Information compiled by the GradSchools.com team - last updated December 2010
People exist out there. People who don't think they have the time to participate in a regular graduate program. People who can't make it into a classroom every day or every week or whenever the class may meet. For these people, there is a solution. Distance learning, which constitutes learning online, via a computer, and supplemented occasionally by a phone call to a professor, a teaching assistant or another classmate, is a viable option for busy people who want to attend graduate school but don't think they can fit it into their schedules.
Taking an online graduate course can benefit graduate students in many ways. Technology has opened up an entirely new avenue to graduate learning. Much more than simply a trend, more and more colleges and universities are offering online programs.
According to Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States, 2006, more than 2,200 colleges and universities were surveyed by the Babson Group regarding online learning, and the findings tell us that two-thirds of the country's largest universities have adopted fully online programs. In addition, more than 96 percent of large institutions offer at least some online courses or programs.
What does online learning entail?
To take an online course, a student needs to have the right materials, including a computer, printer and an Internet connection. Students should be proficient in the use of computers, the Internet, e-mail and instant messaging. Connections with instructors and fellow students are made through message boards, chat rooms, e-mail and the telephone.
Online classes can be live or non-live, meaning the students may interact with the professor at that exact moment, or will simply need to keep up with the syllabus and stay connected via e-mail or other messaging forms. Lectures for both can be taught through Web- and teleconferences, bulletin boards, text chats and streaming audio, among other methods. In most cases, online programs will promote good organizational skills, since the students are essentially on their own in deciding when and how to do their work.
Because of this, because you will, for the most part, pace your own learning, an online student must be self-motivated. Students need to be able to set goals and deadlines for themselves to ensure that the work is completed for the course, and they need to follow through with them, since there won't always be a professor in front of them to remind them of due dates. Procrastinators will find it difficult to get caught up once they have let things go.
One of the most exciting aspects of online learning is the fact that you can have classmates, teachers and speakers from around the world, and even though the communication may be virtual, it can be extremely rewarding. You will also have the ability to replay lectures in case you feel you've missed some important notes.
Is distance learning right for me?
Online learning lends itself particularly well to graduate students who are working full- or part-time or have family demands. Night school can take its toll on grad students, leaving them exhausted when it comes time to perform their tasks at work. Having to report to an actual classroom involves a great deal of scheduling on the part of the student.
This is where online programs become the most beneficial. Online classes do not require students to learn in a classroom, which cuts down on travel costs and saves the students' time. However, it should be pointed out that online courses are time-consuming, often requiring a commitment of four to 15 hours per week, per course. But students are able to budget their time any way they choose and do not have to spend precious minutes (or hours) commuting to their classes. They also don't have to relocate to their dream school. They can live in Oregon and attend Columbia University. In addition, online degrees tend to cost less than traditional degrees, for the same reason that strictly online stores can sell items for less than brick-and-mortar stores: less overhead.
Online learning provides unmatched convenience and flexibility. If you are open-minded and enjoy sharing ideas with peers, you will enjoy online programs. You must also feel comfortable working with computers and communicating through writing. Students with medical problems, or who live in remote areas, will find distance learning a terrific alternative. Additionally, many students choose online programs because they offer courses not available at a nearby college or university.
Some factors to bear in mind
The student should check ahead of time to see if credit for certain online courses will transfer to another school, in case the student is taking the online course(s) as preparation for entering brick-and-mortar college (as opposed to online).
Another thing students must be wary of when seeking out a distance learning program is whether or not the institution providing the program is accredited, meaning employers will accept a degree as legitimate. You can ensure the accreditation of any institution you are considering by visiting the U.S. Department of Education website (ED.gov). There you will find a database of all accredited institutions in the country. Students must be aware of the existence of diploma mills, phony institutions who charge money for unofficial degrees.
Success in online programs can easily be yours if you manage your time well, stay connected to your instructors and peers and balance your schoolwork with your other obligations. Remember always to ask questions, as well as to create an environment for yourself that is conducive to learning.
Distance education is not going away anytime soon. In fact, it is becoming more and more accepted by academia and the public. Online credits are usually transferable to colleges and universities, and the list of online-program providers is growing in step with today's ever-evolving technology.