Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is online learning right for you?

In offering a combination of online and traditional classroom experiences, we often face this commonly asked question: Is online learning as effective as in-person learning? It certainly can be. That answer is largely dependent upon the unique needs of each individual student. There are a variety of elements for prospective students to consider when asking themselves, “Is online learning right for me?”

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education commissioned a report (conducted by SRI International) that looked at existing studies contrasting online and face-to-face learning. The report, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning, analyzed the effectiveness of online learning and the benefits of “blended” instruction, which combines online and traditional methods.

It is important to look at how much online learning has changed over the past several years. The landscape is much different than it was five years ago, and education experts are increasingly toting the advantages of online learning. There are more resources, programs, platforms, and technological capabilities than ever before, and there is tremendous opportunity for technology to improve teaching and learning. On top of that, graduates of online programs are proving themselves equally capable as those earning their degree in a more traditional manner. Combined, these factors are taking this style of learning to new heights.

Perhaps the most important point of consideration is delivery method -- what works best for each individual student is an entirely personal choice. Some students learn better face to face while others excel in a self-managed setting. Students should take a step back and think about which approach better suits their learning style.

Whether you’re searching for a reputable online program or still trying to determine if online learning is right for you, there are a number of important elements to bear in mind. We’ve collected some helpful hints and guidelines for all prospective students to consider:
  1. Accreditation. Make sure you are pursing accredited institutions and programs. Peirce, for example, is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Secondary levels of accreditation and approval pertain to specific programs, so if you’re looking for a business administration or paralegal program, look for those with secondary accreditation by the respective organization/association.
  2. Tuition and Fees. Be aware that online and classroom courses can have different costs. Make sure you know all of the fees or tuition differences associated with different delivery methods.
  3. Integration and Consistency. How integrated is the online program with the institution’s culture? Is the online program itself an off-shoot, or does it receive full support from the institution’s faculty and staff? Look for consistency in the curriculum, regardless of delivery method. This includes everything from textbooks and guidelines to the course syllabus. Whether taken online or in the classroom, students should come out of English 101 with the same knowledge, and an online program that is fully integrated with the traditional curriculum and culture of an institution helps to achieve that consistency.
  4. Technical support. Are there resources available 24/7/365? Monday through Friday, 9-5? Or are you on your own?
  5. What is the average class size of online courses in relation to the classroom version?
  6. What types of assessments are there? Take a look at the mix of exams, discussions, projects, group work, etc., and consider if these are a good fit for your learning style.
  7. What kind of contact with the instructor is available? Does the institution have a “response time” policy? Is it 24 hours, 48 hours, or longer? What are the means of contact? E-mail, through the course website, phone? Look for a program that encourages students to ask questions and contact their professors.
There are plenty of helpful resources out there to assist students in identifying the colleges, programs, and educational styles that match their needs and interests. U.S. News and World Report, the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Services, and Peterson’s all offer valuable information.

No matter what your learning style may be, there are countless opportunities out there for prospective students who are considering what type of education is the best fit for them. One thing is for certain – the growth in online learning has opened up doors for students who may not have otherwise had the time or resources to physically make it to a face-to-face classroom, and it is that access to education that marks an important step forward.