Online Colleges

Online Colleges Information

It might be difficult to imagine; however, distance learning has been around for over 100 years. Even before the existence of the World Wide Web there were educational institutions which allowed students to learn off campus. It has only been during the last 20 years that the Internet has brought about a new form of distance learning: online colleges and degree programs.

Overview of Online Colleges and Degree Programs

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, distance learning, sometimes referred to as e-learning, is defined as “a formal education process in which the students and instructor are not in the same place.” Whether you call it online, virtual, web-based or computer-mediated, distance learning conducted all or in part via the Internet is a growing phenomenon that has transformed higher education.

Students eager to further their knowledge, but without the ability to attend a traditional college or university can often have access to learning institutions, instructors and courses that they might not have otherwise. Online college programs allow instructors and students to use technology to come together without actually having to be face-to-face.     

While online college education is still in its infancy (the University of Phoenix launched the first online university program for Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in 1989), it has been growing in popularity by leaps and bounds. In fact, approximately one-third of institutions offering bachelor degrees consider online education to be critical to their long-term strategy.

Here is a brief history of the growth of online learning:

  • Concept for a complete online curriculum was introduced in 1994 by CalCampus
  • Jones University became the first accredited fully web-based university in 1996
  • By 2005, 40,000 instructors taught 150,000 courses per year at 1,350 institutions to six million students in 55 countries
  • In 2009 President Obama pledged $500 million for online courses and materials

Because online college degree programs play a significant role in today’s adult education it is important to understand how they differ from traditional undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

Online College Classes vs. Traditional College Classes

You are considering enrolling in online college courses. But you are unsure how they stack up against traditional brick-and-mortar classes. Before choosing which method of learning is right for you it is important to understand what online learning offers.

First, while traditional on-campus courses require you to attend a physical class at a specified day and hour every week for a set period of time, online learning provides much more flexibility. There are two types of online learning methods:

  • Synchronous Learning. This means that all students are present at the time of learning as in traditional education. However, students are still taught remotely through methods such as videoconferencing, live streaming and other technology.
  • Asynchronous Learning. In this case students are not required to be together at the same time. They access course materials and set their own learning schedule. It allows students to study any time, anywhere they choose as long as they meet the course requirements.

In addition, there are three types of e-learning courses. These are defined in the November 2010 study, “Class Differences: Online Education in the United States 2010,” by J. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman as:

  • Web Facilitated. Courses that use web-based technology up to 29% of the time to facilitate what is essentially a face-to-face course. This includes using a course management system (CMS), web pages, chat rooms or other Internet tools to provide instruction or information.
  • Blended Learning. Sometimes referred to as hybrid or mixed-mode learning. In a blended learning format online learning is blended 30% to 79% of the time with traditional face-to-face learning methods. This might mean that you are required to visit a brick-and-mortar campus for some portion of time, such as once a week instead of the usual three-days-a-week format. The goal of a blended approach is to join the best aspects of both face-to-face and online instruction.
  • Online. An online course is where most or all (80% or more) of the content is delivered online. You typically would have no face-to-face meetings at all.

While online and traditional learning offer differing methods of delivery, they do share some commonalities as well. For instance, both forms of education have admissions requirements. Though colleges and universities in general differ in what they require, in most cases you must submit a formal application (sometimes with an admissions essay) and non-refundable fee, proof of high school graduation or GED, and submission of your ACT or SAT scores or completion of an entrance evaluation (not always required for online schools).

Another similarity is that both offer a variety of undergraduate and graduate degrees and programs, from Associate’s degree to PhD. And as the opportunity to gain an education via the Internet grows in popularity, more and more courses of all types are being added to the virtual-learning curriculum.

Though most people choose online learning because of the flexibility it offers, some also believe that it is less expensive than a traditional college education. Think again. While you may reap the financial benefit of living and studying at home, online education can get expensive. The cost of online courses can run anywhere from $250 to over $500 per credit. Keep in mind that a typical undergraduate degree requires 60 to 180 credits to graduate. Add to this the cost of text books (yes, you still have to purchase these) and other incidentals, and your tab for a 60-unit undergrad degree averages between $15,000 to over $30,000.

Information from the College Board, a nonprofit association of schools and educational organizations, indicates that the average cost of a college degree for 2010-2011 for “one year of full-time enrollment,” including tuition, fees and room & board is:

  • Public two-year institution: $2,713
  • Public in-state four-year institution: $16,140
  • Public out-of-state four-year institution: $28,130
  • Private nonprofit four-year institution: $36,993
  • Private for-profit four-year institution: $13,935

Types of Online Colleges and Universities

You’ve likely heard their names: DeVry University, Kaplan University, University of Phoenix. They are all well-known for-profit schools. For-profit schools are “career, vocational and technology-focused institutions.” Nonprofit universities, on the other hand, are generally traditional four-year educational institutions. Unlike nonprofit universities, for-profit universities are run like a business, which many proponents indicate forces them to offer better services to their students in order to stay profitable.

The difference between for-profit and nonprofit from an educational standpoint is many times in the eye of the beholder. The article, “For-Profit vs. Nonprofit Online Schools: Are Traditional Schools Really Better?” notes that for-profit schools make college education more accessible by creating multiple campuses and offering more online courses. While critics say they focus too much on profitability and not enough on education.

Another distinction between educational institutions is whether they are private or public schools. Traditional private colleges and universities tend to be the older, well-established schools – like Harvard, Yale and Columbia – many of which are nonprofit, supported by tuition, endowment, and donations from alumni and friends. When it comes to tuition, they are generally more expensive than public colleges. On the other hand, public colleges are the state or community schools that are supported financially by taxpayer money and administered through state governments.

The Importance of College Accreditation

If you’re considering online courses, but you’re worried that your degree won’t be worth the same as one from a traditional four-year school, consider accreditation. Choosing a program that is regionally and/or nationally accredited will reinforce that your degree is legitimate.

Accreditation is the measurement the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) uses to ensure that schools meet rigorous and up-to-date standards of education and professionalism.

To become nationally or regionally accredited, school curriculums must pass a USDE-approved accreditation and regular board reviews from a governing body such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or one of the six regional associations. All schools, whether for-profit or nonprofit, must be regionally or nationally accredited in order to be considered legitimate institutions of higher learning.

The USDE provides a database that contains publicly available information obtained from recognized accrediting agencies and state approval agencies.

Seven Habits of Highly Successful Online Students

Attending online classes are really no different than attending on-campus classes when it comes to the topic of success. For you to benefit from your online education you need to treat it as if you were participating in a traditional classroom. Here are seven habits that can help you be successful:

  1. Set up an area for learning and studying. Whether you have a dedicated home office or a desk in your bedroom, make sure you have a place that is quiet, comfortable and free of distractions.
  2. Have your tools and books handy. Organization is primary, so make sure your learning space has places to store everything you need: books, pens, paper, CDs.
  3. Manage your time wisely. One of the toughest parts of online learning is staying on top of the work. Create a schedule, post it somewhere visible, check into your online class web page and discussion board daily and check your email regularly so you don’t fall behind or miss an assignment.
  4. Online courses require technology. That means you will need access to a computer with Wi-Fi, high-speed Internet, email and a CD/DVD player. If you don’t have one at home consider using one at a public library or an Internet café.
  5. Participate. Many of your online classes will require you to interact with other students and your instructor via message boards, online chatting, voice or text chat and even videoconferencing. As with any college course, participation is part of the grade.
  6. Develop your writing skills. Because of the nature of e-learning, you will be doing a lot of writing and texting. Read what other says carefully before responding. Spell and grammar check by typing your response into a word processing program before posting. Show your interest by asking insightful questions.
  7. Take breaks. Just like with traditional college studying, don’t burn the midnight oil. Make sure to take care of your mental and physical health by taking regular breaks, getting plenty of exercise and sleep, and eating properly.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Schools

There are a lot of myths about the advantages and disadvantages of getting an online education, many of which center around the quality of the courses and the schools that offer them. Some of the primary advantages to obtaining an online degree include:

  • Convenience
  • Flexibility of class scheduling
  • Availability of classes
  • Self direction
  • Overall cost

Keep in mind that since you don’t have to drive to campus, you also save on travel time and expense meaning you have more time to devote to the actual course.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest beliefs that many people have about online schools is that the education that students receive is inferior to what they gain in traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms. However, according to the report put out by Allen and Seaman, over three-quarters of academic leaders at public institutions report that online learning is as good as or better than face-to-face instruction. This compares with only 55.4% of private nonprofits and 67.0% of for-profits who feel the same.

And more and more employers are embracing online education as well, as a growing number of prestigious brick-and-mortar institutions – like Carnegie Mellon, Duke, Penn State and Boston University – have begun offering online degree programs. In fact, roughly half of all U.S. brick-and-mortar colleges and universities offer online programs. Employers are now more interested in whether or not the degree is offered by an accredited institution.

Another concern is how the actual online courses compare to on-campus courses. Do they require the same level of commitment or are they easier? Do they offer the same depth of knowledge with regard to subject matter? Is there enough interaction with and support from the instructor and fellow students?

According to the August 19, 2009 N.Y. Times article, “Study Finds that Online Education Beats the Classroom,” a report put out by SRI International for the Department of Education indicates that on average, students who learned online performed better than those who received face-to-face instruction. Though some of the study involved students in K-12 settings, “most of the comparative studies were done in colleges and adult continuing-education programs of various kinds, from medical training to the military.”

Some students even claim that e-learning is more difficult than on-campus classes because it is all self-directed. And as for interaction, many schools encourage it through the use of chat rooms, team projects and e-mail.

Finally there are the students and their reaction to online programs. The 2010 National Online Learners Priorities Report reveals that nearly 90% of online learners feel the experience has met or exceeded their expectations. And 75% indicated that given the opportunity they would probably or definitely enroll in the program again, making it sound like they feel that online degree programs are a worthwhile investment as well.

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