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Online Education: What You Need to Know

Are you interested in a course offered across the country? Before you consider moving, find out if the course is available online. Students today have great opportunities for online education.

"Students not only want online courses, they expect them!" says Dr. Frits Pannekoek. Pannekoek is president of a university that offers online courses. He is also a board member of a virtual university organization.

When we talk about online education, it is important to understand certain terms.

Different Types of Education

According to Pannekoek, online education, or e-learning, refers to taking courses and classes over the Internet. Participants communicate through e-mail, chatrooms and online bulletin boards.

Distance education refers to correspondence courses. Material arrives by mail. You mail completed assignments back and receive a mark.

Hybrid or blended courses combine classroom instruction with online learning.

In open learning, students can enroll in courses that they want without enrolling in a complete program. In some situations, they might be able to transfer course credits from an online course to the university or college that they are attending full time.

Pannekoek says that many people learn online better than they do in a classroom.

"Students retain more and go through complex subjects more thoroughly," Pannekoek explains.

Often students are surprised to discover that online learning provides more interaction with other students than they have in a classroom.

Vicky Phillips is the founder of GetEducated.com, an online clearing house. According to Phillips, well-designed online courses encourage interaction through group projects. "Groups of people are assigned to work in teams," Phillips says. "They talk a lot and teach one another."

Although you can learn many subjects online, some materials require a hybrid approach, says Dr. John Cassidy. Cassidy is manager of distance education and distance education learning technologies at a university.

Suppose you want to learn to dissect a frog, for example. You can learn the frog's inner workings though Internet animations and videos in a "virtual lab." However, using the scalpel requires real-life practice.

Courses like nursing and animal technology require hands-on practice. In these situations, the student might do the hands-on work in a hospital or other workplace, supervised by an appropriate professional.

Advantages of Online Education

There are many advantages to online education. "The biggest pro is that it makes education more accessible," says Phillips. People in rural areas can take courses without moving to the city. People can do their coursework at any time of the day or night. Students with a job can fit coursework around their schedule.

Sally Welch is the assistant director of the Distance Education and Training Council, based in Washington. She adds that students can study at their own pace. Slow learners benefit. They receive personal attention from instructors through chatlines, bulletin boards or e-mail. At the same time, faster learners proceed at their own speed.

"Often you can get more specialized attention than in a regular school," Welch says.

Also, some students are shy about speaking up in classrooms. Some are afraid to ask questions in case they look "stupid." With online learning, you can ask questions privately and "speak up" by e-mail.

There is another advantage. Your fellow students are likely to live in other locations, or even in other countries. They have different cultures and different ideas. "You can have a truly international learning experience," Pannekoek comments.

The richness of the learning material is yet another advantage. The instructor can introduce links to other websites, video clips, pictures, Flash animations or any number of items that make the course more interesting.

Disadvantages

There are some disadvantages to online education. First you need good reading and writing skills, according to Phillips, because online education tends to be a reading and writing medium.

Secondly, you need an Internet-enabled computer and must be willing to learn to use it. Slow Internet connections can pose problems for some people. Some students access the Net with a dial-up connection or through satellite.

But the greatest con is that online education can be isolating. If you do not like to communicate with words or symbols, or if you like to see your classmates and instructors and hear their voices, then you might find online education boring. You cannot hang out with your classmates or go out for pizza with them. "Therefore, it can be more difficult to motivate yourself," Phillips comments.

Scams and Fake Online Colleges

Students considering online education are smart to do some research before enrolling. There are many scams and bogus "universities" online. Some of them have excellent websites and they look legitimate.

Phillips' company tracks over 200 fake online colleges in the U.S. alone. "Online education is one of the largest scams on the Internet," Phillips warns. "It's so easy to do and stay within the law."

Phillips adds that some of these fake colleges have created their own accreditation agencies. They tell you truthfully that this agency has accredited their school. They don't tell you that the accreditation means nothing because the U.S. government doesn't recognize their agency.

If a U.S. college grants a degree, and it if claims to be accredited, Phillips advises checking with the U.S. Department of Education or the Council of Higher Education Accreditation. Find out if these bodies recognize the accrediting organization.

Both of these organizations have online searchable databases. "If the accreditation agency is not listed, run in the other direction," says Phillips.

Welch offers some other "red flags" that might indicate a bogus college. Check with better business bureaus or consumer agencies. Complaints about the school are red flags. If a school accepts life experience for credit, that is another red flag.

If the school wants money for doing nothing, that is a very big red flag. For example, some bogus colleges offer diplomas but don't require you to take very many courses.

Also, ask about a school's refund policy. Read the contract carefully to see what is included and what is not. Be sure to ask about library policies before signing a contract.

And, Welch adds, be on the lookout for online schools with names that are very similar to resident colleges. Scammers often give their school a name similar to a legitimate school, hoping to confuse people. The same thing applies to accrediting agencies. "It is amazing what people do," Welch remarks.

Questions to Ask

If you plan on transferring your credits to another school, ask for a list of schools that accept this school's credits. Or if you are getting a high school diploma, check with your college ahead of time and ask if they will accept your diploma. "Do that BEFORE you enroll, not after," Welch advises.

Another problem arises in the U.S. because no federal law requires a college to be accredited. They leave it up to each state. Problems can happen when employers in one state do not recognize a degree granted in another state. Always ask which other states recognize the degree before you enroll in a university.

If you encounter a program that interests you, decide where you would like to work after you graduate. Then approach those employers and ask if they hire graduates of that school. "If employers don't see this organization as something you could put faith in, I would stay away from it!" says Cassidy.

Cassidy also suggests contacting the school and asking some questions. Ask them whether the course is the old style of distance education, or whether it is the new "learner-centered" style. "Learner-centered style" is the answer you are looking for.

Another question to ask is, "What's the work load like?" Be cautious if it seems too light. You will not learn all you need to learn. Be even more cautious if the load seems too heavy to cover in a year.

"It is better to pass in three years than fail in one," concludes Cassidy.

So is online education for you? Self-motivated people who are willing to learn computer skills will do well in an online course. The experts agree that the skills you develop in online learning will help you for the rest of your life.

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