Online Education Goes the Distance

It’s hard not to notice the huge quantity of distance-learning programs available, but unless you’ve taken an online class recently, you might not be aware how mainstream and innovative this mode of education has become. Even as overall college enrollment decreases, distance enrollments keep rising, with more than 5.8 million students (a quarter of all enrollees) taking at least one online course and over 2.8 million studying exclusively online. While for-profit schools were the earliest adopters of this technology, it’s now spread to traditional brick-and-mortar institutions as well — 67% of all distance-education enrollees are at public colleges and 33% are at private ones. And although some were skeptical about quality during online education’s early days, in 2015 71.4% of academic leaders rated the learning outcomes as the same or superior to face-to-face teaching. It’s clear that the field is here to stay and continues to advance, so if you’ve been reluctant to try online learning, it might be time to check out what you’re missing.

Online education’s popularity is mainly due to its efficiency and flexibility. Most courses are offered asynchronously, so you can learn at any hour of the day or night instead of attending classes on a predetermined schedule. Many distance-learning programs also allow you to start classes anytime during the year (rather than following a traditional academic calendar), provide condensed course timelines so working adults can finish more quickly, and give you the opportunity to set your own pace. Remote technology also enables you to attend the college of your choice regardless of geographical location, and conduct your learning at home, the office or wherever a good Internet connection is available. All these factors make online education an attractive option for those pursuing a degree while also balancing family and career.

There are even more benefits you may not have considered. Participating in online education can expand your horizons by connecting you with mentors and like-minded learners across the nation or even around the world. It’s also a great way to demonstrate to future employers that you’re comfortable in the digital realm and have the computer skills most jobs now require. Best of all, online programs can be a game-changer for those whose learning styles aren’t suited to the old-school model of education. Introverted students may relish the opportunity to prepare their thoughts in advance, express themselves in writing, and attend class in a quiet, distraction-free location. Students who find it hard to follow spoken lectures might appreciate being able to replay recorded presentations as needed. And online education’s ever-evolving multimedia formats and emphasis on interactivity may appeal to visual learners or anyone bored by the conventional lecture/note-taking/test structure. Distance learning can include real-time chat and videoconferencing with instructors and classmates, lectures that can be streamed live or downloaded for later, message boards, podcasts, mobile apps, webinars, video tutorials, online polls and even games.

If all this technology sounds a bit alien and overwhelming, don’t worry. Many online programs are specifically designed for adult learners returning to school later in life, including those whose tech savvy may not be on the cutting edge. You might be surprised to find that pursuing a degree from a distance can actually enhance your level of access to student services. Most colleges now provide online libraries, tutoring, academic advising, career coaching and technical support geared for distance learners (often round the clock), school social media networks to create a sense of community, and a host of other cool tools to help you thrive. For example, Bellevue University’s Real-Time User Information Network (BRUIN) is an online one-stop shop for students to track their application, check their transcript and degree progress, access the course catalog and register for classes, view their account charges and financial aid status, search library databases and more. University of Phoenix’s eCampus enables students to complete 100% of their educational and administrative activities online, plus the Phoenix Career Guidance System offers support across 10 planning milestones, the Life Resource Center provides life coaching and counseling, and PhoenixConnect serves as a private academic social network. Liberty University’s many innovative services include LUBay, an online marketplace where students can buy and sell used textbooks and course materials, and Online Communities, which creates social and spiritual connections through streaming video of campus events, live chat, social media and even a Web form to submit prayer requests to campus pastors. Liberty also welcomes distance learners to visit its physical campus for tours, one- or two-week intensive classes and commencement ceremonies. Other schools offer hybrid courses combining Web-based lectures with in-person demonstrations and discussion, for those who want to merge the convenience of online learning with the immediacy of face-to-face interaction.

How can you decide if distance learning is a good fit for you? Not surprisingly, the best way is to get online. Although it won’t give you access to the full range of services that schools provide to their enrolled students, you can test-drive Web learning for free through massive open online courses (MOOCs), which provide a sampling of classes from universities around the world. Investigating individual college websites is also a great way to see the various resources available, try out different interfaces, and evaluate your computer skills, learning style, time management, motivation and other key elements. For instance, Bellevue University’s Academic Readiness Assessment is a simple survey that estimates your learning readiness in four areas — life, academic, technology and financial — and suggests appropriate next steps. University of Cincinnati also offers a readiness assessment as part of its self-guided online student orientation, which includes e-learning and library tutorials, technical requirements and links to important services. After a little exploration, you might find that the right distance-learning program is closer than you think.

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