Are Online Classes Right for You?

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Here are five things to keep in mind when considering online education.

By Chris Kyle   

Are you thinking about going back to school - and doing it online? You're not alone.

According to the Sloan Consortium, 5.6 million students studied online in 2009.

To add some perspective to that statistic, nearly 30 percent of the 19 million full-time and part-time students enrolled in all colleges and universities in the country took at least one online course in 2009.

To help you decide if studying online is right for you, we put together five things to keep in mind when considering going to school online.

#1 - Busy Adults May Need Online Flexibility

"It's nearly impossible for many people to take a lunch break, let alone leave the office for two hours to take a class," says Pam Dixon, author of "Virtual College." "Online education allows people to go to school on their own time."

Western Governors University, for example, has over 24,000 online students, with ages ranging from the 20s all the way to the 60s. The school's website says the average student is 36 and has a full-time or part-time job.

At Ozarks Technical Community College (OTCC) in Missouri, the average online student is 29-years-old. "Older students have jobs, families, and lots of other commitments that make online learning not only more attractive but really the only viable way to pursue a higher education," says C. DeWitt Salley, Jr., director of OTCC's online teaching and learning, in a school news release.

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#2 - There Are Many Online Options

If you think online education doesn't provide you with options, think again.

Check out this small sampling of online degree programs from around the country:

  • The University of Illinois offers 107 online degree and certificate programs.
  • The University of Maryland University College offers more than 25 undergraduate degree programs and 30 certificates available online.
  • Arizona State University has more than two-dozen online undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

Find the Right Online Education Program for You.

#3 - You Can Earn Certificates Online

Degrees aren't the only credential you can earn online. Certificates are yet another online option, particularly for those who are looking to gain specialized skills in a relatively shorter amount of time.

Earning a certificate online could help demonstrate to employers that you are qualified, Dixon says.

"We're in a certificate world right now," she says. "If you can stack up certificates next to your name, it's very helpful."

About 750,000 certificates were awarded by colleges and universities in 2007-2008, according to "Certificates Count," a survey by Complete College America, a Washington-based non-profit.

"The most popular programs, making up some 43 percent of all certificates, are in healthcare," writes Complete College America. "Fields like business and technology also attract large numbers of students, who are generally eligible for federal and state financial aid."

In broad terms, here are the most popular certificate programs, according to Complete College America:

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#4 - Online Education Can Help Career Changers

Going to school online is one way to begin preparing for your next career. An added advantage for those who are working is that they don't necessarily have to quit their job to prepare for their next one.

And don't let your circumstances or age convince you that it's too late to change your career, says Dixon.

"There are lots of people who are looking to change careers right now," Dixon says. "Going to school online can be a terrific option for people, including Baby Boomers, who are looking for a career tweak."

In fact, 63 percent of Baby Boomers (people born in the post-World War II baby boom) expect to change careers at some point in the future, according to a 2010 survey by Kelly Services, a Michigan-based workforce solutions company.

Want to Change Your Career with an Online Education? Find the Right School Now.

#5 - Driven Students Can Overachieve Online

A 2009 government analysis by the Department of Education concluded that online education may in fact top classroom-learning in one important regard. "On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction," the Department of Education study found.

When analyzing which students can succeed in an online environment, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, which has has been offering online courses for more than 10 years, found that:

  • Online students must be motivated to succeed.
  • Time management skills are essential in online education.
  • Students must be able to work independently and ask for help when needed.

"If you don't like to learn visually, you're going to have to work a little bit more," she adds. "But the truth is, you're going to have work a little bit more in a traditional classroom as well."

Ready to Start Your Online Education? Find the Right School Now.

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