Answering “Is online learning right for me?” changes in response to the motivation that prompted the question. If the question is translated as “will I be successful?” then there are a variety of factors at play. If the question is meant as “Am I well suited to be a online student”, then another set of factors may be at play. Hopefully, however, this article will address both.
Sufficient motivation is key. One way to determine your motivation is by doing a personal “cost-benefit analysis” and concluding that the benefits amply outweigh the costs. So, in deciding if online learning is right for you, first define your goals. Why are you wanting a degree? Why an online degree? What are you hoping to achieve by getting this degree? Job stability? Different job? Better job? Better pay? Better credentials? Personal interest?
Make sure that the benefits are strong enough to keep you going through the hard times. You don't want to invest in something that you aren't going to finish. Another question to ask yourself is “Is an online degree the only way for me to get a degree”? If the answer is “yes”, then your motivation will likely be even higher than for an individual who has greater flexibility.
Education, whether it is done as a traditional or a non-traditional student, is a financial commitment. The only thing worse than going into debt for a degree is going into debt for an uncompleted degree---having nothing to show for your debt. If you have not already made a budget, make one and stick to it.
To see how your budget looks if you attend school---to make a good hypothetical case---keep two numbers in mind: the total cost for the degree, and the broken down cost per semester. The latter number seems to be the more important, but not seeing the degree program total can cause you to select an overpriced program.
The ideal situation is to pay for the degree out of pocket, but certainly that's often not an option. Loans may seem like an easier route, but in the end it is just delaying the cost and strapping you with payments for years to come. Sometimes, this could have been avoided if the individual had better planned their finances in advance. Unfortunately for many, loans are a necessary evil. The best advice: if you get a loan, get a federal loan, and use as little of that money as possible; don't live off of your loan unless you absolutely have to.
Schools usually have financial counseling available to their students. Use these resources! You do not have to do this alone. Have a trained professional guide you through the process of making a budget, and figuring out how much of a loan is necessary.
Also, don't just apply for loans! Look for grants and for scholarships. The number of scholarships available for special niches is incredible. Get creative. A bunch of $500 scholarships can add up.
3) Learning style
3.1) Read/Write learners are very word-oriented. They prefer to see information in words rather than listening to it, or seeing graphical representations of it. They should not be confused with “visual learners”. One of the benefits of this style for online learning is that a large percentage of instruction will be accomplished through independent reading.
Read/Write learners love PowerPoint. Most online degree programs provide their students with the PowerPoints used during lecture, which will also aid in retention for the read/write learner. Not all schools will require large amounts of writing as part of their evaluation techniques. A read/write learner would do best taking the initiative to organize the information in written format, if for no other reason than to aid their own retention.
3.2) Auditory learners process information by listening to it. Often, auditory learners benefit by being able to talk through the information, interacting with other individuals, exchanging ideas and asking questions. They may benefit by repeating information over and over to themselves. Also, don't be fooled, most online programs require plenty of interaction via chats and video chats.
If you find your lips moving while you process information, more than likely you are an auditory learner. One of the benefits of online learning for auditory learners is that if the institution provides online lectures, the auditory learner can go back and watch/listen to them as many times as they like, unlike a traditional classroom which is confined to a single lecture.
3.3) Visual learners should not be confused with read/write learners since their main mode of learning is “seeing” the information in a representative manner, such as in the form of images, charts, videos, or diagrams. The visual learner can also be referred to as the “spatial learner” in that they like to see the information displayed relationally.
Visual learners may need to collect additional resources, as visual elements provided by instructor will be limited to the instructors' preferences. Most online program instructors are accustomed to using visually compelling content, but if not, finding YouTube videos and Googling images can be very helpful. Khan Academy is a particularly useful resource for the math/sciences, allowing the learner to see how concepts are broken down in real time.
3.4) Kinesthetic learners (also known as tactile learners) unfortunately will have the most difficulty with the online learning format, unless they institute practices for themselves. Kinesthetic learners benefit the most from physically performing tasks in order to learn concepts. They are the “hands on” learners who learn by doing, rather than listening or seeing.
Those pursuing a degree in the arts (Video, Photography, Graphic Design) should have less of a problem. Usually the online assignments give ample opportunity to “do” rather than “learn about.”
If you are a tactile learner in an online degree program, you may want to seek out opportunities for outside interaction with the material. This might include reaching out to experts in the area or finding friends and family who are already knowledgeable, and can help walk you through some of the material. If you are in a large city, ask the professor if there are any other students nearby with whom you can study.
Organizational skills can make or break your ability to complete an online degree. Do you know how to pace yourself, or do you leave tasks until the last minute? Do you create a schedule and stick to it, even if other interests crop up in the meantime? Do you know how to set timely goals for yourself and do you complete them? Do you tend to need external reinforcement in order to accomplish goals? Are you comfortable taking the initiative to ask questions when you are unclear about expectations?
If you answered Yes to the aforementioned questions, then likely you are a good candidate for online learning. If you answered No to one or more of these questions, there is still hope!
If you are not the most disciplined organizer, it might mean that you need a little extra help to overcome things that do not come easily for you. If staying organized is not your forte, smart phones can be an excellent tool. The most important practice is to put things on calendars, and not just deadlines. Calendar times for when you should plan specific assignments, have rough drafts done, etc. The more thought you put into planning your semester, the easier your semester will be!
There is something to be said for certain personality styles that gravitate towards and thrive within an alternative learning environment. Again, this is not to say that those without these personality traits will be unsuccessful.
Given the option of traditional classroom or online format, often introverts (or those who are shy) gravitate towards an online format. Class discussions can be overwhelming for those who either feel awkward speaking in front of a group of people, or for those who need time to properly internalize the material before forming an opinion that they feel comfortable sharing. The online format can be very attractive for individuals who prefer working independently.
Extroverts and the hyperactive students out there may also appreciate aspects of online learning. Extroverts may find more interaction with fellow online students than they might have had in a traditional classroom. It's too often true that students in many traditional course hardly ever talk to each other. Online courses that depend on online chats ensure engagement, meaning everyone has to talk (or at least write in their thoughts). So, not only may there be more interaction with students, extroverts get to practice different methods of building relationships.
Hyperactive students benefit greatly from online programs as well, contrary to the thought they won't be able to sit still, motivate themselves, etc. Hyperactivity often includes the need to get up and move around. Well, you can pause an online lecture and move around; you can't do that in a traditional classroom. Also, hyperactive people get distracted easily. The benefit of online classes is that you can pause, rewind, and repeat information as much as you want. See how many times you can ask a professor in a classroom to repeat his or herself without becoming frustrated with you.
Lifestyle can be one of the most influential factors in determining whether or not online learning is right for you, and much of it is based on limited options. Do you work full time? Is your work schedule unpredictable? Are you a single parent? Do you have chronic illness? Do you travel for work?
Any of these reasons can create roadblocks for an individual to matriculate as a traditional student. As mentioned before, motivation is key. If an online format is the only way that you could reasonably achieve your degree goals, then you are more likely to be successful in an online format.
Side note: None of these factors listed are absolute. This writer happens to be an extreme extrovert with ADD and poor organization skills who has overcome each of these obstacles and is currently working on not one, but two online master degrees! Always view challenges as hurdles to be overcome, not as roadblocks. Doing so will open up many more doors and can make you even more qualified than individuals to whom everything comes easy!