Online Learning on the Rise
Distance learning is here to stay. Initially on the fringes of formal education, online courses and degree programs have quickly become mainstream. Colleges and universities of all types have incorporated online learning into their curricula. In 2013, seven million colleges students — nearly 50 percent of all those enrolled — took at least one online class, with an estimated 20 percent earning an entire degree program remotely. The Sloan Consortium reports that 74 percent of today’s academic leaders rate the educational outcomes of online learning as equal to or superior to those of face-to-face systems. More recruiters than ever before are embracing online credentials.

What Are the Benefits of Online Education?

Distance learning has a wide appeal to a diverse population of Americans. It offers students a number of advantages, many of which dovetail with other social or lifestyle needs. Online courses and degree programs suit working professionals who are looking to move up to management roles, often with their employers paying part or all of their tuition. It’s a powerful option for stay-at-home parents who are preparing for a new or re-entry career when they head back to work. Pearson Learning Solutions Senior VP Todd Hitchcock reports:

“Learning is no longer limited to four walls – learning can happen anywhere – and it already is happening everywhere, everyday. The growth of online learning underscores this need for quality, flexible education programs that meet the demands of our 21st-century workforce.”

Flexibility frequently leads the list of online education benefits cited by students and educators. A list of top-five online degree benefits includes:

  • Flexibility. Time and location are factors that can limit education for students with family/work commitments. Online learning breaks down time and distance barriers, providing classes, course materials and discussions with 24/7 accessibility.

  • Access. No matter where they live, students can participate in an online degree program tailored to meet their professional goals. Students have access to subject-matter experts and many top-notch professors. The development of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, has introduced students to world-renowned scholars from top-tier universities.

  • Affordability. . According to Wired Magazine, The Federal Reserve Bank of New York tallies the nationwide student loan debt at $902 billion. After factoring in lack of commute time, parking and related fees, the cost of online classes stack up to those taken in-person. Furthermore, many traditional campus-based colleges that have established online degree components are able to provide digital course materials, cutting textbook sticker-shock to students.

Who Offers Online Courses?

According to a 2012 report by the Babson Survey Research Group, private non-profit institutions have doubled their online offerings since 2002. Schools, colleges and universities offering only online degrees can expand academic course list significantly because they have no need to build classrooms to accommodate rising enrollments. The Sloan Consortium’s tenth annual survey of online education (2012) found:

“A major change has also occurred in the nature of the online offerings — a far larger proportion of higher education institutions have moved from offering only online courses to providing complete online programs (62.4% in 2012 as compared to 34.5% in 2002).”

Online schools offer the full range of degrees, including associate, bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and professional certifications.

Is Online Learning Effective?

The Sloan Consortium’s 2013 Survey of Online Learning Report found that 74 percent of academic leaders find online outcomes the “same or superior to those as in face-to-face instruction.” Knowledge retention is improved through the rich content experience of online learning. Curriculum often features the beneficial use of technology that graduating students will need in the workplace, including voice and video conferencing, email communications, message boards and multimedia presentations.

What Types of Online Learning Are Available?

Online education delivers courses and degrees in models that accommodate the student’s scheduling availability, learning habits, subject matter and time commitment. The two major delivery modalities are synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous (self-paced). Many students love the flexibility of asynchronous learning. But, not all students thrive in a self-paced course or program; some require real-time experiences. Based on their obligations and economic realities, some students cannot commit to full-time online study. While no one-size-fits-all, there are formats to suit almost every kind of student.

Self-Paced

Self-paced, asynchronous online education allows students to log on to their courses at any time, completing class components that are not governed by due dates. Online students must, however, develop study routines and commit to working proactively toward satisfying class/degree requirements. Paper deadlines or exam completion dates may be less flexible. Personalized learning, arranged by a college department or professor, may be customized for students for time periods beyond the semester who are working on research or in programs where continuous professor/student interaction is unnecessary.

Real-Time

Online programs with courses that meet on a regular schedule are synchronous. Using voice-over IP, telephone conference calls, and knowledge capture software, real-time students work remotely, but are connected on a dependable schedule with professors and other students for lectures, study groups, seminars and class discussions.

Full-Time

Online students enrolled in more than 9 credits per academic year are typically considered full-time students. With a full-time schedule, students can still meet work or family obligations while learning — but they must be dedicated and motivated to keep pace. The benefits of a full-time program include a faster time-to-degree and uninterrupted progress.

Part-Time

Students in part-time programs receive the same quality courses as those who are participating full-time. Those with a part-time course load may find it advantageous to incorporate their learning immediately into their daily roles at work. Part-time learning can also be a strategic way to spread out the cost of an education.

The Hybrid Solution

Blended or hybrid degree programs combine online and campus class visits, creating the best of both worlds. Hybrids may split the online and on-campus requirements equally or allow for up to 80 percent of class participation online with weekend seminars, retreats and labs. Students may still meet on a regular basis in real-time via an online chat room or conference call. Professors may explain collaborative or semester-long projects at an on-campus meeting; students then enjoy the freedom and flexibility of completing their assignments on their own schedules at home.

How Do Online Colleges Compare to Traditional Colleges?

A 2013 study on online education programs by Drexel University underlined regional accreditation as the number-one criteria for degree acceptance by employers. The absence of an “accredited degree”, according to Wired, can be problematic with recruiters who do not view the value of course credits over an actual degree. To protect the value of their degree, students mulling over their choices among traditional and online colleges should ensure that their prospective school is regionally accredited. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a database that allows students to check prospective schools for post-secondary accreditation.

A relatively recent development adding to the wide mix of opportunities are Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. MOOCs make it possible for online learners to work with some of the world’s greatest minds in a broad range of subject matter. One such free school has 1.3 million subscribers, while an Ivy League university currently offers free online courses to 52 million students. So far, none offer formal, accredited degree programs.

Conclusion

The age of online education is upon us. More and more, secondary schools are adding online components to their diploma programs, nurturing America’s next generation of college students. Consider the broad options: Students may earn degrees purely online or through blended learning systems, through self-study, and by delivery systems that cater to their genuine needs. Online degree programs also develop the students’ sense of responsibility for their own learning, along with mastering skills that map directly to their career objectives.

Sources:

2013 Survey of Online Learning Report

Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States

How Do Employers View Online Degrees?

Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities: Evidence from Randomized Trials

Why Online Learning is More Valuable Than Traditional College

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Applying for Financial Aid

Meet FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. If you’re applying for financial aid, and you should be regardless of whether you attend a traditional program or an online college, it’s your new best friend. Don’t quake in your boots at the thought of having to complete a federal form. Compared with doing your taxes, the FAFSA is a piece of cake. Millions of people have gone through the process and survived. You will, too. Watch this video for an overview of how financial aid works,
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Many of America's top colleges have launched online degree programs. Investments in technology have allowed colleges to create affordable and flexible programs for students. Online classes have significantly improved over the past 10 years and are more respected and accepted by top academics. Universities such as MIT and UC Berkeley now offer a wide variety of classes online. Find programs by clicking your state below.

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