Web-based education has come of age; according to a 2009 report by the Sloan Consortium, over 4.6 million students took at least one online course in 2008*. That’s 17% growth over the previous year, which greatly exceeds the 1.2% increase in the overall college student population. Many of those pursuing online education are working adults, who find that the flexibility of web-based classes allows them to schedule their coursework around work and family responsibilities.
If you want to take online courses, here are nine essential tips to remember:
1. Choose an accredited school. The importance of regional accreditation – the highest form of accreditation in the country – cannot be stressed enough. Colleges and universities that are certified by one of the six regional U.S. accrediting agencies meet the rigorous standards set by the Department of Education, and credits earned at one regionally accredited school can usually be transferred to another. Perhaps even more importantly, degrees and certificates from accredited institutions are generally considered more trustworthy by prospective employers.
Online schools are no different. Select one that is regionally accredited to make sure that you receive a quality education, that the credits you earn are transferable and that the credentials you graduate with are considered legitimate.
2. Meet the system requirements. Different online education programs require different levels of technology. Some will run fine on older computers and with slower Internet access, while others require newer systems and high-speed cable connections. Either choose online courses that will run on your existing computer, or make sure you can afford to upgrade to the appropriate system requirements.
3. Submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Financial aid is available, especially to first-time students and low-income students. You can download a free financial aid guide from U.S. News University Directory that contains the FAFSA. Once you have it, fill out the required information and then send it in. The Department of Education will use your completed FAFSA forms to determine how much aid – including grants and subsidized student loans – you qualify for.
4. Balance your responsibilities. In all likelihood, one of the reasons you chose to earn your degree or certificate online is because of the flexibility that distance learning provides. To take full advantage of this, create a schedule that allocates time for each of your responsibilities. For students with families, this might mean that you study after the kids have gone to bed – perhaps 9 pm to 11 pm every week night. If you are a working student, you might want to do your coursework in the after-dinner hours, or maybe on Saturday afternoons. The goal is to create a schedule that consistently helps you meet all of your commitments.
Also, make sure the people in your life understand the importance of the time you set aside for coursework. Spouses, children, roommates and others should know when your study time is and that they are not to disturb you during it.
5. Manage your time wisely. The instructor of your online class will probably never give a pop quiz just to make sure you’re keeping up. It is your responsibility – and yours alone – to stay on top of assignments, participate in discussions and projects, and make sure your are ready for exams. Getting behind is a recipe for failure; online courses generally move fast, so missing even one or two study sessions can make it extremely difficult to get back on track.
The time that you schedule for your coursework should be spent actually doing that coursework. Your chances of success are greatly increased if you complete each week’s assignments on time.
6. Find good study space. The place you choose to do your online learning must have a computer with an Internet connection. Beyond that, it should also be clean, comfortable and free of distractions. A home office that can be closed off from the rest of your house is ideal, and a desk in your bedroom is almost as good. A spot at the kitchen or dining room table can work if you live alone, but if you have a family or roommates such high-traffic areas often leave you prone to interruptions. Avoid the living room and any other space that is loaded with tempting distractions like television, music and video games.
7. Ask lots of questions. You will probably interact with your instructor and fellow students through email, and might use a variety of other methods to communicate as well. Web forums, chat rooms and VoIP applications (such as Skype) are all common in the online learning environment. Take advantage of these tools to ask plenty of questions.
Your instructor should be an authority on the subject you’re studying, and you’re paying for access to their knowledge and experience. Any time you have a question or need something clarified, take the time to ask about it. If you can do so in a group environment such as a chat room, so much the better. Other students in your online course might well be wondering about the same thing!
8. Learn the subject thoroughly. Too many students learn what they need to know to pass necessary exams, then promptly forget the information once they receive their degree or certificate. Only later do they discover that prospective employers expect them to have a thorough understanding of their field, leaving them unprepared to compete in the job market.
While you’re earning your credentials online, take the time to learn each subject thoroughly. Read your course materials completely, ask your instructors and fellow students lots of questions, and practice what you learn to ensure you retain the information. When the time comes to enter the job market with your new skills, you’ll be confident that you’re more than a match for other job-seekers!
9. Update your resume. Once you have the education you need, update your resume immediately. This includes online resumes you might have on job search websites like Monster.com or CareerBuilder.com. Use these tools to pursue entry-level jobs (or higher positions, if you think you can get them) aggressively. Find out which format each potential employer prefers to receive resumes in – mail, email, or perhaps in person – and then submit yours to them that way. And attend job fairs whenever you can; they are an excellent way to meet the people who actually do the hiring at the organizations you’re interested in!
*Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States, 2009 (released January 2010)