Fast Facts About Online Education

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You have questions about online education and we have the answers. Here are the facts you need before logging into the classroom.

By Terence Loose    

Thinking of going back to school to earn your degree but not sure you can commit to the rigid schedule of attending classes? Maybe transportation is a problem, or your work schedule is inflexible, or you're a stay-at-home mom or dad.

Online education could provide a flexible alternative to traditional face-to-face, on-campus classes.

Before you reach for that mouse, though, there are some things you'll want to know to make sure it's the right fit for your lifestyle. But don't worry, we did the homework and found seven essential facts everyone should know about online education.

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1. Some online degrees are more popular than others.

Some degrees lend themselves to online learning a lot better than others. If you're hoping to study car mechanics, for instance, chances are you're going to have to log some serious time under the hood - at a school campus near you.

That said, you shouldn't have a problem finding the perfect online course for your career goals, especially since the most popular ones are offered by a wide variety of schools.

Here are the five online bachelor's degree programs that had the most students enrolled, according to a December 2009 study by Eduventures, a research and consulting firm for higher education.

  • Bachelor's in Business boasted 257,400 students enrolled.
  • Bachelor's in Nursing and Health Care attracted a combined total of 104,400 enrollees.
  • Bachelor's in Computer Information Technology logged nearly 100,000 students enrolled.
  • Bachelor's in Criminal Justice had 73,200 students enrolled.
  • Bachelor's in Education saw almost 49,000 enrolled students.

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2. Online education has some great pros...

Like you can do it in your pajamas.

Seriously, though, there are some real advantages to studying online, both practical and otherwise.

First, many online courses let you learn at your own pace and on your own schedule, which could be perfect for parents or full-time workers who want to go back to school but fear they don't have the time. It also allows you to save on gas, driving time, parking fees... the list goes on.

Worried that all those pros add up to less learning? Studies show that's not the case. In fact, it's the opposite. A Department of Education report that looked at the comparative research on online versus traditional classroom teaching concluded that, "On average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction."

Specifically, online students doing some or all of a course online would rank nine percentile points higher than the average classroom student. Maybe there's something to learning in your pajamas after all.

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3. Online education has cons, too.

For those seeking their college degree, the freedom that online education gives could be an attractive hazard. Based on responses from more than 2,500 colleges and universities, a study supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation stated that academic leaders cited a "need for more discipline on the part of online students as the most critical barrier."

The lesson? Only go online if you're willing to get serious.

In addition, many instructors believe it takes more time and effort to teach online courses, and therefore, they are reluctant to sign up for the online revolution, according to previous Sloan studies.

Finally, institutions that are already engaged in online education see the cost as a non-issue, while institutions that are not online yet, see the cost as a major barrier. This means that most of the future online offerings will come from those schools that are already offering online courses.

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4. Online enrollment is growing...

Faster than you might think. That same Sloan study found a 9.7 percent growth rate for online enrollment, far exceeding the 1.5 percent growth of the overall higher education student population.

Translation: Virtually attending classes online rather than signing up for face-to-face instruction seems to be the wave of the future.

And that will likely keep increasing, according to the study, which found that "virtually all (83 percent) institutions with online offerings expect their online enrollments to increase."

In step with that report, a pair of 2011 Pew Research Center surveys reported that half of college presidents said a majority of their students will be taking online courses within 10 years.

Furthermore, a separate Eduventures study projected that by 2014, about 20 percent, or nearly four million students, will be attending classes virtually. So what may seem a bit cutting edge now may be commonplace in a few short years.

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5. Academic leaders say employers like online degrees just fine.

In light of its rapid growth and acceptance, whatever stigma online education once had seems to have rapidly disappeared. According to those 2011 Pew studies, over half of the surveyed 1,055 college and university presidents said online courses offer an equal educational value as courses taken in the classroom.

And remember that Sloan study? It notes that, "Academic leaders do not believe there is a lack of acceptance of online degrees by potential employers." And, as pointed out earlier, the schools that currently offer online courses like it so much that most plan to grow their online programs well into the future.

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6. Many online classes use the latest technology.

And that means online education is getting more exciting each year. No longer in its infancy, now students in online classes can expect web-based video, live chat rooms, instant messaging, and sophisticated collaboration tools. Many, like Philip R. Regier, dean of Arizona State University's Online and Extended Campus program, think we are only now scratching the surface of the capability of online education tools.

"The technology will be used to create learning communities among students in new ways," he told The New York Times in 2009. Students, he said, will not only learn through these new media tools, but they'll also teach each other and spend more time applying what they know to the world around them, tackling issues as complex as climate change.

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7. You can earn a master's degree online.

In fact, most educators are expecting the master's online offerings and enrollment to grow rapidly. Why? Because a great number of graduate students are full-time workers, and the freedom and ease of online courses fits their lifestyle.

In fact, the Eduventures study mentioned earlier stated that "very strong growth" was expected for online master's programs.

So what are the online master's degrees with the most enrollment? Here's what Eduventures found to be the four master's programs with the most student enrollment:

  • Business (MBAs): 117,000 students
  • Education: 105,300 students
  • Health Care: 33,320 students
  • Nursing: 25,080 students

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