A Guide to Online Education

| TBS Staff

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Online education continues to transform learning for students, educators, and schools alike. Web innovations have changed the way we study, engage information, and relate to one another. From its experimental stages to its widespread, present-day applications, online education has constantly altered and improved the educational landscape. Online education creates advancements in:

Today, online education is widely accepted, highly-regarded, and completely necessary for educating a diverse and constantly evolving student population.

Online education’s growth means that you now possess greater educational access, flexibility, and convenience, but it also means that you have an enormous range of options; this is especially true when it comes to online college and online graduate degrees. It is important that you not only choose the best online school but that you choose the best online school for your needs. As you navigate the world of online education, be sure to know what your options are, how you can minimize risks, and how you can improve your chances of excelling as a student.

Whether you are interested in finding an online high school program, locating a local, collaborative makerspace, transferring into an online college, or completing an online master’s degree program, you should read on to learn how to choose the best program for your needs.

There are also tons of valuable links and resources here for every online education experience.

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What Is Online Education?

The term “online education” refers to technological learning, instruction, and assessment that is mediated through the internet. This terminology describes any strategy of education that is conducted either partially or entirely online. Online education can take many forms, such as:

  • Administering Homeschooling Through Online Education
  • Attending Fully Online Schools and Colleges
  • Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)
  • Using Makerspaces and Other Collaborative Environments for Project-based Learning
  • Using Online Access in a Traditional Classroom Setting

In fact, you can earn an online degree at nearly every level of education, including high school diplomas, online associate degrees, online bachelor’s degrees, online master’s degrees, and even online Ph.D.s.

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What’s the Difference Between Asynchronous and Synchronous Online Education?

Online education is administrated through a wide variety of models. These include:

  • Pre-recorded Video Lectures
  • Social Media Outlets
  • Student Chat Boards
  • Video-conferencing
  • Virtual Blackboards

These are just a few of the countless possible distribution channels. However, online education can largely be divided into two major categories:

  • Synchronous online classes allow students and instructors to be online at the same time. All lectures, discussions, and presentations occur at scheduled times. In order to participate in these activities, everyone must be online at the properly designated time.
  • Asynchronous online classes allow students to participate in course activities whenever they choose. Materials, lectures, tests, and assignments are provided by instructors beforehand and can be accessed online any time. Students are often still expected to connect with the class and complete activities by a certain time, but this asynchronous approach generally offers more schedule flexibility than the synchronous one.
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How Many Students Take Online Courses?

Online education continues to grow even as other educational sectors see relatively flat or stagnant growth. According to a U.S. News & World Report article that discusses a Babson report, more than 6.3 million students in the U.S. — most of whom were undergraduates — took at least one online course in fall 2016, a 5.6% increase from the previous year. This is the 14th consecutive year that Babson has reported growth in online enrollment (Babson is a survey research group that focuses on online education, among other things).

Online education grew the most at public universities, which saw a 7.3% jump in enrollment between 2015 and 2016. According to U.S. News & World Report, roughly two-thirds of all online students are enrolled in public college or university programs. Private, non-profit schools enjoyed a 7.1% rise in enrollment during the same period.

However, these numbers only tell part of the story. Online education successfully grew in spite of the recent struggles faced by online for-profit colleges. For-profit schools have experienced greater scrutiny and regulatory oversight, largely because of their questionable recruitment, enrollment, and education practices. These actions cast an unflattering spotlight on shady for-profit schools. As a result, online for-profit colleges actually saw a 4.5% enrollment drop during the same time period.

Note: not all for-profit colleges are bad. In fact, there are several that can be rightfully counted as among the best for certain degrees. The for-profit colleges that tend to be scrutinized are nationally accredited career institutions, generally speaking. There are some quality, regionally accredited for-profit colleges, like Capella University, Walden University, Ashford University, that may provide you with solid education.

Online education as a whole continues to grow. This suggests robust enrollment numbers, improved educational quality, and stronger credibility as well as legitimacy for students on all places of the online educational spectrum.

But how can you tell if an online program is credible? Read on to learn about accreditation and why it is so important.

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How Important Is Accreditation for Online Colleges?

Online education is an extremely broad and varied sector. Many institutions provide online courses, such as excellent community colleges and public universities, exclusive private universities, and even Ivy League schools. However, not all online programs are reputable. You should be aware of the scam colleges, degree mills, and shady for-profit schools that exploit online education for financial gain. Nevertheless, if you understand how accreditation works, then you will have the skills to safely pick a rewarding online program.

Accreditation is the educational stamp of approval that guarantees your selected academic institution has attained certain standards of operational, procedural, financial, and academic practice. Online programs and schools receive accreditation in largely the same way as traditional, on-campus programs and schools. There are two primary types of accreditation: regional accreditation and national accreditation.

Regional accreditation is considered to be the more rigorous standard. Compared to national accreditation, regional accreditation is a stronger indication of a college or university’s quality, credibility, student outcomes, faculty qualifications, and overall quality. All of the best online colleges — including every college that we rank here at TheBestSchools.org — are regionally accredited. This is the gold standard in online college accreditation.

The Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognize the following six regional accrediting agencies:

As you seek the right college or university, you should find out if the schools has received regional accreditation from their corresponding regional agency above. If, for instance, you are considering a set of colleges in Massachusetts and Connecticut, then you should seek out schools with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges seal of approval.

National accreditation is often affiliated with religious institutions or technical, professional, and certification programs. While some nationally accredited programs may offer an accessible path to practical training, other nationally accredited programs do not. Choosing the national accreditation landscape poses a greater risk of attending a less-than-reputable institution. If you go this route, shop with caution.

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What Are the Benefits of Online Education?

Online education has considerable benefits. It has created opportunities for many students who, until recently, were not able to access courses, earn degrees, or balance their studies with their personal responsibilities. Online education represents a whole new world of opportunity for many groups, such as:

  • Adult Students
  • Non-traditional Students
  • Military Veterans and Service Members
  • Individuals With Disabilities
  • People Living in Underserved Regions or Populations

Read on to learn about some of the most important benefits of online education.

How Flexible Is Online Education?

Online students have a better opportunity to successfully balance personal or professional demands with academic responsibilities. For many students, online colleges represent the only path to a formal higher education. The web-mediated nature of online colleges allows for instruction and interaction that is both synchronous (live online lectures, live chats, etc.) and asynchronous (lecture podcasts, bulletin boards, email exchanges). This gives students the resources to balance their education with their work responsibilities and personal life.

Online college also attracts students who must work for a living. The proliferation of online colleges means that many aspiring students must no longer choose between work and education. Through online education, working adults and non-traditional students can learn new skills, enhance their professional stature, or simply improve their body of knowledge without sacrificing their income or career trajectory.

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How Accessible Is Online Education?

Online education expands and improves access to higher education for countless groups who might otherwise not be able to access education. Online colleges are physically accessible to anyone with a computer and a high-speed internet connection. This ease-of-access makes online education perfect for many groups of people, such as:

  • Individuals Face Practical, Physical, Or Legal Challenges
  • Individuals Who Live in Remote Rural Regions
  • Individuals With Disabilities
  • Military Service Members Stationed Abroad
  • Students From Underserved Populations
  • Undocumented Students
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The Importance of Independent Learning in Online Education

Online education gives you the freedom to learn at your own pace, on your own time, and in your own space. It also gives you a chance to define your strategies for balancing education with your work and your life. This benefit is critical for working adults. Online education gives you the independence and freedom you need to manage your time as well as schedule your responsibilities to fit your unique needs and situation. Online education both requires and helps you to develop your time management skills, study skills, and personal discipline skills.

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How Affordable Is an Online Degree?

Traditional college can be expensive. After students leave college or graduate school, they are often saddled with enormous student loan debts. In contrast, online students can enjoy a university-level education without the traditional college expenses of housing, food, transportation, campus services, etc. Some online courses even provide their own internal, web-based texts to students; this is a considerable benefit given the ever-rising cost of text books. While the cost of online college tuition is usually commensurate to the cost of traditional college tuition, cutting out these major expenses can make your college education a lot more for affordable. Furthermore, lower in-state rates still apply if you’re attending an online college in state.

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The Importance of Developing Your Technical Skills

If you have the skills to harness new technologies, then you will have a significant job-market advantage. Online education requires you to master many of the technologies and skills that your future employers will look for. As you focus on the content of your online courses, you will naturally adapt to your courses’ technical demands, such as:

  • Access Previously Recorded Media
  • Coordinate With Others Through a Number of Web-mediated Channels
  • Incorporate Research While Using Required Materials
  • Independently Manage Your Own Working Timetable
  • Attending Live Online Lectures
  • Submitting Your Own Materials

Each of these skills will make you a valuable candidate for potential employers.

Many of the highest-growth employment sectors for online college graduates are those driven by innovations in web technology. These technology fields include:

Online students may have a distinct advantage with employers who seek tech-savvy individuals with strong 21st century workplace skills.

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Tips for Online Education Success

So, now that you know what to expect from an online education, how can you get started and improve your chances of success? If you follow these tips and keep these links and resources handy throughout your online educational journey, then you have taken your first step towards success.

1. Make an Informed Decision

We cannot stress enough the importance of doing your research before you choose an online college. Whether you look for affordability or not, you need to know that you will get the most out of your investment. Know the difference between online colleges that provide a quality education and degree mills or scam schools.

Be thorough in your online education search. Weed out online schools that have performed poorly or carry a negative reputation.

Avoid online colleges with:

  1. High rates of non-completion
  2. Former enrollees with a higher-than-average rate of student loan repayment default
  3. Graduates who struggle to find or maintain suitable employment

Absolutely avoid online schools with recruitment scandals or other for-profit corruption schemes in their recent history.

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2. Become an Independent Learner

One of the greatest challenges faced by many online students is adapting to true independence. For those who are self-motivated, who learn quickly on their own, and who have the ability to balance work and study, the transition to online college may be easy. However, if these skills do not come naturally to you, then you will need to develop effective study habits, research practices, and a homework routine that works for you.

You must get organized to succeed as an independent learner. Keep a calendar of your courses and assignments handy. Maintaining both a digital and a handwritten calendar helps you remind yourself of your responsibilities and reinforce scheduling commitments. Use these instruments to plan ahead and to realistically balance your personal, professional, and academic responsibilities.

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3. Master the Technology

If this is your first time using your computer beyond its surface level functions, then it is important to take the time to learn and master your computer’s capabilities. There are more ways than ever for classmates, educators, and teams to use technology to collaborate on projects across time and space. Learning to use your hardware and software resources with confidence and efficiency will not only spare you frustration and make you a more productive student, but it will help you to establish more open and effective lines of communication with instructors and classmates.

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4. Create Personal Connections

One of the best steps that you can take to improve your online educational experience is to create real and meaningful connections with your instructors. Establish personal relationships through correspondence with your instructors. Create open pathways for communication. Become comfortable asking questions or seeking assistance when the need arises.

You may also benefit from close interaction with your fellow online students. Become a regular and active contributor to bulletin board discussions and peer review sessions. Consider individually reaching out to online classmates in order to create virtual or physical study groups. You may even plan casual social meet-ups with classmates just to blow off steam. Even if you are not sharing a campus space, you and your classmates are sharing the challenges of navigating course material, working independently, and balancing personal responsibilities. Making a few friends could go a long way toward feeling like you are part of a real class.

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Now that you have a better understanding of online education, you should be ready to choose the best online school for your needs.

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