Online learning continues to evolve as a valuable way for people everywhere to increase their knowledge base and skills, both personally and professionally. Sometimes referred to as “distance learning” or “e-learning,” online learning is quickly becoming a favorite option for students interested in furthering their education. In fact, a recent study conducted by the Sloan Consortium and Babson College confirms that 2.6 million students are currently enrolled in online learning courses, a 24.8% increase over last year. At the same time, the survey also reveals that more and more “traditional” colleges and universities plan on offering some sort of online component to their curriculum over the coming months and year.
Online learning has proven itself to be a path to success – but how does one assure a successful online learning experience?
START WITH THE BASICS
The primary difference between online and traditional classroom courses is the method of delivery. Online learning covers a wide range of potential formats – from live, real-time webcasts and interactive workshops, to traditional 12-week instructor-led courses to self-contained software in the form of CDs or downloadable PDF, Quicktime or Flash files. Deciding the best format for you will help you get the most out of your education.
Choose Your Format
The first thing to consider is: are you looking for an environment where you interact with an instructor and your fellow students? Or, are you interested in getting the information and studying privately - on your own? Or something in between? Do you want a fully-structured course or program, including exams and projects, or do you want to just get the information and run with it?
The answer depends on what you are studying and why. If you are a salesperson, and you have a pitch to make on Monday to a major cellular company, it may make sense on Friday to download a three hour course on the basics of cellular technology plus an overview course on the global telecommunications industry, and plow through it all on a single afternoon. By Monday, you’ll sound like an expert. On the other hand, if you are a designer who is revamping your portfolio, you may prefer a 12-week project-oriented course with a lot of teacher and peer interaction and feedback. A couple who is planning to buy their first home may want to “attend” a two-Saturday, live online seminar for first time home buyers, where they have the option of asking an expert specific questions about their situation. An executive looking to earn an M.B.A. may want a combination of online and “on-ground” (in a real classroom) courses.
Keep in mind that every online delivery format is utilized differently on your end, and should be chosen to suit your particular needs.
Collect Information about the Course and its Instructor Up Front
You will probably find several online courses and/or programs that appear to cover the same subject area. How do you choose between them? Start by getting as much information as you can about the courses, programs and instructors before you sign up.
Read each individual course description and syllabus carefully to see if a particular course fits your needs. Pay attention to what is required on your end: a broadband connection? specific software applications? Instant messaging?
Read the instructor’s bio – the long version, if there is one. Google the instructor to see what else he or she has done, who they are associated with, awards or recognitions they may have received, and what else they may have published elsewhere. Is this someone who knows what they are teaching? Are they truly an expert? Are they someone you can learn from that you’d like to interact with as a student?
Look into the specifics of how the course or the program is delivered and what’s expected from students. Are there a mid-terms and final exams? Are you expected to upload exercises into a discussion board for your fellow students to see? Will you need to complete a final project?
Preview if Possible
Is there a demo you can look at? Samples of course materials? If you are considering a more elaborate, more expensive course or program, is there a “lite” version you can take first? Sometimes a 12-week course may have a 3-hour introductory version that you can take to see if you really want to commit to a 12-week version.
If you end up unsatisfied with a particular course, can you transfer, get a credit towards another course, or get your money back? Look for “satisfaction guaranteed” or “no risk” offers.
EVALUATE YOUR RESOURCES AND STUDY HABITS
Before making any final decisions about which course format to choose, think about your situation: How much time can you allocate to studying? Can you find more time? Will you have time to do any assigned homework and/or readings?
Think about your learning modes
How do you best learn? By reading? listening? By watching? By doing?
If you enjoy reading and can learn well by doing so, a simple course format with downloadable PDFs may be ideal for you. If you are a good listener and learn best by simply listening, a basic audio course may be very effective for you. If learn best by watching, a course featuring lots of still or animated graphics and even Flash or Quicktime movies may be the best way to go. If you learn best by doing, a course featuring exercises, assignments, feedback and projects may be ideal.
Of course, in the real world, most instructors present their content in a variety of ways. But if you have a choice between two courses covering the same subject material in different ways, choose the way that you will respond to the best.
Analyze your study habits
Do you study best alone in the middle of the night when it’s quiet and peaceful? Or do you study best in a crowded, active environment like a café, library or hotel lobby? Do you prefer to study alone, or with fellow students? Do you love conceiving and developing projects, or do you simply want the raw information?
Really think about your ideal study environment and choose your courses accordingly. For example, it may be impractical to take part in a live, interactive workshop from the noisy environment of a popular coffee house, particularly if the workshop included “live call in” features via your laptop microphone. If you learn best while studying with fellow students, a course featuring group projects may be the way to go. If you study best alone, in the middle of the night, an asynchronous-type (time shifted, without specific class meeting time) course would be ideal. If writing things down helps you learn, courses with many exercises that require students to post their view in discussion boards would suit you well.
Set aside the time
Managing and scheduling your time effectively is the greatest ingredient for personal success with online learning. Regardless of how the course is structured, your participation is mandatory—meaning you have to schedule your availability to ensure regular “attendance” and participation.
The best way to approach any online course is to “make an appointment” with yourself to make sure you’ve allocated adequate time for your course. Then defend those appointment times like any other. Don’t let your learning time get superceded by other issues – or even responsibilities – that may arise. Pretend like it’s a doctor’s appointment or a job interview. If you have an important meeting, everything else gets scheduled around it. Your education is important. Enter your “learning appointments” in your calendar, then schedule around it. Be sure to also schedule time to work on exercises and projects. Don’t answer the phone while you are “in class” any more than you would in an actual classroom.
About the Author
Jim Norrena is a writer for http://www.searchforclasses.com Check there for information, tips and articles about online education. Read our Education News blog at http://sfcednews.blogspot.com/