A classroom in your computer with online learning

Online classes can help provide flexibility in your schedule

A classroom in your computer with online learning For as long as she can remember, Sarah Budzinski has wanted a career caring for animals. Last year, as a senior in high school, she landed an entry-level job at a veterinary hospital near her hometown of Reston, Va. After graduating, Sarah faced a tough decision. Her supervisor wanted to promote her to surgical assistant, but only if she could remain full time at the hospital for at least a year.

“I was torn, because I knew I’d learn a lot, but I wasn’t sure I could make that commitment,” Sarah says. “I wanted to start college and start earning my vet tech degree.”

Sarah had planned to enroll in the veterinary technology program at Northern Virginia Community College. Before turning down her supervisor, she decided to explore her options. That’s when Sarah discovered she could take some of her required classes online, giving her the flexibility she needed to accept the promotion while also working toward her degree.

Most two- and four-year colleges and universities today offer online courses. In fact, more than three million college students today have the option to take their coursework online. What are the pros and cons of this type of learning, and how can you make the most of it?

Online vs. in-person

Most online college courses follow the same school calendar as regular classroom courses. But with online study, you can complete your lessons anytime during the day or week. So if you plan to work a lot in college, plan to be on a sports team at school, or just don’t want to get up for 8 a.m. classes, you may want to consider enrolling in online classes.

According to Dr. Nicholas Kolb, associate provost at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) in Indiana, Penn., your major also might influence your decision. “A music major has all the practice sessions, and a science major has extensive labs to deal with,” he says. “Because of their tight schedules, online classes have been very appealing to these students.”

Is online education a good fit for your personality?

Clearly, you need to be self-motivated. If you’re going to put off studying because there’s no set class, or if you get distracted by every IM, you might want to take that
astrophysics class in person.

Your communication style also comes into play. “The quiet students often respond better,” Kolb says. “A student who might not say much in a classroom setting seems to write a lot with online courses. They have a chance to collect their thoughts and put together a good response to a question rather than being surprised when the professor calls on them in class.”

What about student-teacher interaction?

Does distance learning mean you’ll have less access to your professor? Not necessarily. In some cases, the amount of individual attention to students’ questions and coursework actually increases.

“Some of the faculty have reported to me that they seem to have better interaction with the online courses,” Kolb says. “And I’ve seen students’ comments saying, ‘I’ve had a closer relationship with the faculty member through this method than from sitting in a class of 40 or 50.’”

If online coursework seems right for you, there are some simple steps you can take to make sure you’ll get the most out of your experience.

• Take a mix of both online and classroom courses.

This is especially important if you’re pursuing a four-year degree. “I don’t support taking a full bachelor’s degree online,” Kolb says. “I think college provides quite a bit to students who are on campus. They have a chance to make friends, develop in maturity, develop in leadership, etc. That’s all part of going to college.”

• Be selective. Whether you’re planning to take the courses at your college of choice or from another institution for transfer credits, make sure the school is accredited. And even though you may never need to step on campus for the course, you might want to select a school nearby. That way you can visit the university more easily if you experience any problems.

• Make sure your computer will be up to the task. Your hardware, software and Internet connection will need to be able to handle the technical requirements of the course. Check with  your school on the required specs before registering.

• Assess your technical know-how. “Professors do expect you to know certain competencies; for example, how to deal with bulletin boards, how to send an e-mail to the professor,” Kolb says.  Find out what computer and Internet features your course will use, and brush up on those skills.

• Become an online research whiz. Because you’ll be working at your computer, you’ll probably do much of your research for your studies online. Make sure you know how to do effective searches, access journals and reserve library books online.

• Research your professor’s schedule. Find out how rapidly you’ll be able to expect answers to your e-mails or posted questions. Your professor should be able to promise a response within a certain timeframe. You don’t want to ask a question for a project that’s due the next day if your professor has a 72-hour turnaround time! If you know from the start that your professor won’t be available to you 24/7, you can plan your studies accordingly.

• Register early! At IUP and many colleges and universities, online courses tend to be popular and fill up quickly.


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