Online Courses

Taking courses online can be one of the most convenient, user-friendly ways to further your education, advance in your current job, or catapult yourself into a new career. If you are looking to take college courses online, you are part of a growing number of people who are choosing the online platform over the traditional classroom setting. According to the 2010 Sloan Consortium study on online education, online enrollment rose by 21% from fall 2008 to fall 2009, with nearly 5.6 million students taking at least one online course. Now, nearly 30% of students are enrolled in at least one online course, compared to only 10% of students in fall 2002. While higher education has seen growth overall, the growth in traditional higher education just can't compare — its student population grew by only 2% in the same time period.

Online, you don't get to sit in the back of the classroom and do nothing. There is no back of the classroom.

Jim UrbanAlumnus of Liberty University Online

If you're interested in taking online courses, this obviously isn't your first time in school. Maybe you finished high school years ago and began working, but you're ready to take that on some college level coursework, though not necessarily ready to commit to a degree program. Or maybe you have completed your undergraduate degree and would like to pursue an advanced degree, or just want to take a few more classes. Or maybe you love the field you're in, but it requires continuing education so that you stay up-to-date on trends in the field and can maintain your professional certification. Whatever your reason, you should be aware of a few key characteristics of online education.

What Is the Online Environment Like?

While online degree programs differ by school in the format in which they are offered, you will likely see one of a few different platforms for your online courses: asynchronous video lecture, synchronous video lecture, and presentation through a learning management system such as Blackboard. If a class is asynchronous, that means it does not take place at any set time, but its components, such as a video lecture, will be available for download and viewing at your convenience. Alternatively, synchronous courses are offered at one particular time and feature interactive chat functions, much like how students must meet in a classroom at a certain time in brick-and-mortar models. Online courses offered through systems such as Blackboard may also feature readings or slideshow presentations rather than recorded lectures.

For those who only have experience in a brick-and-mortar setting, there are a few key differences between traditional and online education you'll need to be aware of. The biggest difference, and perhaps the most obvious one, is that for online courses, you won't be physically going to a classroom. It sounds pretty basic, but you may be surprised by what that means for your motivation and schedule. However, for Liberty University Online graduate student Jim Urban, staying on task was never an issue.

"I feel I have always been a self-motivated person, and I feel this is an important quality when considering doing school online," he said. "I feel it is easier to go to class online, especially given the savings in commute time. I have developed a routine over the last two years which has helped me stay on track with assignments."

Another difference is the type of interaction between students and instructors. Some lecture and course formats will enable chat functions, while others will require a certain amount of participation in discussion boards, often as part of an overall course grade.

" I felt very comfortable interacting online, [but] most professors and students are happy to email or talk on the phone," Urban said. The level of interaction can be left up to the student at times, which Urban said comes with one piece of advice: "As with anything else, you get out of it what you put into it."

The fact that discussion is part of the grade, said University of Phoenix alumnus Gabriel Flores, really separates the online classroom from the brick-and-mortar setting.

"We constantly had to show what we knew," he said. "Online, you don't get to sit in the back of the classroom and do nothing. There is no back of the classroom. And online, when the professor asks a question, it's not a general question to you or your classmates, or whoever raises his hand and answers first. It's to you, and you have to answer."

Eric Lowry, a graduate of Villanova University's Master of Science in Water Resources and Environmental Engineering program, said he feels the chat functions brought the online classroom to life.

"As a practicing professional engineer with a full-time job and family, I was able to save a significant amount of travel time and still participate in the classroom on a real-time basis," he said. "The 'classroom' experience worked very well via the video/audio feed and presentation of information from the professors. All of the professors were available during the class via either phone or the chat room."

Flores, a teacher and national educational speaker who completed his doctorate in educational leadership and is currently working on an educational specialty program through Phoenix online, said he believes the interaction with fellow students was as personal in the online program as it was in his brick-and-mortar undergraduate and graduate programs.

"I had more interaction with my classmates because we had to respond to their posts online as part of a grade," he said. "It was really the same thing as being in a classroom, except we couldn't see each other's faces. And I'm a bit of an introvert, so this was really better for me."

How Does Taking College Courses Online Impact Your Career Prospects?

For all the differences between online and traditional education, there are also striking similarities. Primarily, the level of quality of the education you receive will be the same regardless of whether you take your class in the classroom or online — the professors are the same, the content is the same, and the knowledge you gain after you finish your coursework will be the same. What changes, Flores said, is you.

"I apply my knowledge not only in my classroom but with my colleagues," he said. "I am now better educated than my boss, who will frequently ask my advice and my opinion on different issues. My credibility shot up. I've really become a leader in my school and a role model to my students. My principal asked me once if I had any idea how influential I was, and that word has stuck with me — influential. All because I love school and wanted to go back. Self-discipline, motivation, and determination, that's what it's all about."

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