From multi-year degree programs to free massively open online courses, e-learning is bigger than ever.
The traditional college experience isn’t for everyone. Why should it be? We’re all different, with different learning needs. Advances in online education have been helping to address these needs. Online programs are generally viewed as legitimate, quality sources of higher education – and now cover everything from virtual degree programs that mimic the campus classroom to skill-specific classes with interactive learning environments. If you’re looking for something beyond the brick-and-mortar experience, read through this guide to see what e-learning can do for you.
Types of E-Learning Providers
While the basic idea behind e-learning is to provide education to students who either cannot or choose not to be present in a traditional classroom setting, the manifestation of online programs varies so extremely that a precise image of e-learning can be hard to pinpoint. Understanding the most common online education providers (and their teaching methods) can make it easier to determine what type of e-learning is ideally suited to your needs.
It used to be that accredited, nonprofit colleges and universities were either strictly brick-and-mortar or had limited e-learning options, and those seeking fully-online education had to go to for-profit institutions. However, data released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) regarding postsecondary enrollment for fall 2012 shows that 65 percent of students studying strictly online did so through nonprofit schools.
Nonprofit universities can be a good choice for students seeking traditional certificates and degrees. Since they are extensions of their brick-and-mortar counterparts (with the exception of nonprofit schools like Western Governors University and University of Maryland University College, which are strictly online), nonprofit university students can usually get their degrees by taking hybrid classes as well as fully-online classes.
Online programs at nonprofit universities tend to be taught by the same instructors as their on-campus programs, and they often follow the same timeline and curricula. This means that an online degree could take up to four years to complete, depending on the credentials sought. However, some nonprofit e-learning programs do allow students to set their own start and end dates for online courses, which can affect completion time.
E-learning programs at nonprofit universities usually cost just about as much as their on-campus counterparts. Like with on-campus programs, out-of-state students usually have higher tuition. On the plus side, most established nonprofit universities are accredited, which means students – online included – can apply for federal financial aid.
MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)
As their name suggests, MOOCs are huge online classes that are open to everyone and have unlimited enrollment. A big draw is their price model, as many are free-of-charge. MOOCs are a fairly new form of e-learning – the idea exploded around 2012 with the founding of Udacity, edx and Coursera – but their wide accessibility and self-paced design has made the format increasingly popular.
MOOCs are good for those who want to learn about a subject but don’t necessarily want to commit to an entire program as well as those looking for in-depth knowledge and skills they can transfer to the workplace. The low cost and commitment of MOOCs may appeal to a broad audience, but because they are largely self-paced with minimal-to-no instructor involvement, students who are extremely self-disciplined tend to have more success in completing courses.
MOOC students often have the option to earn a certificate upon completing a course or series of courses, but degrees are harder to come by. Institutions like Udacity offer certificates and credentials backed by industry leaders like Google and AT&T, while Coursera and edX have partnered with various universities to offer their courses online. Some of these universities grant college credit for MOOCs. For instance, Arizona State University recently partnered with edX to offer a full freshman-year program. Coursera, Udacity and edX all offer free education options. However, those seeking a verified certificate or college credit have to pay a fee. Depending on the institution, course and optional specializations, certificates can cost anywhere from $25 to $2,400 and can take three weeks to a year or more to complete.
Community Colleges and Vocational Schools
Community colleges are public, two-year institutions that can be a good alternative to four-year universities. Vocational schools give students hands-on experience in various trades. Both are cost-effective options for students seeking certificates or two-year degrees.
Community colleges typically cater to local students. As such, many community colleges offer a range of online courses, but it’s less common to find schools with fully-online degree programs. Students seeking a degree at a community college may have to supplement online study with hybrid or in-person courses.
While they do present fewer fully-online options, students might find that the money they save by going to community college instead of a for-profit or nonprofit university is worth the trade. According to the College Board, the 2015-2016 national average for in-district tuition at community colleges is $3,440.
Those interested in hands-on learning and developing practical skills are well-matched for vocational schools. Depending on the subject matter, hybrid vocational programs may be more common than fully-online ones. The practical nature of vocational schools may call for in-person meetups, training and other activities.
Professional Development Platforms
Professional development no longer means going to classes provided by your employer to learn about the latest bit of technology the company has decided to use. Online professional development platforms are for people who want to learn skills on their own terms, whether the motivation is to change careers or simply to learn something new. That said, some companies do use online workforce development to increase the skills and knowledge of their employees, and some colleges incorporate professional development platforms into their curricula.
Professional development platforms like Treehouse, Codecademy, Lynda, Skillshare and Khan Academy allow students to learn and practice subject-specific skills online. They are great for students who prefer self-paced, autonomous learning and who aren’t necessarily looking for a degree. Students who like hands-on learning will find many professional platforms appealing. Treehouse and Codecademy, both known for their online coding courses, are designed so that after reading a lesson or watching a series of instructional videos, students get to practice what they’ve learned by creating code right there in their web browser.
Professional development platforms are, like MOOCs, very inexpensive learning tools. Programs like Khan Academy and Codecademy are completely free. Skillshare has free and paid options that peak at $10 per month. Others have monthly subscriptions that range in price and features depending on what students want from the platform. Completion time depends on the platform and the student. Some platforms offer certificates of completion while others award digital badges that can be shared on personal websites or through social media. It’s a smart idea for students using professional development platforms to use their new skills to create something they can share with prospective employers as a means of proving their abilities.
For-profit universities have a bit of a bad reputation for being more expensive than nonprofit universities. Yet for the right student, they come with certain benefits that aren’t as commonly found at traditional universities.
While nonprofit schools award recognized degrees, and MOOCs and professional development platforms foster connections with industry leaders, for-profit universities can often provide both. Quality for-profit schools have close ties with businesses, which can be beneficial for job-seeking students upon graduation, and students can pursue various credentials.
While they traditionally provided vocational education, it’s now common for for-profit schools to offer degrees in mainstream majors. It also used to be rare to find a bachelor’s degree program at a for-profit institution. Now, however, students can earn anything from a certificate to a doctorate. In 2012, 35 percent of students enrolled in fully-online programs did so through for-profit schools.
Retention rates at for-profit schools tend to be lower according to the National Center for Education Statistics – hovering around 50 percent at four-year institutions – so it’s important that students are ready to invest enough time and money into their education before they get started.
Benefits of E-Learning
E-learning affords students a host of potential benefits over traditional campus-only programs. Read below to learn about some of advantages e-learning offers students.
Looking at tuition prices for online programs at traditional schools and for-profit schools, prospective students might wonder if e-learning really does have cost benefits. Online programs often cost around as much as their on-campus equivalents. However, considerable savings can be found outside of tuition:
Students don’t have to pay for public transportation or the gas it takes to get to and from campus, and they don’t have to worry about paying for parking.
Student meal plans can be pricey, and swinging by a café between classes adds up. Online students save by eating at home.
Whereas traditional students might have to change their work schedules or reduce their hours in order to go to school, online students can go to class without interfering with their jobs, allowing them to keep their income while getting their education.
Students with children don’t have to worry about babysitters or daycare programs –and the fees they come with – when they take classes from home.
E-learning students have the advantage of being able to plan their education around their lives, not the other way around. While some e-learning formats require students to be at the computer at specific times, others offer coursework that can be done at any time of day, any day of the week and from anywhere the student chooses. A flexible learning schedule and no commute mean less interference with work, family and social life.
Although it seems like e-learning would be an isolated experience, online students often find that they are more connected to their peers and professors than their on-campus counterparts. Message boards, peer review and video-chat study groups facilitate communication between students and help bring them together. Professors are often available to answer questions via email, but in environments where a professor is not accessible, like in many MOOCs, students rely on one another to ask and answer questions about course materials and assignments. Further, e-learning programs attract people from an array of locations and backgrounds, so students get to connect with peers they might not meet otherwise.
Because all that is needed to learn online is a computer and an Internet connection, e-learning makes education more accessible to different students.
E-learning allows international students to get credit from U.S. schools without the hassle of moving, obtaining visas or finding an exchange program. This means international students have the opportunity to take courses that might not be available at a school in their country. Similarly, U.S. students can take online classes at universities out of the country without actually going abroad. This may be particularly enticing for students enrolled in foreign language programs.
Students with Special Needs
Online education is a convenient solution for students who have a difficult time getting to and from campus due to physical disability. Those with developmental disabilities, social anxieties, or conditions like attention deficit disorder may also benefit from the private, self-paced nature of many e-learning programs while still getting to ask questions and interact with peers and instructors. Since online materials might not be wholly accessible to students with special needs, it is important that students let instructors know if accommodations need to be made.
Sometimes the main barrier between a student and his or her education is that the nearest school just isn’t near enough. Students living in rural areas might be dissuaded from attending traditional colleges because of a long commute. An e-learning program makes post-secondary education more readily available to those living outside of a city or college town. Online classes also afford remote students the opportunity to engage with peers who have similar interests but with whom they might not ordinarily connect.
Students Seeking Specialized Degrees
Like international students who lack access to specific courses or education programs, students pursuing specialized degrees might not have a suitable program their area. Online education gives students access to subject experts from all over the world, allowing them deepen their knowledge and add to their credentials.
E-Learning Delivery Methods
Not all online programs are taught the same way, and their different presentations can greatly affect a student’s experience. Before jumping into an e-learning program, make sure it’s compatible with your learning style.
Fully-Online vs. Hybrid
The nature of fully-online e-learning programs may be self-explanatory, but students may be surprised to find that some fully-online classes require face-to-face meetings. In general, course materials and lectures for fully-online programs are delivered via the Internet. Assignments are also turned in online, either through email or online submission applications and websites. Even tests may be taken online and graded by an instructor or a computer. However, sometimes students are required to take exams or attend class orientation in person. Students who are unable to make it to a physical campus should double check to make sure that a course labeled as fully online doesn’t require face-to-face meetings or exams.
Hybrid, or blended, classes combine online learning with face-to-face meetings. Because both online and traditional methods are used, hybrid programs can be structured in many different ways with varying proportions of online and in-person class time. Usually this depends on the class’s subject matter and the level of hands-on learning or lab time needed. Some classes may be taught mostly online with just a handful of in-person sessions throughout the term while others have weekly face-to-face classes supported by online assignments and discussion boards. Hybrid classes are a good option for students who want to try e-learning but aren’t sure if an entirely new method of learning is right of them. The familiarity of a traditional classroom setting and knowing that a professor is available to meet in person can help assuage anxieties associated with the self-driven nature of e-learning.
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning
Not all e-learning classes can be accessed at any time the student chooses. Some require students to log on at a specific time to participate in live lectures. These synchronic classes use live video streaming as their primary mode of information delivery. Sometimes videos are of an on-campus class, and e-learning students may be able to actively participate in asking and answering questions. Other synchronous classes may involve an instructor and a group of remote students logging into an online group video chat, creating a sort of virtual lecture hall. It’s important that students taking synchronous classes have a reliable Internet connection so lectures can be delivered uninterrupted.
Asynchronous learning is perhaps what most people associate with online education. This style of delivery allows students to log in and out of class at their convenience. Materials (including lectures) and assignments for the entire course may be accessible all the time, or instructors can post them gradually as the term progresses. Asynchronous courses can be either self-paced or directed.
Self-Paced vs. Directed
Most online education programs involve some amount of self-paced learning, but a truly self-paced e-learning program is one in which there are no set start and end dates or due dates for assignments. MOOCs and professional development courses tend to fall under this category. Grading may be done by an instructor, computer or even peers. The flexibility of self-paced programs is appealing, but because students are only accountable to themselves, those who are very self-driven have the most success in completing these programs.
Students who want the flexibility of online education but need an outside force to keep them on track with assignments should consider directed e-learning programs. Directed courses are typically proctored by an instructor and have set beginning and end dates. Some courses allow students to choose when their course starts and ends, while term-based courses tend to follow the timeline of a school’s on-campus courses. Directed e-learning programs usually have set due dates for assignments, but some programs allow students to work with instructors to determine when assignments will be turned in.
Teacher Led vs. Digital-Only
Teacher-led courses tend to be directed. Instructors have an obvious and considerable presence in their courses, creating assignments and providing lectures through video, text or other formats. Like in face-to-face courses, instructors are available to answer questions, but instead of meeting with a professor after class or during designated office hours, both students and instructors have the convenience of communication via email or video chat. However, in-person meetings can sometimes be arranged and may even be required by the instructor.
Some e-learning programs exist without an active instructor. Digital-only education programs use a variety of web-based media to teach courses, like animations, interviews, lectures and text. Video or text lessons may be followed up by a set of problems or a practical activity to see how well the student understands the material. For instance, a coding course might actually have a student create some code after watching an instructional video. Although an instructor does not actively contribute to lectures or assignments, one may grade assignments. However, grading is often done by computer or is outsourced to professional graders around the world.
E-Learning Financial Aid Options
Online students may need just as much help funding their educations as on-campus students. While some financial aid options work the same for on-campus and online students, less traditional funding methods exist as well, including:
Online learners can qualify for federal loans if they fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA® ). However, the institution must be accredited. This rules out many MOOCs and professional development platforms.
Scholarships that are available for on-campus programs are applicable to online program, but there are also e-learning-specific scholarships that students can apply for. Tip: Many schools offer scholarships, but local and regional scholarships shouldn’t be overlooked!
Grants are the most ideal form of student aid because they don’t need to be paid back. Luckily, they are available to e-learning students. Students interested in qualifying for federal grants must fill out a FAFSA® . Grants are given based on both merit and financial need. Like with scholarships and loans, local, regional and private grants may be available as well.
Crowdfunding has recently become a popular way to pay for college and help keep students from going into debt. Sites like GoFundMe allow students to make a profile stating how much money they hope to raise, and people can choose to donate any amount to the fund. Students are often surprised to find that strangers (as well as friends and family) donate.
E-learning relies on technology to give students a fulfilling education experience. While a basic understanding and familiarity with online and computer technologies is usually required for success in online education, most e-learning programs provide students with instructions on how to navigate the different technologies used. Here is a brief rundown on the types of technologies students may encounter in their e-learning programs:
Learning Management Systems
Learning management systems are common in online education programs. They often serve as a course’s home base. Systems like Desire2Learn and Blackboard report and track grades, host course content and perform other administrative functions. Some learning management systems have built-in discussion boards and virtual drop boxes. E-learning students will likely find themselves using learning management systems to access course materials, communicate with peers or turn in assignments.
Video may be used as the basis of an e-learning program or they may be used supplementally. Synchronous online classes use live streaming video to deliver information. Pre-recorded videos can add to students’ learning experience by taking them beyond the traditional classroom realm. Students can watch interviews with subject experts or see specific problems worked out rather than being limited to written instruction or explanation.
Interactive Learning Environments
Some online learning programs test their students’ knowledge through interactive activities. These activities take place within the program themselves as part of the lesson, like with the in-browser coding done by Treehouse and Codecademy students. These interactive learning environments give students the opportunity to practice their new skills and, depending on the results, either move on to the next lesson or continue reviewing until a strong understanding of the lesson is achieved.
Technology in Testing
One of the challenges administrators face in online teaching is how to approach testing. Experts say that because of the private nature of online learning and the accessibility of the Internet, cheating on tests is much easier for e-learning students. However, new technologies and old techniques are used to help students fight the cheating temptation. For instance, some programs may simply have students take tests in person like they would if they were in an on-campus program. Other programs proctor exams remotely via webcam. Students show their IDs and take their exams in front of a camera. Coursera uses keystroke recognition software to verify students’ identities. The student’s typing speed and rhythm are recorded during typing exercises, and officials monitor these typing patterns during assignments and tests to see if they match.
Message boards and emails are often used in e-learning courses that involve peer-to-peer and student-instructor interactions. Online students don’t have the benefit of extemporaneous in-class discussion, but with online message boards, they are still able to engage in developed discussions with their peers. Email makes communicating with professors simple and convenient and allows for expanded, in-depth explanations. International students sometimes have a harder time communicating through online message boards and emails because of the lack of social cues, intonation and body language. That said, use of message boards to convey ideas helps students, both international and native, articulate their thoughts and hone their written communication skills.
Mobile and Tablet E-Learning
Some e-learning programs are so flexible that students don’t even need to be confined to a computer to access lessons and other course materials. The learning management system, Blackboard, has a series of apps for Apple, Android, and Windows phones and tablets that let students access their course homepage, turn in assignments and contribute to class discussions away from home. Students who are often on-the-go might want to look for e-learning programs that are compatible with their mobile devices.
Tips for New E-Learners
Embarking on a new kind of learning experience can be daunting, but there are things students can do and remember that will help them succeed in their online education pursuits.
Try taking a single online course before committing to a full program.
Create and stick to deadlines for completing assignments and lessons, especially in self-paced programs.
Reach out to teachers or classmates and find study groups that meet online or in person. Support can also be found on forums and in online communities like Reddit.
Visit the course website frequently to check for updates.
Participating in class discussions deepens understanding and is a good way to connect with peers.
Interview with Dian Abu-Jaber
Diana Abu-Jaber teaches both online and on-campus classes as an associate professor at Portland State University’s Department of English. Here, she shares her unique perspective on e-learning, including tips and best practices for new students.
Portland State University
What do you think are the main benefits of online learning?
The flexibility and adaptability are fantastic – it’s especially great if you’ve got full-time work, a tricky schedule, or for some reason you can’t get to campus. But it’s more than that. There’s a democracy to the online class that you tend to lose in face-to-face. Traditional, discussion-led classes often get taken over by a vocal minority. Some students are simply more outspoken than others, and that’s nobody’s fault, but students who are a bit quieter or more introverted may suffer in a traditional setting. In online classes, there’s a great equality – people tend to be freer with their comments, braver, more inclined to share more of their experiences.
What about drawbacks?
I do think there’s something special about the human presence and the energy of a good group conversation – an online class can’t reproduce that as easily, though I’ve seen that it fosters conversations and connections in the classroom that are just as powerful in their own way.
What methods and technologies do you use when teaching online?
My classes are on D2L and they’re pretty straightforward. I use some of the same elements that characterize some of my favorite blogs: visuals, short to medium blocks of narrative, and an academic “voice” with some personality and (hopefully) humor. I’ve also started embedding short videos into some of my lectures. Basically, I try to make it as dynamic and engaging as I can for students without overwhelming them with too many bells and whistles.
What makes a successful online student?
Anyone can be a successful online student, but the students who tend to do the best are usually pretty motivated; they know how to work well on their own; they don’t require a lot of supervision – basically, they’re people who would do well in any sort of learning context.
What do you recommend for a student who is struggling, either with a particular assignment or with the course in general?
Take the initiative and contact your instructor. Teachers know when students post assignments, but it’s very difficult if not impossible for us to gauge when students are having a hard time. It’s not possible to do things like take attendance in an online format or to see confusion or disengagement on someone’s face. But I’m always tremendously glad when someone lets me know they’re having trouble – there’s generally always some way to address or work out whatever the problem might be.
What tips do you have for students new to e-learning?
Don’t be afraid: have fun with it! Explore your virtual classroom. Post your picture, introduce yourself, get to know your classmates – everyone is readily emailable. Plan ahead – the semester moves faster than you think it’s going to, so you have to be on top of your schedule when you’re learning online. And it’s generally a good idea to check in every day if possible. It helps students (and faculty) stay psychologically “connected” to the class and to a sense of camaraderie. It also makes it harder to forget you’re enrolled in a class.
Any additional thoughts you’d like to share about online learning?
I think online classrooms cultivate true diversity. They are the great levelers, the ultimate in encouraging and allowing all voices to be heard – it’s such a helpful format for women, minority students, elderly, other-abled: anyone who’s ever felt intimidated, uncertain, or less-heard in a face-to-face class will usually feel more emboldened online. My online classes have also given rise to far more continuing groups and conversations after the term ends than any of my traditional classes – it’s much easier to stay in touch and keep that great conversation going. I was hesitant and grudging when I first started teaching online, but I’ve been completely won over by the results I’ve seen in my own classrooms: online can be a uniquely beautiful experience.
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