cancel the fall semester entirely. As of now, most schools seem ready to welcome students back to their actual or virtual campuses in the fall, albeit with many new restrictions and guidelines.

Regardless of their decisions, the questions facing them are massive and daunting. A college campus is a whole lot more than a place where students attend classes, after all. It’s also a workplace. It provides residences, dining facilities, recreation, and healthcare services to students. School campuses aren’t merely businesses; they are fully functioning communities, many of them as large as midsize towns. The University of Iowa, for example, is home to nearly 50,000 students, faculty, and staff.

So, what will the fall semester look like on college campuses? In this article, we discuss the various approaches schools will take to accommodate students while also preventing the spread of COVID-19. We’ll discuss:

  • Modified academic calendars
  • Social distancing measures on campus
  • What about lectures and other classes?
  • What about dormitories?
  • What about dining services?
  • What about extracurriculars and social life?
  • So, is this really going to happen?

Modified academic calendars

Experts caution that a second wave of coronavirus infections is likely in the coming fall and winter. Many predict it will be more severe than the wave that claimed over 100,000 lives in the spring. Most agree that its impact will worsen as outside temperatures drop.

Many university and college campuses have reacted to these forecasts by modifying their academic calendars for the fall of 2020. They are calling students back to campus early—typically two to three weeks earlier than previously planned—canceling mid-semester breaks, and scheduling finals for the days preceding Thanksgiving. The idea is to get students off-campus for the Christmas-season holiday before the coldest winter arrives.

Other considerations are driving this strategy. Schools worry that every trip students take off and on campus increases their potential exposure to the virus and, thus, increases the risk they represent to others on campus. They are particularly concerned about students returning from a Thanksgiving break during which they would likely come into close contact with many family and friends. Ending the semester before Thanksgiving eliminates the risk of massive coronavirus outbreaks two weeks after Thanksgiving break, which coincides with the traditional finals period.

Some institutions are taking an even more creative approach. Beloit College in Wisconsin, for example, is dividing its traditional four-month semester into two seven-and-a-half-week mini-semesters. The idea is to create an agile framework so that the school can alter its strategies between terms if necessary. “If we needed to move away from campus, there would be a place, a pivot point in the semester where it’d be natural to move off campus,” Eric Boynton, the school’s provost, told Marketplace recently.

Social distancing measures on campus

On May 30, the CDC issued guidelines for IHEs considering options for the fall semester. Noting that “IHEs vary considerably in geographic location, size, and structure” as well as in potential exposure to the virus, the CDC offers schools a range of options in terms of live classes and dormitory openings.

It does provide concrete guidance in several areas, however. Many schools appear set to adopt the CDC’s suggestions, which include:

  • Reduced class sizes with students seated at least 6 feet apart
  • Reduced capacity residence halls
  • Closure or restricted usage of public spaces, including game rooms, exercise rooms, and lounges
  • Daily self-screening for body temperature and COVID-19 symptoms
  • Frequent and vigorous hand-washing; ready availability of soap, sanitizer, and disinfectants
  • Cloth face masks worn in all public spaces
  • Regular cleaning of all public spaces and surfaces, including door handles, banisters, bathrooms, etc.
  • Restrictions on sharing lab equipment, computers, art supplies, etc.
  • Optimization of ventilation and water systems
  • Installation of sneeze guards and other physical barriers wherever social distancing is difficult
  • Grab-and-go meal service; where dining is seated, use of disposable items
  • No buffets
  • Immediate quarantine of infected students, faculty, and staff
  • Pervasive signage reminding all of safe procedures

Some schools are implementing measures beyond those recommended by the CDC. Chapman University, for example, is among the many schools that will mark doors and pathways one-way to reduce face-to-face encounters. The University of Virginia (Main Campus) will give students “Welcome Back Kits” that include two cloth face masks, hand sanitizer, and an L-shaped ‘touch tool’ for opening doors and pressing elevator buttons. University of Kentucky is considering requiring students to take their temperature daily and to record the results on a cellphone app that the school monitors.

While most students will be welcomed back to campus in the fall, what awaits them will be anything but a typical college experience. Not all schools are inviting students back, though; the entire California State University system, for one, will offer the vast majority of its academic content virtually this fall. Only classes where in-person attendance is integral to the course—e.g., clinical courses, science laboratory courses, art studios—will meet live, and then only under controlled conditions. McGill University, six of Harvard University‘s schools, and many community colleges have all announced similar approaches.

What about lectures and other classes?

Few, if any, schools have committed to business-as-usual live classes this fall. Even those that may eventually hold conventional live classes are taking a wait-and-see approach. The obstacles to live classes are considerable. Schools will need to space students sufficiently, and then there are faculty concerns to consider. Many faculty are old enough to be at increased risk for the virus’s effects or have conditions that compromise their resistance to the disease, or live with people who meet one of those descriptions. They are understandably concerned about potential exposure.

Some schools are considering a hybrid class format. On May 28, Wichita State University announced that fall classes would include “limited in-person instruction, some synchronous online engagement (with participants meeting at the same time), and/or asynchronous content delivery (with participants engaging the materials independently).”

Others plan to implement a hybrid-flex format, or, as Biola University calls it, “the hy/flex model.” Under hy/flex, classes will be “adaptable for students who cannot be present for some or all of the semester” such as “global students whose visas may not allow them to start the first of the semester or students whose health situation may mandate a temporary on-campus quarantine…” Under hy/flex, a single class “may include students who are simultaneously in the classroom, connected via live web conference from their dorms and across the U.S. or abroad.” Classes will also be recorded for those who “experience significant time zone differences or limitations in accessing live web conference events.”

Schools aren’t shying away from even more innovative solutions. The University of Colorado Boulder is implementing a cohort system that will group freshmen by shared courses. These students will live together and attend classes together, minimizing the number of interactions they will have with other students.

What about dormitories?

Dormitories on most college campuses “will be nowhere near capacity,” US News & World Report explains. Social distancing protocols will require reduced occupancy of suites meant to be shared by many students. Limits to the number of students who can access a shared bathroom will also impact how many people can occupy a suite or dormitory floor. Some schools are in the process of renting apartments near campus to accommodate students who would normally live in on-campus housing.

Some schools will push capacities as far as they can. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill plans to operate its residences at normal capacity, explaining that its two-person living spaces shouldn’t significantly increase contagion. The school does plan to implement more frequent, more rigorous cleaning of common areas and restrooms.

What about dining services?

One thing is for certain: buffet service and cramming students elbow-to-elbow at dining tables are out. Some schools will encourage students to choose grab-and-go meals; others will offer boxed food only. Those that allow dining on-premises will have to enforce distancing restrictions between diners; some will install protective screening such as sneeze guards. Some schools may limit dining room service to campus residents only.

Measures Duke University has implemented for its dining services include:

  • Disposable plates and utensils only
  • Elimination of self-service options
  • All food is take-out only
  • Additional employee trainings
  • Mandatory hand-washing by employees every 20 minutes and between every task
  • Mobile ordering option
  • Third-party monitoring and inspections (Steritech)

What about extracurriculars and social life?

The NCAA has issued guidelines for the resumption of college athletics, but I would not get my hopes up. The chances of normal college athletics resuming in fall 2020 are slim; the chances that spectators will be allowed at the events are much slimmer. Likewise for parties, extracurricular clubs, concerts, and so many other events that make college life fun: unless they can be held under the CDC guidelines listed above, they’re likely not going to be allowed.

So, is this really going to happen?

Schools are planning to open in the fall and are proceeding as though it is, indeed, going to happen. The variable in this equation, of course, is COVID-19. Absent a vaccine—which experts assure us won’t be available in time for the fall semester—those who lack immunity remain vulnerable to the virus. That means it could possibly resurge at any point, potentially forcing the world back into lockdown.

Coronavirus testing would help identify and thus help contain the virus and its spread. Schools hope to be able to implement widespread testing on campus this fall but may lack the resources to do so. Testing is expensive and requires equipment that is in high demand and, as a result, in short supply. Without the ability to test everyone, schools will have to rely on the self-reporting mechanisms described above to track potential outbreaks. Unfortunately, counting on college students to self-report bad news is probably not the most reliable failsafe.

(Written by Tom Meltzer)

Over the past several weeks, thousands of U.S. colleges and universities have been impacted by COVID-19, the respiratory illness associated with the new coronavirus. In response to the outbreak, many have canceled in-person classes in favor of continuing courses exclusively online for the remainder of the school year.

As the number of cases and fatalities rise and people around the world are forced into isolation, the coming weeks and months bring uncertainty for everyone—especially as government guidelines continue to urge Americans to avoid nonessential travel, going to work, eating at bars and restaurants, or gathering in groups of more than ten until at least until the end of April and perhaps even until June.

Meanwhile, instructors are facing new technologies and ways of teaching that may leave them uncomfortable. In a statement to EdSource, Mia McIver, a professor at the University of California – Los Angeles, noted that—in at least some instances—the resulting online courses will suffer.

“I know that I will not be the teacher I want to be, and my students won’t get the education I want them to have if these discussions go online rather than face-to-face,” she said. “There’s no such thing as a class that can be picked up and plunked online without thought and care. It usually takes months to convert an in-person class to online.”

Don’t judge online learning from the ad hoc courses your college has to throw together in a matter of days or weeks in order to complete this term. To understand the potential of online instruction, consider courses that were developed prior to the coronavirus outbreak, courses that feature well-considered instructional design and carefully planned teaching techniques. Fortunately, some top schools offer a number of such online courses at no cost to students. We’ve listed some of our favorites below.

Art and Music

ART of the MOOC: Public Art and Pedagogy

Designed by artist and Duke University professor Pedro Lasch and co-taught by Creative Time artistic director Nato Thompson, this course touches on several controversial yet iconic works of public art, including Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial and Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc. Additionally, it explores the way artists use everyday social institutions—such as corporations, churches, and banks—as media for public works.

Berklee Online

Berklee College of Music allows students to test-drive its online learning platform with a sample course containing 12 real lessons from the school’s most popular courses. Each lesson offers content pulled straight from its course, including video and audio clips, discussion topics, and weekly assignments.

Psychology of Art and Creativity

What is creativity? And can it be measured? This course, which is hosted by the University of Central Florida, poses these questions by focusing on the intersection between art and psychology.

Yale Music Theory Course

Hosted on YouTube, this lecture series is given by Craig Wright, a Moses Professor of Music at Yale University, who stresses the importance of active listening.

Math, Data Science, and Engineering

Cognitive Class

Created to address the skills shortage in emerging technologies, including data science, AI, big data, cloud computing, and blockchain, IBM’s Cognitive Class offers learning paths in data science 101, methodology, hands-on applications, programming in R, and open source tools.

OpenLearn

There is no subject too big or too small for OpenLearn to tackle. In the realm of math, specifically, its free courses pick apart the broad subjects like math in science and technology. The platform also focuses on more specialized courses such as the kinematics of fluids, medical statistics, and even Egyptian mathematics.

Stanford Engineering Everywhere

Also known as SEE, this platform includes a course portfolio that includes the three-course Introduction to Computer Science, taken by the majority of undergraduates at Stanford University. Advanced courses in artificial intelligence, linear systems and optimization, and electrical engineering are also available.

Design and Web Development

Canva Design School

This platform offers lessons, tutorials, resources, and articles on a variety of topics that will be especially helpful to new graphic designers.

Codeacademy

Codecademy offers a series of self-guided tutorials for beginners to learn the basics of web development programming. Its learning process focuses on an in-browser, self-contained development, allowing students to learn the basic structures of front-end code like HTML and CSS before moving on to back-end languages such as Ruby on Rails and Python.

Envato Tuts+

Envato has created a dense tutorial archive to support illustrators and designers with almost any type of software and design process. Courses cover topics in Illustrator, Photoshop, Cinema 4D, Rhino, and many more.

Ideas from the History of Graphic Design

From the first 19th-century mass-marketing campaigns to the radical, psychedelic imagery of the 1960s and ’70s, this California Institute of the Arts course traces the development of graphic design over the past hundred years.

Mozilla Developer Network

The team behind the popular Firefox web browser has created an incredible resource for developers of all skill levels and expertise. Its collection of articles, tutorials, and other resources covers a wide range of topics, from basic web introductions and front-end languages to common vocabulary and optimization and performance.

Business and Finance

All About Financial Management in Business

Offered by the Free Management Library, this course includes topics in planning and cash management, financial statements, cost-cutting, and financial analysis. While it does not offer assignments or tests, the course does serve as a source of related resources that students can use to deepen their learning experience.

Finance Foundations by LinkedIn Learning

Taught by two professors from Brigham Young University – Provo, this video series covers the fundamentals of finance, paying special attention to topics like risk and return, capital budgeting, and investing basics. Students receive a free month-long trial with signup.

Global Business in Practice

This course provides students with an overall view of the increasingly complex challenges of global business. Students walk away with the foundational knowledge of what it takes to be a “Global Ready Leader” and learn to exploig the workings of globalization to make more informed business decisions.

Healthcare

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The CDC offers courses in environmental public health that allow students to learn a variety of topics ranging from general environmental health and food protection to air quality and environmental noise.

Health Informatics Technology in Population Healthcare Analytics

Doane University – Arts & Sciences also offers a course in public health. This one focuses on health informatics technology. Students explore health informatics solutions that answer population health challenges, focusing on how to operationalize informatics to address important public health challenges impacting individuals, families, communities, and the environment in which they live.

The Global Health Learning Center

This organization offers healthcare courses in every subject from cancer prevention to antimicrobial resistance to family planning. Students can also pursue certification programs and “Mini-Courses,” which consist of study questions associated with popular articles from the Global Health: Science and Practice Journal as well as other resources.

Education

American Education Reform: History, Policy, Practice

This course helps students explore the history of U.S. education reform to discover the factors that shape how we talk about education and schools today. They’ll also learn about how the critical tensions embedded in U.S. education policy and practice apply to schools nationally, globally—and where they live.

Introduction to Data Wise: A Collaborative Process to Improve Learning & Teaching

Facilitated by the Open Learning Initiative from the Extension School at Harvard University, this course outlines an eight-step process for using a wide range of data sources to improve instruction. Students will see what this disciplined way of working with future colleagues can look and feel like in a school setting and have the opportunity to share insights and experiences about school improvement with students from around the world.

Multilingual Learning for a Globalised World

This course is one of the free options available from FutureLearn. In it, students explore multilingual education and how it can impact and improve education and our wider society.

(Written by Mairead Kelly)

Most prospective adult learners are overcommitted. They have jobs, families, community obligations—and they’re planning to add education, a huge time and energy consumer, to that list. What can they do to simplify their schedules?

Online learning is one option. Most online programs are part-time, designed to accommodate students’ other commitments. They may even allow the student to complete the program entirely on their own, without ever attending a live class or on-campus event.

Online education also greatly expands students’ academic options. No one near where you live offers that Master of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences degree you’ve been dreaming of? No problem, University of Florida – Online offers it. Now you can become an aquatic scientist from the comfort of your home, no matter where you are.

Online learning isn’t the answer to all problems, but it does solve quite a few. In this article about the benefits of online learning for adults, we’ll cover:

  • What is online learning?
  • How does online learning work?
  • What types of programs are available online?
  • What are the benefits of online learning?

What is online learning?

The term “online learning”—sometimes called “distance learning” or “e-learning”—refers to any form of education delivered via the Internet. Online learning includes everything from short tutorials to semester-long academic courses to certificate and degree programs. If you’ve ever watched a how-to video on Youtube, used an app to study an academic subject, or completed a work training on your computer, you’ve engaged in online learning.

Online learning has many applications. Elementary and secondary schools use online learning tools to deliver lessons or exercises to students, either in the classroom or as independent work. Private vendors, colleges, and universities use online learning to provide training courses and certification programs. Colleges and universities use online platforms to deliver undergraduate- and graduate-level courses and degrees.

Online learning delivers content in two ways:

  • Asynchronous content can be accessed by students at any time, 24/7. Asynchronous content typically consists of videos, graphics, readings, slide decks, bulletin boards and message boards, and third-party apps.
  • Synchronous content must be accessed at a specified time. In online programs that offer live classes, the live classes are synchronous content. In some online programs, attendance and participation in live classes are mandatory. In others, online students watch but don’t participate in live classes; in these programs, live classes are typically recorded so students can view them later, asynchronously. Online class meetings—for projects and study groups—are another form of synchronous content.

An online program can either be 100 percent online or require students to attend some sessions in-person. The latter format is usually described as a hybrid online program. The in-person meetings may be weekend-long immersion programs that culminate in a group project, or they could simply be courses that cannot be delivered online.

In its developing years, online learning earned a mixed reputation because:

  • Online courses were text-heavy and dull
  • Opportunities for students to engage with each other and with faculty were minimal
  • Many of the schools offering online options had poor graduation and job-placement results

Today, however, none of these are true. Expanded bandwidth means online courses incorporate high-def streaming video and interactive apps, and teleconferencing apps allow students and faculty to collaborate as frequently as they wish. Many top schools have launched online learning programs, producing impressive results for students. Not all online programs are worthwhile, but programs offering excellent value are not difficult to find. And in nearly all cases, schools award the identical degree to online and on-campus students. There is no stigma attached to earning a certification or degree online.

How does online learning work?

To study online, students typically log into a learning management system (LMS). The LMS is the platform in which courses and grades are delivered to students. Once logged in, the student can access the courses in which they are enrolled as well as their grades for completed work.

Most LMSes are highly intuitive. If you know how to point and click, you can navigate your way through an online course. Course modules typically appear in outline form; students progress linearly through the modules. These often include occasional quizzes to ensure students have understood what has been taught.

Some online programs are 100 percent asynchronous, meaning that all the material can be accessed independently at any time during the course. In such programs, students are not required to attend live sessions. Other online programs require live sessions—they typically occur once per week—facilitated by an online meeting app such as Zoom or Adobe Connect.

In many ways, online learning is quite similar to traditional classroom learning. In both formats, an instructor leads the class by providing a syllabus and delivering instruction. Students complete readings, exercises, and other assignments to supplement instruction and demonstrate mastery. The end result is often a grade or some other verification that the student has learned the material.

One critical difference is that, in traditional courses, students and their instructor convene for live sessions in the same location. Another significant difference lies in the purpose of those live sessions. In the traditional classroom, the standard instruction model is the lecture: the instructor stands at the front of the class and speaks while students sit silently and take notes. Online learning programs, however, deliver lecture material asynchronously, usually in pre-recorded videos. This means the live session can be used to reinforce previous independent—i.e., asynchronous—learning. It’s where students apply, synthesize, and question what they have learned (this learning model is often described as the flipped classroom). Many online students are surprised to discover that their online live sessions are more interactive and dynamic than their traditional live classes ever were.

Another potential difference is that, in an online course, your section instructor will almost certainly not be the lead instructor delivering the asynchronous content. Most online courses have dozens, if not hundreds, of enrollees, so they are subdivided into sections taught by adjunct faculty. In this way, they are a lot like large traditional introductory classes at the undergraduate level, where a lead professor delivers the lectures and teaching assistants lead the discussion sections.

What types of programs are available online?

Online learning delivers just about any program that can be delivered in a live classroom, and some that can’t. Adults can pursue any of the following online:

Many professional degrees—for teachers, social workers, or nurses, for example—require students to complete a practicum, internship, or other field placement. Most online programs that offer these degrees provide support for students in finding these placements. Be wary of any program that will not guarantee you such a placement, because you can’t graduate without it.

Popular online degree programs include:

New degrees are being added to online offerings all the time. Until recently, the American Bar Association refused to approve online Juris Doctor (JD) degrees for lawyers, but now four (hybrid) online law programs have been approved, and more are on the way. Some degree programs—many PhDs come to mind—may never go online because they are too small to make it worth a school’s investment. It’s arguable that the MD will never be offered online, but who knows? Things change fast in online education.

What are the benefits of online learning?

There are many reasons to choose online study over traditional on-campus study. We’ve listed below five of the reasons most commonly cited by students:

Convenience

For many adult students, the need to be on campus for a traditional program is a substantial impediment. The amount of planning required to be at school at a specific time—with all the juggling of work schedules and family obligations that can entail—can be a deal-breaker.

Many online programs can be completed without ever having to leave your home; no need to line up daycare or a babysitter. Likewise, when you need to travel, you’ll be able to access your schoolwork anywhere you have online access. Nor will you have to miss class when you’re sick. You won’t have to travel to and from campus nor find a parking space when you get there (nearly always a challenge; why don’t schools provide better parking options?).

Flexibility

Many online programs are 100 percent asynchronous, meaning you can complete the study materials whenever you like. Are you a night owl? An early bird? Have ten minutes at the end of your lunch break for some quick study time? Whenever you’re ready to study, your academic content will be waiting for you.

Even programs with mandatory live sessions are still mostly asynchronous: live sessions typically meet once a week in the evening, for an hour to 90 minutes. You will have to prepare for the live session by reviewing the asynchronous material, but you can do that at any time.

Cost savings

You may have heard that many online programs charge the same tuition as traditional on-campus programs charge, and that is, in fact, true. Even so, you will still save money by studying online. First, you’ll avoid the cost of commuting and parking, and all the time you would have spent in transit (which arguably has a monetary value).

Second, you can continue to live where you currently live and not have to relocate—which costs money—to a location near a school (where rents and property values tend to be inflated). Finally, online students sometimes avoid fees—such as an activity fee, or health insurance fees—that are charged on-campus students.

More options

With traditional on-campus programs, you have two choices: attend a school near your home, or relocate to attend a program farther away. For those unwilling or unable to locate, that can severely limit your choices. Do you want to attend a top MBA program? You’d better hope there’s one within driving distance.

Or you could pursue that MBA online, where options include:

The same is true for all degrees: by choosing to study online, you eliminate geographic location as a factor. That can greatly expand your choices and your opportunities.

Novel learning opportunities

Learning online is similar, but not identical, to learning in a traditional on-campus class. Here are some ways in which online learning is arguably better:

  • When you study online, you can review asynchronous material as often and as frequently as you like. Were you ever utterly confused by a lecture and wished you could hear it again? In your online program, you can hear it again and again and again until it makes sense to you (or you determine that it will never make sense to you).
  • Online courses—particularly those that are 100 percent asynchronous—afford students latitude to learn at their own pace. They can parcel out the material in small chunks nightly or cram it all in in a few monster study sessions. Whatever your learning style, online learning accommodates it.
  • Most online courses include many interactive elements that engage students in ways in-class lectures do not. Frequent quizzes check to determine whether you’ve mastered the material. Interactive apps increase students’ level of active participation in learning. Live classes, bulletin boards and message boards, live study sessions, and online group projects keep students in touch and learning from each other as well as from their instructor.
  • Online learning is multimedia learning, which “accommodates different learning styles and so maximizes learning for more students.” By adhering to Mayer’s 12 principles of multimedia learning, online course designers can exploit such unique benefits as: redundancy (the pairing of text and audio, which improves learning); segmenting (breaking lessons into smaller discrete learning units); and pre-training (constructing asynchronous material so that knowledge necessary for a subsequent lesson is introduced at exactly the right time).

(Written by Tom Meltzer)

Attending university remotely — whether you’re about to finish high school, are a few credits shy of a degree, or are looking to go back to school after years outside the classroom — is a viable option.

With education technology on the rise, universities around the world are adapting to meet the demands of students who prefer online learning to on-campus education. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that more than one-quarter of students at American postsecondary institutions were enrolled in at least one online course in 2012 (the most recent year for which data are available).

And these figures are on the way up; according to NCES, 8 percent of undergrads were enrolled in such classes in 2000, a figure that had risen to about 20 percent by 2008. It seems that every year Web-based learning becomes ever more accessible, affordable, and convenient.

That said, there are still great benefits to the typical on-campus college experience as well.

Before you make a decision, take a look at some of the pros and cons of each method to discover the option that’s best for you. Whether you choose to pursue an education on campus or in cyberspace has everything to do with your individual needs, preferences, and study habits.

On-Campus Education

If you are looking for the traditional, four-year “university experience” after high school — with clubs, Greek life, athletics, and dining halls — on-campus education is probably what you’d gravitate toward.

Being on campus means that you’ll have a large network of students to interact with, professors’ offices to visit, and spaces for studying, socializing, and meeting. While the Internet now offers more opportunities than ever for communicating in real-time, it’s still not quite the same as interacting face-to-face. It may be something of a cliché, but the on-campus experience will probably lead to lasting friendships — and maybe even professional relationships.

If you feel like you require a good deal of hands-on experience, plenty of guidance or tutoring, or you prefer to study in a group setting, e-learning might not be the right option for you. Assistance from peers, professors, and TAs can be tougher to obtain when you’re working remotely.

Another set of advantages that comes with on-campus study is an increased potential for experiential learning, which includes studio access, labs, and more. For this reason, courses in majors like nursing, engineering, and chemistry (to name a few) may require you to spend at least a few hours a week on campus.

Although campus-based education may offer better access to resources — and may be the better fit for many individuals — it does have its downsides. This traditional model lacks, for example, the flexibility that online courses offer (both in terms of tuition and scheduling). Depending upon your location, it may also require a commute. And, perhaps most importantly, the classroom-centric, lecture-style instruction that has become the norm in traditional college courses may not suit everyone.

Online Education

As noted above, more students than ever are completing digital coursework, and universities are offering ever-greater numbers of online courses that cover a very broad range of topics. While I noted some of the disadvantages of distance learning in the previous section — a lack of facilities like libraries and gyms, a dearth of extracurricular activities, limited social interactions with peers — there are plenty of benefits, too.

One major plus is its ease of access: You can attend lectures, do readings and other homework, speak with your fellow students and professors, and take tests — all from the comfort of your own home (and typically at a low cost). Another advantage is the ability to complete work on your own time.

For nontraditional students especially, these benefits are compelling. The flexibility that accompanies online learning has led many people to go back to school, or to earn a college degree while pursuing a passion or traveling the world.

Speaking generally, e-learning tends to be a good fit for those who are capable of managing their own schedules and learning processes — people who do not need a great deal of guidance from instructors. It also doesn’t hurt to be tech-savvy.

Considering Your Options

After reviewing the strengths and drawbacks of both online and on-campus learning, there are a few things you’ll want to consider before you make your choice.

Proximity

Are there accessible and affordable colleges or universities near you that offer high-quality degree programs in subjects you’re interested in? If so, you should think about the benefits of attending. If not, check to see whether the courses you want to take are readily available online.

Future Plans

What would you like to do for work once you’ve finished school? Will your potential employer see an online degree in a positive or negative light? Answers to this question will differ based upon your career plans, so it’s a great idea to take a look at the educational backgrounds of people working in a given industry or at a particular company.

Preference

Do you have a good undestanding of the ways you learn best? This is probably the most important factor in deciding between virtual or face-to-face learning. If being in a classroom setting with peers is helpful to you, or you prefer sitting through lectures to augment your reading assignments, or you need a teacher to keep you on a tight schedule, an on-campus university experience is probably the right choice for you.

But if you feel comfortable managing your own time, don’t live near a college, learn best at odd hours, and won’t miss the social aspects of a campus, online learning may be perfect. You’ll be able to work on your own time and at your own pace, you’ll ultimately spend less money on school, and (if you’ve got good time-management skills), you’ll find that you have more free time than the average student pursuing a traditional undergraduate education.

Making the Decision

Since so many factors and variables are involved, no one can give you a step-by-step answer with 100 percent confidence. Choosing a degree program and a method of pursuing it is a highly personal process that you will have to make on your own.

Do your research, consider your options, and don’t forget that it’s possible to mix and match online courses with classes on campus. With so many resources out there, you’re sure to find the perfect fit.

(Written by Hannah Miller)

Now that many workplaces offer telecommuting and flexible scheduling options for their employees, it seems natural that universities have followed suit to enable students to take classes without actually having to be on campus.

But colleges and universities aren’t the only ones offering online classes. A number of companies are providing platforms for users to take and teach a variety of courses. Skillshare, for example, offers classes taught by “everyday creators” on a variety of off-the-beaten path subjects for personal and professional development, such as knitting, pickling, t-shirt design, and Facebook marketing. You can even take a class called Teach Online: How To Create & Launch Your First Best-Selling Course, and use the platform to transition from student to teacher on the very same site.

For a sense of the shifting landscape of online learning, here is a list of emerging trends in online courses, as well as a selection of classes you can take from colleges and other organizations.

Astronomy

Space is, of course, a great mystery. Naturally, something that we know so little about lends itself to fierce class discussions and fodder for online courses.

Believe it or not, you can take classes with the Planetary Society, a non-profit run by Bill Nye (that’s the Science Guy, to all of you born in the 1980s). Classes consist of a set of pre-recorded lectures by California State University Dominguez Hills professors, and you can take a quiz to receive a certificate of achievement.

Looking for something a little more intense? Take a 9-week course with Caltech on Galaxies and Cosmology, and learn a little something about the interstellar medium.

Coding

Coding is applicable in nearly every industry. Free courses are a great way to learn a skill that will give you a competitive advantage. Meredith Ruble, CFO of The Noodle Companies.

Coding certifications are all the rage, with MOOC offerings from Khan AcademyUdacity, and Hack Reactor, to name a few.

While online coding classes and lessons have been around for some time, the range of options that now exists is remarkable. You can follow over 100 free lectures (thanks to funding from Sequoia Capital), such as Machine Learning and Programming Paradigms, from Stanford’s Engineering Everywhere project.

There are also a range of options specifically for women and girls. Hackbright AcademyAda Developers Academy, and Black Girls Code are looking to support gender and racial diversity in a male-dominated career space.

Climate Change and Sustainability

It’s difficult to deny that climate change is affecting all aspects of our lives, but there are plenty of classes you can take to learn about the issue.

Under the umbrella of its Global Studies program, NYU offers a course called Renewable Energy in the Age of Cheaper Oil, which touches on economics, sustainability, and technology. Or, if it’s the question of how humans impact the earth’s climate, you may also look into Global Warming I: The Science and Modeling of Climate Change through the University of Chicago.

Tufts University offers a course on The Biology of Water and Health-Sustainable Intervention. The drought in California is a recent example of natural devastation in the U.S., but a lack of access to safe water is a major, worldwide crisis. If you’re curious about the science behind water sustainability, as well as the contentious issues of hydrofracking and water privatization, you can enroll now for a future class (dates to be announced).

Cybersecurity, Online Privacy, and Hacking

Facebook’s constant privacy setting updates got you all in a tizzy? You’re not alone.

If you hold a BA in Computer Science and are looking to deepen your knowledge of cybersecurity and online privacy, MIT has a class called Cybersecurity: Technology, Application, and Policy for those interested in developing their technical skills further and gaining new knowledge of the cybersecurity landscape.

Stanford offers an Advanced Computer Science Certificate Program, the focus of which is cybersecurity and building secure infrastructures. Southern University of New Hampshire offers a Graduate Cyber Security Certificate, with class topics ranging from organized crime to private sector justice.

Psychology, Wellness, and Mental Health

Just like outer space, the brain is something we still know very little about. All those neurons, synapses, dendrites, and sheaths enable us to make decisions and develop our unique personalities, and scientists are keen to understand the many neurological disorders that affect the population but often have no cure or known cause.

The National Academy of Neuropsychology — which has been approved by the American Psychological Association to sponsor continuing education for psychologists — offers courses in neuroanatomy, psychopharmacology, and behavioral and cognitive neurology.

On a happier note, UC Berkeley offers a course in, well, happiness. “The Science of Happiness.” introduces students to positive psychology and evidence-based strategies for fostering their own happiness.

UMass Boston also offers online courses in psychology, counseling, and substance abuse. Its course on Social Attitudes & Public Opinion covers the interesting topic of how our family, education, and the media influence our behavior.

These are just five areas out of many in which you can take an online class. The options really are, as they say, endless. Whether you’re looking to learn a new skill, change your career, or indulge a burning interest, the course selection is vast, and classes themselves are shockingly comprehensive. Try something new; you never know how much you may enjoy this way of learning.

(Written by Christine Larusso)

Since the online degrees started becoming widely available in the mid-nineties, the benefits and disadvantages of online education have been widely debated — could someone learn as well behind their computer as they do in the classroom? Could the coursework ever be nearly as rigorous or dynamic?

In general, exclusively online degrees require high levels of discipline from those behind the keyboard, and offer an opportunity for prospective students supporting themselves with a side job or raising a family to change or set a career path.

But even with great strides made in online learning technology — just check out the incredible website for Michigan State’s award-winning online class Surviving the Coming Zombie Apocalypse — online degrees are still widely stigmatized by both employers and the general public.

As of 2012, 96 percent of traditional universities offered online courses, and in 2013, 7.1 million students took at least one online course. However, employers and hiring managers are still skeptical when it comes to degrees earned entirely online.

Online Degree on Your Resume

A 2013 survey revealed that a majority of human resource professionals prefer a candidate with a traditional degree from an average university over a candidate with an online degree from a top university.

According to Theresa DeAngelis, a senior academic advisor at non-profit virtual university Excelsior College, the stigma against online education has lessened in recent years as technology has improved, but still exists to a certain extent.

“Many people were wary of online programs in the beginning years, believing that learning could only take place in a classroom; some individuals still question them,” she said. “But more and more of the traditional, campus-based programs are putting their courses and/or programs online in an effort to compete with the online programs.”

Customization Generation

This current coming-of-age generation is one that has grown up on customizability, from personally tailored iPhones, Spotify playlists, and Netflix accounts. Traditionally, students have been able to pick their majors, arrange their schedules, and choose their classes. Being able to pick up some additional credits, or an entire degree, in a digital space only seems like a natural extension of a society moving towards personalization. According to DeAngelis, this level of customizability is something students are demanding.

“A large portion of the student population now has grown up in the technological age and want to be able to complete their courses in a more flexible manner,” she said.

In the same way that meeting a significant other online might have been greeted with skepticism by friends ten years ago, as online learning continues to become a norm instead of an exception, it’s likely that hiring managers and students will stop questioning if a degree earned plugged into a laptop in a coffee shop or home office is worth as much as one earned in the classroom.

Of course, there is something to be said for the social aspects of college — there’s no way to digitally replicate the joys of living with your classmates — and in-person learning experiences probably makes more sense for certain fields of study, like food/hospitality and most of the fine arts. But when it comes to accredited online degrees with rigorous course loads, it’s about time for the online learning stigma to evaporate.

Sources:

Bidwell, Allie. “Employers, Students Remain Skeptical of Online Education.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, 20 Sept. 2013. Web. 30 May 2014. Retrieved from U.S. News & World Report

Haynie, Devon. “What Employers Really Think About Your Online Bachelor’s Degree.” NY Daily News. 1 July 2013. Web. 30 May 2014. Retrieved from Daily News

Lebrun, Krista, and Margaret Rice. “Logging off: Attrition in online community college courses .” International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning 10: 3. Web. 30 May 2014.

(Written by Adam D’Arpino)

Accreditation is a critical factor to consider when planning for higher education. The process is designed to provide some assurance to prospective students, that the academic programs they are considering have been evaluated and found to have a basic level of quality. There are multiple types of accreditation and accrediting agencies, which play significant roles in academic and career activities such as transferring credits, receiving financial aid, pursuing professional credentials, and meeting employers’ expectations.

The Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education (Online Learning) [PDF] were developed by the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions and published in 2011 by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), as an update to guidelines written in 2002. As I have described in previous posts, the process of accreditation is evolving, and online learning environments provide the catalyst for the latest changes.

The Instructional Technology Council states in its 2011 Distance Education Survey Results[PDF] that the Interregional Guidelines have been adopted and endorsed by all U.S. regional accrediting bodies. The “Nine Hallmarks of Quality” include standards that could be used to not only evaluate existing online programs undergoing accreditation review:**

  1. Vision and Mission: “Online learning is appropriate to the institution’s mission and purposes.
  2. Planning and Maintenance: “The institution’s plans for developing, sustaining, and if appropriate, expanding online learning offerings are integrated into its regular planning and evaluation processes.”
  3. Collaboration: “Online learning is incorporated into the institution’s systems of governance and academic oversight.”
  4. Academic Rigor: “Curricula for the institution’s online learning offerings are coherent, cohesive, and comparable in academic rigor to programs offered in traditional formats.”
  5. Evaluation: “The institution evaluates the effectiveness of its online learning offerings, including the extent to which online learning goals are achieved, and uses the results of its evaluations to enhance the attainment of the goals.”
  6. Faculty: “Faculty responsible for delivering the online learning curricula and evaluating the students’ success in achieving the online learning goals are appropriately qualified and effectively supported.”
  7. Student Services: “The institution provides effective student and academic services to support students enrolled in online learning offerings.”
  8. Resources: “The institution provides sufficient resources to support and, if appropriate, expand its online learning offerings.”
  9. Integrity: “The institution assures integrity of its online offerings.”

MSCHE states that Interregional Guidelines “are intended to be used in conjunction with the relevant standards and policies of each accreditor” through a process in which “institutions are asked to include evidence of the extent to which they meet these hallmarks.” The guidelines also address evaluation at an institutional or program level. Assessing quality at the course level may benefit from the addition of tools designed for this purpose, such as the Quality Matters Rubric from MarylandOnline or the Rubric for Online Instruction from California State University, Chico.

In addition to the evaluation of existing programs, the guidelines can also be used to guide the development of new programs. As a learning professional working in higher education it’s encouraging to see this kind of focus on planning for academic quality that takes place before launching an new online program with students.

The Student’s Perspective

What does all of this mean for students? It’s good news. Online learners may be the primary beneficiaries of a learning environment where these guidelines have been implemented – ultimately improving program design, supporting students and their instructors in and out of class, and providing the high-quality learning achievement that should result from the completion of an academic program. The Interregional Guidelines also bring attention to the needs of online learners, hopefully leading to improved efforts related to preparation and support, and to greater transparency of online schools and programs so that prospective students can make informed choices about their education.

What Educators are Saying

Pearson eCollege’s Online Blogucation blog reviewed the hallmarks in detail noting along the way that “working through these items should help the success of an online program and allow the institution to truly ‘put their money where their mouth is’ ” (Hallmark 8). This review also identified potential challenges related to interpretation and implementation by a school’s faculty and administrators (Hallmark 5.

Educator and eLearning consultant Barry Dahl also reviewed the Hallmarks of Quality earlier this year. Dahl found that they “cover a lot of ground and are pretty hard to argue with,” but was also careful to point out that they do emphasize a comparison of online and on-campus learning. Hallmark 4, for example, directs that online options should be “comprable” to traditional courses, with traditional versions as the standard. While higher education as a whole seems to be getting closer to measuring learning and developing leading practices that address all types of learning in a formal academic course – traditional and e-learning – online options are still new to many schools and often developed based on existing face-to-face classes.

The Interregional Guidelines aren’t the only references available. Check out additional resources related to the review and evaluation of distance education [PDF] from the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET). There you’ll find some of the additional policies and recommendations used by the regional accrediting organizations.

It’s important to remember that accreditation isn’t required. Schools can operate and offer courses without accreditation, but students at non-accredited schools may encounter numerous problems, such as being ineligible for financial aid and finding that transferring earned credits to other schools is difficult if not impossible. While accreditation is just one part of the process of choosing an online program, prospective students must ask if a school is accredited and find out more about how their learning will be supported in these programs.

This article originally appeared on Inside Online Learning.

(Written by Melissa Venable)

MOOCs have taken the world of higher education by storm, but it’s still far from being a household term.

What exactly is a MOOC, and how do they work? Here are answers to those and more of the most frequently-asked questions about these new online courses.

What does MOOC stand for?

MOOC stands for Massively Open Online Course. It’s an online course that anyone can enroll in. There are no limits on the number of students, and it’s common for thousands or tens of thousands to register for a single course. MOOCs are often taught by college and university professors through a dedicated MOOC website like Coursera.orgedX.org, or Udacity.com.

How do MOOCs work?

Course materials usually include video lectures, reading assignments, online quizzes, and online interaction with other students. The structure allows you to participate on your own schedule instead of having to be in class at a specific time.

How is my work graded?

The massive size of MOOCs prevents teachers from individually grading papers. Instead, evaluation is done by computer or by your fellow students. Interactive quizzes and tests can provide immediate scores automatically, while written assignments can be peer-reviewed by your fellow students following a grading rubric provided by the instructor.

How much do MOOCs cost?

MOOCs are free for anyone to register and take. Some MOOCs offer a certificate verifying your identity and course completion for a small fee. Coursera, for example, offers a Signature Track that costs between $30 – 90.

Will I get college credit for a MOOC?

Most MOOC organizations, such as Coursera or Iversity, do not offer college credit. Some colleges will allow you to transfer credit from a MOOC, but only if you’ve taken the paid version of the course and have a certificate proving you completed it.

What are the benefits of MOOCs?

For college students, MOOCs can help you learn topics that may not be offered at your university, and save you a lot of money if you can meet the qualifications to transfer credits.

Some experts say MOOCs are revolutionizing higher education by making college-level courses available to everyone with a computer and Internet access. Since they’re free or low-cost, MOOCs open up higher education to those who may not have the means to afford enrolling at a university.

If you’re interested in participating in MOOCs as a part of your college education, talk to your advisor to find out how you can integrate MOOCs into your education. They may be able to work with you to design a more customized degree with course offerings not available at your college.

Sources:

Online LearningOffice of the Provost. (n.d.). What are MOOCs? Retrieved June 25, 2014, from University of Chicago

Johnson, J. (2012, September 24). What in the world is a MOOC?. Washington Post. Retrieved June 25, 2014, from Washington Post

Coursera. (n.d.). Coursera. Retrieved June 25, 2014, from Coursera

Anders, G. (2013, July 10). Coursera Hits 4 Million Students — And Triples Its Funding. Forbes. Retrieved June 25, 2014, from Forbes

Duhring, J. (2013, May 10). Massive MOOC Grading Problem – Stanford HCI Group Tackles Peer Assessment. Retrieved June 25, 2014, from MOOC News & Reviews

Jong, R. D. (2013, September 17). What Do MOOCs Cost? Minding The Campus. Retrieved June 25, 2014, from Minding The Campus

How much does Signature Track cost? (n.d.). Coursera. Retrieved June 25, 2014, from Coursera

Will I get university credit for taking these courses? (n.d.). Coursera. Retrieved June 25, 2014, from Coursera

Bishop, T. (2013, September 7). Colleges offer credit for massive open online courses. Colleges offer credit for massive open online courses. Retrieved June 25, 2014, from MSN News

(Written by KeriLynn Engel)

Educators are embracing the Internet as the newest classroom tool. It’s now entirely possible to pursue an education from home, or as you travel the world.

I started taking online classes as I finished high school. As a result, I was able to get ahead on my university work, and transfer directly to an influential university without ever enduring the hassle of the dreaded SAT.

Still, I had a few misconceptions about online learning when I first got started. As I’ve taken several virtual courses, I’ve learned that many of the assumptions I and others had made about this space were wrong.

Here are the 15 things I found most surprising about online learning:

1. Online education is hands-on.

When I first enrolled in distance courses through a university, I was worried. I didn’t want to spend all of my study time on a computer. I know that I’m more likely to retain knowledge if I can apply it in the real world. How would an online class possibly provide those kinds of assignments? I pictured a virtual classroom full of glassy-eyed students reading articles on the university webpage and filling in standardized electronic tests.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Much of the work assigned in the classes I’ve taken has been hands-on. Students are actively encouraged to leave their computers behind and explore the world around them for applicable solutions to problems. You can expect to do a lot of research on your own time. How involved you are in creating an interactive, hands-on experience is almost entirely up to you, but you’ll be encouraged to think outside the box and take charge of your own assignments.

2. Online courses aren’t a second-best alternative to face-to-face classes.

Why would you take online classes if you could just as easily attend on-site? Online education must be for travelers and students with a less-than-flexible schedule, right? Not quite.

I was surprised to find that many of the other students I learned with weren’t dealing with an unmanageable schedule or learning long-distance. Some enjoyed the flexibility of virtual learning, some preferred to work from the comfort of home, and others liked the ability to customize the material to their own learning styles. A few, myself included, had finished high school years ahead of time and enjoyed the anonymity of distance education. As it turns out, there are many reasons online education may be ideal for passionate students from all walks of life.

3. Online education encourages lots of human interaction.

Again, I went into distance education with a mental image of a classroom of students all staring into their laptops. In reality, there’s a great deal of human interaction that goes on in a virtual classroom. You regularly partner with other students to complete projects and the professor is always on hand via email, chat, or video call to answer questions and work as a tutor.

4. You can build long-lasting relationships through online classes.

In my early teen years, I was just getting into freelance writing and blogging. So, as part of my school year, I signed up for an online teen blogging mentorship course. That was my first real experience with online education, and it was life-changing. I was exposed to new ideas, other kids who had similar dreams and goals, and teachers who were passionate about what I wanted to do. We bonded instantly. Years later, I still collaborate with my mentors and some of my fellow students from that class. Some have become my very close friends. It’s absolutely possible to create long-lasting business relationships and friendships through online classes.

5. You don’t have to do everything alone.

When my friends who are learning on a campus hear about my traveling and online coursework, they say “Wow! That’s great. I wish I could do that, but I’m just terrible at time management. I would never get anything done unless I had the teacher standing over my head.”

But online courses function much as in-person courses do. You show up for lectures. You take quizzes. You complete assignments. You’re expected to participate, and a good professor will contact you if your grades drop and you aren’t attending lectures. Of course you have more freedom to do it your way, on your time, but there is accountability. You will be a part of a community that will notice if you seem to be struggling and reach out to provide support.

6. Online classes also mean offline learning.

One would think online education would be, well, online! For the most part, it is, but you can expect to spend a good deal of time away from the computer working on projects. Maybe you’ll find yourself painting in the park for an art class, or tracking down local politicians for interviews. I ended up working as a community volunteer for one paper, and spending time at a coffee shop down the road practicing my Spanish for another exam.

7. I didn’t even think about books — books are a pain.

I assumed online education wouldn’t require books. I will say that this is one aspect of distance education that I struggle with, primarily because I’m pursuing a degree and traveling simultaneously. Getting books shipped from the U.S. to backwater Southeast Asia is an unbelievable hassle, especially if you only have a couple of weeks before class starts. The best way to ease the struggle is to find a wonderfully patient bookstore assistant, look for your books online first, pay the big bucks for decent shipping, and hope for the best. If you aren’t shipping internationally, it’s no problem. If you are, good luck to you.

8. Online education doesn’t just cater to one learning style.

It’s easy to assume that online education is best for those who learn best visually. Really, I found the courses to be quite customizable. If you learn best by reading, looking at charts, and writing, like myself, you’ll be in the majority. If you prefer to listen to lectures or get really hands-on, you’ll find that the professors work to create substitutes to accommodate your learning style. There’s often videos to watch, recorded lectures or notes to listen to, and alternative ways to complete assignments.

9. You don’t need to join a program to participate in online learning.

You don’t need to be actively pursuing a degree to take online courses through a university. In fact, you don’t even need to take university-level courses to pursue an online education. Sites like Noodle make it easy to find tutors on a wide range of subjects, and resources like Coursera offer hundreds of free accredited classes to students of all ages and experience levels. The number of subjects you can pursue via the Internet is limitless and you can mix and match courses from various providers to build your academic pathway.

10. You need to be a “student” to pursue an online education.

You don’t need to be a student at a school or college to take classes online. You simply need to have a passion for a subject, the ability to commit time and effort to the class, and an Internet-connected computer. Often you don’t need any kind of qualifications to sign up for online classes (unless you decide to pursue an online degree). You can start whenever you’d like!

11. You don’t have to take a standardized test to be part of an online university.

I never took any of the evaluative tests required of a high school student planning to attend university. Instead, I enrolled in distance education through Oregon State University as a non-degree-seeking student, took a few classes, and then used my transcript to transfer into Queen’s University in Canada.

12. There are no education requirements for enrolling in online classes.

Didn’t finish high school? Online universities don’t care about your credentials so long as you aren’t applying to pursue a degree on-site. It’s absolutely possible for you to take distance courses through a university, or online courses through a program like Coursera. And once you have a few university credits under your belt, you can easily apply as a degree-seeking student. This is an education hack few people know about, but it can save you a great deal of hassle.

13. You can succeed in the online classroom without being an expert at self-teaching.

When I first started taking classes from the comfort of a hostel dorm, I expected tons of material to be thrown my way. I thought it’d be my job to sort everything out, take charge of my own learning process, and essentially self-teach. Which was ridiculous, of course. The professors are always on hand if you need help, the materials are explained thoroughly in lectures and small group chats, and it’s incredibly easy to figure out even during your first course. You don’t need to be an efficient super-genius with amazing time-management and self-teaching skills. As a student, I was able to relax, follow the guidelines, and focus on the content of the courses I enrolled in.

14. You don’t need a high GPA to take an online course.

You don’t need to be young, brilliant, or “have it all figured out” to learn something new. A poor GPA won’t hold you back from taking online courses. In fact, you don’t even need a GPA to begin with. Another upside of this new method of education is that it’s accessible to anyone with a high-speed Internet connection and a working computer. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you have those two things, you can start today.

15. Online education isn’t an easy way out of a difficult course.

This is a common misconception. If there’s a course a student is worried about struggling with, she may be tempted to take it online because it’s “easier.” Don’t fall prey to this. Online courses are just as intense and demanding as on-campus courses. Perhaps more so, because there is more freedom and it can be easier for some to stop taking the course seriously. Know your limitations. How do you handle stress? Will you be better able to focus in a physical classroom or in your living room? What hours are your best for studying? All these things will factor into your final decision. The important thing to remember is that online education is not necessarily the easy way out of a tough class.

(Written by Hannah Miller)

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