Go The Distance: Online College and You

By Melissa Conroy

College has changed dramatically in the past several decades, and there have never been as many opportunities for all sorts of people to gain a college education as there are today. Retired people, single parents, international students and disabled people are some of the many different types of college students present in the U.S. today. The physical set-up of college has also changed significantly: Chalkboards and overhead projectors have given way to PowerPoint presentations, Smart Boards, satellite campuses and e-books. In today’s world, signing up for a college class or two, or starting a new degree program doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have to drag yourself to campus every day. Thanks to the Internet and an ever-changing variety of technology, many people are progressing through their college studies by sitting in front of their computers, as opposed to sitting in front of a professor.

When it comes to online education, colleges can fall into one of two categories: colleges that offer both traditional and online courses and degree programs and colleges that exist entirely online. A large number of universities, private colleges and community and technical colleges around the U.S. fall into the first category: their main focus is on offering traditional classes to students on campus, but they also have courses and degree programs online to help better serve their students. However, for some colleges such as Kaplan University and the University of Phoenix, their online programs are more popular and well-known than their on-site classes and campuses. Finally, there are colleges such as Liberty University and Capella University that only exist online; they have no physical campus.

For the prospective student, online courses have a number of benefits and drawbacks. For the benefits, one of the biggest bonuses of online education is flexibility; you can write your paper or take your quizzes at 2 a.m. in your pajamas if you feel so inclined. While you usually have deadlines for projects or tests, you do not have to be in class at certain times, so it is easy to schedule your schooling around your other duties and obligations. Many students find that they participate more readily and feel more comfortable interacting with others in an online class; a shy student who doesn’t say a word in a traditional classroom may be quite chatty in an online group discussion. Students often feel less hesitant about contacting their instructor through e-mail in order to ask questions than they do walking up to the teacher in class. When taking a class online, you typically have access to lecture notes, PowerPoint presentations and other instructional material that you can reread later to help solidify points. People with disabilities or health problems often find that online classes are more convenient for them.

However, one big con of online education is that sadly there are numerous online degrees and programs that are not accredited. Horror stories abound of unqualified individuals practicing medicine, law and research after essentially buying a degree from a poor quality online college. These so-called “diploma mills” do exist! It is not uncommon for a student to complete an online degree, thinking that he or she has obtained a quality education only to be told by another college or a business that the degree is worthless. Anyone thinking of pursuing online education must be certain to select an accredited college. Accreditation means that a college or program has been formally recognized as meeting standards for a quality education, but do be aware that not all accreditation agencies are valid. The U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognize six college accreditation agencies. Know them:

l Middle States Commission on Higher Education

l New England Association of Schools and Colleges

l North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement

l Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

l Southern Association of Colleges and Schools

l Western Association of Schools and Colleges

In addition, the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognize some other accreditation agencies, particularly the Distance Education and Training Council which deals primarily with online learning programs. If you are thinking of trying some online classes or starting on an online degree, make certain that your college or program is accredited.

There are also some other drawbacks to online learning. While online learning allows you to interact with your classmates and teachers via chat rooms or discussion boards, it is a different type of interaction than a regular classroom. Typing sentences into a chat box can be much less stimulating than sitting in a class full of your fellow classmates as you all enthusiastically discuss the lesson or work on a group project. Online learning can be a little lonely, and social people may not like that aspect. There is a dynamic element to a traditional classroom that cannot be replicated online. Another problem students may face with online classes is procrastination; since you are not attending classes on a regular basis, it can be extremely easy to let homework slide. People who are not naturally self-motivated or organized do not usually make the best long-distance learners. Finally, technology can be finicky; a software virus or a crashed computer can make it impossible to do your work for the class.

One thing is certain: Online education is here to stay. As college students have become more diverse, colleges have scrambled to meet the growing needs of older learners, parents juggling work and family, disabled people and students who are not fluent in English. Online education offers unique opportunities and benefits and allows more and more students to reach their educational and professional goals.



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