Would you like to get a degree without setting foot in a classroom? What about honing your professional skills from the comfort of your desktop? You can now enroll in some of the tens of thousands of online classes available via the internet.
For decades, students have turned to distance learning to further their educational goals. From correspondence courses to teleclasses, distance learning has served the needs of people who can't physically attend classes. With the explosion of information technology and the internet, you can convert your desktop into a virtual classroom. In most cases, you need only your computer and internet access.
A New Kind of Education
Online learning, also known as Web-Based Training (WBT), makes it possible to deliver instructional content to a personal computer via the internet. You access a website, where you find most if not all of the materials you need — a course outline and lessons, information about the instructor (if there is one), lecture notes, a list of activities, tests, and links to other online resources. In some cases, additional materials may be required, such as textbooks or DVDs. Some WBT classes are self-paced, others are led by an instructor. Most are what is known as asynchronous classes — you study at your convenience — although there may be a defined period of time in which you must complete the course.
WBT offers a number of advantages over classroom-based instruction:
- Take a class anywhere. Learn at home or at the office.
- Take a class anytime. Access material 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
- Take courses according to your own schedule and pace.
- Lower costs. Eliminate travel, parking, and all the other costs associated with physically attending a class.
- Get instant feedback — tests can often be graded and returned to you within seconds.
- Access to the latest materials. Instructors can easily update teaching materials as new information becomes available.
Online learning has disadvantages too, the main one being that students study in isolation. To overcome this problem, many WBT classes incorporate features that invite student participation and collaboration, including:
- Email for submitting homework and communicating with the instructor and other students.
- Message boards where students post notes relating to class content and group activities.
- Chat, audio conferencing, and video conferencing for real-time communication.
- Screen-sharing, which allows students to see what an instructor demonstrates on his or her computer screen.
- Class websites for posting of charts, graphics, and links to other resources.
Not all classes require student participation. Most use only a few of the features just discussed. Since education on demand is relatively new, course providers are still trying to figure out what works best. And since people learn in different ways, classes vary in style. With self-paced classes, you study the course material and possibly take some online assessments. Generally, no instructor is involved — at most there may be an assistant who can answer questions via email. Because little human intervention is required, however, enrollment is open to any number of students and you can begin the course as soon as you register.
Instructor-led classes are more demanding, often requiring that you submit homework assignments, meet online periodically with other students, and participate in real-time discussions with an instructor. These types of courses generally limit enrollment (perhaps to under 50 students) and have a start and end date. Upon completion, you may receive a grade and credit towards a degree. Classes offered by universities typically follow this model.
Subjects vary enormously in subject and cost.
If you are looking for online courses that go along with accredited colleges, you will need to pick a particular school. Most colleges offer at least some online courses, and many offer online degrees. For example, Boston University offers a range of online course in addition to certificate programs in things like music education and international marketing. Similarly, UC Berkeley offers a range of continuous and fixed date enrollment courses. Check with a college that you are interested in.
In 2012, 86% of all traditional residential colleges offered at least some of their courses online.
Is Online Learning for You?
Typically, online classes target working adults – people who want to get an advanced degree or acquire new skills for their jobs, but don't have time to regularly attend classes. Classes are open to anyone, but you may need some prerequisites before you can enroll in certain courses. The requirements are usually listed along with class descriptions.
Online learning works best for people who are self-motivated, enjoy working alone, and feel comfortable using technology. Beyond that, it's just one of those things you have to try. Fortunately, you can test the waters before you take an expensive plunge.