Like so many other facets of our lives, degree programs are increasingly moving online. According to the Sloan Consortium, an organization that collects information on online education, there were already 4.3 million students enrolled in US online programs in 2008. However, despite the prevalence of advertisements for online education degrees, it is still sometimes difficult to understand how these programs work and how they compare to traditional schools.
“What is online education, exactly?” At the most basic level, online education is an alternative to traditional classroom instruction where courses are taken over the Internet. This model offers certain advantages but also distinct trade-offs for the non-traditional student.
Making an Informed Choice
Online education degrees vary immensely, depending on the school and program a student enrolls in. Virtually any degree, from a professional certification to a PhD, can be earned online. In general, programs are designed to offer flexibility. Online college classes are sometimes scheduled with streaming lectures and live chats or may consist of modules of online instructional material and readings accompanied by discussion questions.
Some programs will require a textbook or may have in-person components to teach practical skills that cannot be accomplished at home. Other programs include facilities in your city, where students can gather in study groups or to seek personal help from professors and counselors. It is extremely important for students interested in online education degrees to research programs and compare what is available to their personal needs.
Is Online Education Right for You?
In general, online education degrees offer great flexibility for working professionals and can be an affordable alternative to traditional colleges. Many online educational institutions are run by for-profit educational companies and have open admissions policies, which might lower some of the barriers that non-traditional students with checkered academic histories typically face. As such, online schools are also portals that allow students to return to formal education after a significant hiatus, providing them the opportunity to complete their unfinished degree.
There are important factors to consider when choosing among programs offering online education degrees. According to the University of Massachusetts, 60% of employers are confident that online degrees offer equal or better instruction as compared to traditional classroom academics, but that also means that despite the rising tide of quality online education programs, many employers still value degrees earned in a traditional setting more highly. Additionally, students hoping to take their credits elsewhere need to look into the transferability of their credits before investing time and money to earn them.
Pitfalls and Controversies
Online education, for all the expansion it has undergone, is still a rapidly evolving field. Serious debates also continues about the most effective methods for online teaching, a topic that recurs frequently in industry publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Beware of diploma mills, poorly run or exploitative companies that may take your money for a degree, which does not provide the material you need or open doors for professional advancement. Check with the Council for Higher Education Accreditation to start researching the accreditation status of the institutions you are interested in.
Goal Setting and Research
Rather than asking, “What is online education?” a better question might be, “What can online education do for you?” Some online education degrees and objectives are better suited to online learning than others.
For instance, an online MBA from a reputable online school simply does not offer all of the same opportunities as a top business school with an international alumni network and partnerships with Fortune 500 companies. However, that does not meant that your online degree will not be able to significantly improve your skills and help you to advance your career.
Just as in the traditional education world, students need to know what they are getting into when they decide to pursue an online education. Not all degrees, online or traditional, are created equal, but with proper research, potential students should be able to get a clear idea of what a program can realistically offer them. Online education degrees have both benefits and drawbacks, so take the time to decide what type of education works best for you.