Who is Studying Online?

Yoni Ryan, Director of the Learning and Teaching Centre at the Australian Catholic University who reports having conducted extensive research into online learning, says she knows many IT undergraduates who have a preference for online study. She believes it is because they were a bit “geekish” in high school and failed to develop the social skills that most of these students are pursuing degree programs online rather than are a traditional classroom setting.

I have not conducted any specific research that could refute Yoni’s claims, but these are certainly not consistent with my experience. While teaching online, I have hosted many virtual meetings with online students and have not found them lacking in communication skills or unwilling to form relationships.

What I have observed about online students is an interest in what best practices are, how ideas can be implemented, and an overall quest for information that is “actionable” rather than only theoretically relevant. I would describe the online students with whom I have interacted as being mature, professional, and career-oriented – not particularly “geekish” or shy. I have found online students to be relatively impatient and quite sensitive about issues related to scheduling and the timing of activities. I believe these characteristics are largely explained by the fact that so many online students also work and have family responsibilities.

If you’re an older adult who’s always wanted to continue your education and you just haven’t had time to, or if you want to go back to class for that advanced associate’s degree but a full-time job keeps you from signing up for classes, you’re in luck. Today, online institutions afford nontraditional students, parents, those with full-time jobs, and others not able to go back to college full time in a traditional university setting the opportunity to continue their educations on their own schedules.

It used to be that if you wanted to go back to class, you had to go to college part-time, at night, or otherwise arrange your schedule inconveniently, so that you could be at classes on campus. Alternatively, of course, you could quit your job if you had the means to do so and go back to school full time. However, today, you can keep your full-time career and your regular schedule intact and still get that education you want. Got kids you need to be home for? No problem. Online universities let you attend classes on your own schedule, be home for your kids and anything else you need to be there for — and oftentimes, you won’t have to step foot outside your door to do so until the latter part of your training, at least. It’s likely that you’ll need some hands-on fieldwork study eventually outside your home, but you can get the early parts of your associate’s degree done completely at home and on your own schedule.

One of the first things you need to do is to look for a degree program that is fully accredited. For this, check the school and make sure it has accreditation from the Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education; the Distance Education and Training Council is the accrediting organization for these types of universities, also called “distance learning” institutions. You can also ask the school itself for references and find other students who have attended a particular distance-learning program, to make sure that it provides the quality education you want. Of course, you’ll also want to check your field of study and find a distance-learning institution that specializes in that.

Another consideration for many students is financial assistance. Previously, students attending distance-learning programs were not offered financial aid unless at least 50% of their education was completed on a physical campus. This is no longer true, which is perhaps as a result of both the improvement of distance learning schooling training and the recognition that this type of schooling is, some say, the wave of the future. Today, it is often considered a luxury to be able to go to school full time as a student, and these types of training recognize that no longer can many people simply drop their lives and go to school full time. Many students these days are nontraditional students with other responsibilities beyond their own lives so that they do not have the luxury to devote three or four years’ time exclusively to education.

Perhaps the choice place to help you determine your potential school’s accreditation is to look at the regional accreditation board in your school’s area. If your school is accredited by this board, it will be fully accepted by employers and other professional organizations as an allowable school. This, in turn, makes it much easier to get a position and recognition. In fact, many organizations and employers will not recognize an education unless it is from an accredited two-year college. However, if you take the time to make sure your certificate program is accredited, your online education is every bit as valid as one you would obtain on campus.

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