Eight Tips to Advance Your Online Education

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Thinking about advancing your education online? Check out these eight tips for making it work for you.

By Terence Loose    

You've probably heard about online education's big benefit: "Earn your college degree while in your pajamas!" Sure, that's possible, but you better prepare to be efficient and motivated in them.

The fact is, earning your degree online is likely just as rigorous as earning it in the classroom. It also usually requires more self-discipline, organization, and motivation.

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The trade-off? Flexibility. And in today's fast-paced world, that's a biggie.

Yes, one of the big draws for online courses is that you could learn from anywhere and anytime - making online education a great option for busy students trying to juggle jobs or family obligations. It's also ideal for disabled students who find it difficult to move around campus or for people who lack transportation.

But before you log-on, make sure that online learning is your best shot for academic success. To assist you, here are some helpful tips on how to get the most out of an online education.

Tip #1 - Make Sure Online Education is for You

Obviously, if you dislike computers, online education may not be your thing. But studies show that more students are embracing the virtual classroom.

"Hot Programs and Hot Markets," a 2009 study by the education research and consulting firm, Eduventures, projected that 20 percent of all students - and 35 to 40 percent of students over age 25 - will be attending classes virtually by 2014.

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"It's growing by leaps and bounds," says Christine Sorensen, dean of the University of Hawaii's College of Education.

Sorensen adds, "It's a way to provide access to people that normally wouldn't have it. Clearly, it works for people who work, have family obligations, or are in remote locations and don't have access to institutions."


Tip #2 - Participate in Online Classes

If you're planning to sign up and hide in the back of the virtual classroom, an online education might not be for you. Instructors say that participation is not just encouraged, but it's usually demanded in online classes.

"Technology has allowed environments where there can be a lot more interaction," says Sorensen. "In fact, you can get more interaction than you can in lecture halls filled with 500 students."

The sophistication of that interaction might surprise you, too. Depending on how the class is designed, says Sorensen, it could even involve working on papers with other students and seeing fellow classmates via personal computer cameras. So make sure you choose your best pajamas on class days.


Tip #3 - Set Up Regular Study Time

Here's the attractive hazard of online education: Its flexibility invites taking it less seriously than in-person instruction. But do that and you'll likely be courting a big fat F.

"I don't know that the amount of work is any different, but I do know you need to have a lot more self-regulation and ability to set goals for yourself and stick to your time frames. The instructor is not going to do it for you," says Sorensen.

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Jeanne Miller, distance education coordinator at California's Cypress College, agrees.

"The study time itself is the same as for an in-person course," Miller says. She says students should generally put aside about two hours of study and preparation time per one hour of online class time.

This translates to a total commitment of about nine hours per week for each three unit class. Good thing you can save time by not having to look for parking.


Tip #4 - Ask for Help When You Need It

Whether it's a complex subject or the instructor isn't explaining something perfectly, you'll likely be confused, lost, or frustrated at times, just like in a classroom setting. This is not the time to be shy about speaking up (or typing).

"You have to be more proactive in letting the instructor know you're having difficulty in online courses because the instructor doesn't have the visual cues to let them know," says Sorensen. "If you're sitting in a classroom, instructors can see your facial expression that will tell them you don't understand something."


Tip #5 - Make Sure the School or Program is Accredited

People can misrepresent themselves online. Remember that date you found online? What you need is a lie-detector.

For schools, that's accreditation.

"Accreditation, while not perfect, does provide some sense of accountability and quality. It says that an online school meets a certain set of standards," says Sorensen.

Finally, "if you get a degree from a non-accredited institution, some employers won't accept it," according to Sorenson.


Tip #6 - Don't Think Online Education is Easier than Traditional Education

Because it isn't. It's merely more flexible. Big difference.

"The online courses have to go through the same curriculum process as the approval [for in-person classes]. So it's understood that [both] have to have the same academic rigor," says Jessica Puma, instructional designer at Cypress College.

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Puma does say that the online course technology - used to make interactions possible - might create a little added learning. But that will generally be minimal, since today's software programs are very user-friendly.

The important thing is that you will likely be expected to study and learn as much in online instruction as the students taking the same class in face-to-face instruction.


Tip #7 - Avoid Procrastination

We all do it. It could be a human instinct to put things off. Unfortunately, online education usually makes it easier to get into this bad habit.

"With online courses, it's really easy to say, 'I'll get to that later.' That's harder to do when you have to show up in person to class," says Sorensen.

It all goes back to who online courses are good for, which tends to be those who can self-discipline.

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"I have been teaching financial accounting for a number of years online, and I will say that the students that are the most successful are the ones that are the most organized and disciplined," says Miller.

So if you're going online, get your game-face on.


Tip #8 - Embrace Technology

If you're 15, the virtual world is probably as comfortable to navigate as the real one. For the rest of us, sometimes going on the Internet is like being dropped in Budapest without a map.

Blindfolded.

What's the good news? Most reputable institutions generally provide the online equivalent of maps - technical help. And today's distance learning software is usually easy to install and navigate, says Sorensen.

Click to Find the Right Online Degree Program.

"Online students don't have to be tech-savvy," says Sorensen. "Yes, they may need a little orientation to the particular platform or technology that a particular program is using. But that's it."

Miller agrees. "Basically, we expect them to be able to navigate the Internet, use email, be able to download the appropriate software for the course, and use a word-processing program."

As for Budapest, you're on your own, people.


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