So What’s it Like to Study Online?

I was talking up the Eastman School of Music’s online Career and Leadership Certificate the other day to some academic professionals and musicians. It is a brand new program starting in the fall. One of the students knew I had completed my Masters degree online, and she asked me, “So what’s it like? It must be pretty weird not to have to run to class or listen to boring lectures. How did you take exams?”

There are a lot of pros to studying online. Tuition tends to be cheaper. Classes can be asychronous, meaning you do not have to log in at a certain time; you do the work – the readings and the assignments  – when you have time. Some classes are at your own pace, while others give you a deadline to complete. You can still have the advantage of studying or interacting with classmates online, and many classes are structured to make sure that you do. You can still work full- or part-time while studying online, and school fits around your schedule, not the other way around.

Yet there are some challenges to pursuing that online degree. You have to be motivated. I mean really, really motivated. Teachers won’t be keeping track of your attendance or prodding you to hand in assignments. If your computer breaks, you have to fix it or replace it right away because you usually will not get a tuition refund for abandoning class. Exam taking protocols can be strict: you either have to switch on your laptop’s camera during an exam or hire an acceptable proctor. If your program requires you to do an internship or practicum, you may have to find your placement yourself. This is especially challenging for online nursing programs where you need a practicum. A brick and mortar nursing school will send a preceptor to supervise student nurses; most online schools, however, will not. The placement must be willing to supervise a first-time student nurse and follow the school’s practicum rules.

So, if you are still interested in studying online, here are a few things to consider:

*Make sure your school is accredited by an appropriate accrediting body. Not sure who that is? Ask someone in your target career field for help. Your degree or certificate will be worthless if the school is not properly accredited.

*You will need a computer and a high-speed DSL line. Some programs may include a laptop in the tuition price. Make sure you know the type of computer, memory and speed needed beforehand.

*Get the IT department’s help desk phone number and email. You will need it.

*Find out what is included in the tuition. A laptop might be, but other materials such as special workbooks and templates might not be.

*Stay in touch with your advisor and keep that person up to date on your degree progress. Ask to make sure you understand any revisions to degree requirements. You may think you are eligible to graduate only to find out you are not.

*Ask for prior credits and learning experiences to be evaluated for transferable credit. Take any exams (and pass them!) that will allow you to opt out of prerequisite classes. This will save you time and money.

*Balancing family life, work and study can be stressful. Take a break if you need it; however, find out what your school’s time off or gap policy is. You may be able to take a break, but your loan payback requirements may begin immediately once you stop studying.

Online degrees are being looked upon more favorably by employers as technology speeds up changes in the workplace. Studying online is one way to make yourself ready for that next work challenge.




Online Degrees: What You Need to Know

College tuition costs are heading sky-high, and not every college student wannabe has the money or the time for expensive, traditional higher education options. An alternative can be an online degree that you can pursue at your own pace to achieve your career goals. Here’s what you need to know:

*Accreditation makes the difference between a legitimate program and a diploma mill, and more employers are considering online degrees because they are accredited and show discipline in a potential employee. Look for an accreditation statement before you buy. Accrediting bodies like Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities or the Western Commission on Colleges and Universities are recognized by the US Department of Education and ensure that you are getting a quality education. In addition, your area of study may also have an accrediting body. For example, if you are studying nursing, look for accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. Accreditation also helps you secure students loans and a job when your degree is complete.

*Understand the cost of tuition. Some online degrees are not cheap, and some may require you to be on campus for certain classes. This means that travel and housing while you are on campus can add to your cost.

*Know what you need and make sure the program you choose offers it. Many online schools offer a combination of degrees, certificates and licensing courses. Don’t make the mistake of signing up for a certificate course, thinking you are going to get an Associates degree.

*Read online college reviews with a grain of salt. An online degree seems like an easy way to get a degree, but it takes discipline from the get-go. People get excited about the program and sign up without having a good understanding of the program commitments and then are disappointed in the results. 

*Stay motivated. Have a plan as to how you will arrange your life around studying. Not everyone who pursues this type of education finishes the program and are then dismayed when they realize they still have to pay back the student loans.

*Do not be shocked if your previous class credits do not transfer from a traditional college. Online classes have very specific objectives, and if your previous classes did not fully meet those objectives, you will have to take the required courses for your degree/certificate.

*Keep track of your classes. Although you may be assigned a mentor or an advisor, it is up to you to make sure you understand the degree or certificate requirements and that you are on track to graduate. Check in frequently with your school to make sure that the program and graduation requirements have not changed. It is very easy to miss a crucial email announcement when you study online.

*Realize that online learning is only one part of the continuous process of life-long learning. Many employers will still require you to attend workshops, get continuing education credits or units, and renew licenses to stay current in your field.