In a world where the “gig economy” rules, employers ask for hours at weird times, and people’s children need “Mom’s Taxi” to schlep them to any number of activities. So, great numbers of students need flexible class schedules that traditional brick-and-mortar colleges cannot offer. Online classes usually let students participate at their own pace. Instead of a full 12-credit workload, they can take one or two classes at once and achieve the study-work-life balance that is necessary for them.
What Are Online College Courses Like?
Distance learning provides students interested in earning their degrees the ability to do so in the comfort of their own homes. They should not, however, assume that online college courses will be easier than traditional courses. These students should familiarize themselves with everything to do with online courses, particularly how they’re laid out, before they begin study. These courses aren’t for everyone, but many “nontraditional students” gain the knowledge, experience, and technical skill that come with getting a degree.
Getting Started in the Distance Learning Environment
When you attend a traditional college course, you must locate the classroom on the first day of the semester, but you do not have a classroom to report to when you are taking your classes entirely online. When you enroll in an online program, you will need reliable access to the internet and a computer that meets the minimum performance requirements to run the necessary software for your online program. The most common software used to turn your computer into a classroom is Blackboard. Before you start your class, you can take an online tutorial that will help you navigate through tabs and sections of your course.
Completing Coursework, Class Discussions and Tests
After you go through the syllabus, schedule of assignments, and other announcements that are posted to your Blackboard course, you will need to start organizing. Many people assume that online college courses are self-paced, but this is a bad assumption. There are two kinds of classes when it comes to time management: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous classes have set meeting times, traditional due dates for assignments, and scheduled discussion groups. Asynchronous classes do not. Before beginning, it behooves you to find out all you can about the courses you plan to take. Are they self-paced and asynchronous or not? Time management is crucial for your success.
If you do not log into your class, you do not have this benefit. You must be organized, stay on-track, and turn in your tests and coursework on-time. While many tests are open book, expect them to test your understanding of concepts, which often required critical thinking. To be sure that classmates communicate, many professors will require a weekly class discussion. This is often how you will earn the participation points you would traditionally get from speaking in class.
What are online college courses like? Undergraduate students should plan on devoting three hours per week for each credit of an online class. Additionally, prep time should include an extra hour. So, each three-credit class should take up 10 hours per week. It’s easy to see that maintaining a full 12-credit schedule would be nigh impossible if you’re working or dealing with a family. That’s why many online students only take one or two classes at any one time.
Graduate students should plan for four hours per week per credit along with the additional prep hour, making them consume 13 hours per week from your busy schedule. Students doing a dissertation, as well, should plan for even more even if the dissertation is a two-year or three-year project.
All told, the total time commitment for an online class outside the actual lectures and group discussions will be between 75 and 90 hours, depending on the class level and the subject matter. Classes that require laboratory work will likely have a brick-and-mortar component because most students don’t have fully outfitted labs in their kitchens! Students who have to visit campuses for lab work should include those trips in their time management plans.
Many universities and colleges charge by the credit hour for online courses. Some charge full tuition. Obviously, there are no room and board charges, but there will be charges for books and other necessary materials for the classes you take. These might be virtual books in the form of .PDFs, but you will still have to buy them.
The standard forms of financial aid are available: grants, scholarships, and loans. As with traditional college study, the loans are either subsidized or unsubsidized. The difference is that subsidized loans do not accrue interest while you’re enrolled while unsubsidized loans generate not only interest but also interest on the interest.
Students begin applying for financial aid with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. They include all sources of income. This also includes their parents’ income if they still live at home and are considered a dependent. Students must also provide their tax information and that of their parents if applicable. The school and the government will then determine how much aid you’re eligible to receive. It may cover everything, or it may only cover a portion.
There are also private sources of financial aid. Rather than being need-based like public aid, private sources are usually merit-based. A few awards can also be based on other criteria, such as heritage or gender.
For nontraditional students, there are still further options. Many employers have partnerships with colleges that teach classes and award degrees in subject areas that are relevant to their business aims. These partnerships might provide complete tuition reimbursement, partial reimbursement, and even customized class content relevant to the employer’s needs.
If you’re employed, contact your human resources department or your immediate supervisor to find out if your company provides that kind of assistance and how to apply for it if applicable. Companies value employees who want to better themselves and help the company by being better, so they’re usually quite happy to help.
Legitimate online programs receive the same regional accreditation as their brick-and-mortar counterparts. There are six regional accrediting bodies in the United States:
- The Higher Learning Commission
- The Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
- The New England Commission of Higher Education
- The WASC Senior College and University Commission
For junior colleges and community colleges, there is the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. These organizations apply rigorous standards to any college they accredit. The schools are evaluated not only on the material they teach and the manner in which they teach it but also on improvement plans and integrity.
There are some schools, particularly trade schools or religious institutions, that do not receive regional accreditation Instead, these schools secure national accreditation. National accreditation is accepted by most employers, but many schools who achieve regional accreditation will not accept transfer credits from schools with national accreditation because the criteria are not as strict. Students are encouraged to check out the accreditation of any online college they wish to attend.
Diploma Mills, Degree Mills, and Accreditation Mills
Some online colleges, most of which are for-profit entities, give out degrees and diplomas like so much candy. These items are absolutely worthless. Worse, if a student uses one of these illegitimate degrees to obtain employment, that student risks job loss or even blacklisting for dishonesty. Worst of all, using a fake diploma, particularly if it’s a fraudulent diploma from a legitimate school, could land the student in civil or even criminal court.
The chief difference between a diploma mill and a degree mill is that diploma mills issue those aforementioned fraudulent degrees purporting to be from legitimate, accredited colleges and universities while a degree mill simply prints their own. There are many red flags that will tip you off that the online program you plan to attend is a mill.
First, the college or university will have either no accreditation or fake accreditation. Check out any accreditation claim through careful research. Many mills create their own accreditation company and then accredit themselves. They might also sell accreditation to anyone with the right credit balance. These are the accreditation mills.
Second, the online college or university claims to give you a degree, even a graduate degree, based upon “life experiences.” While your experience is valuable, it shouldn’t be the only basis for your degree. It is true, however, that legitimate schools allow people with certain experience to “test out” of certain classes. But, they never offer a full degree for such experience.
Third, a mill might only have one criterion for acceptance: a valid credit card. The will ask for a lump sum for a degree. These fees usually range from a few hundred dollars to $3,000 or more. Legitimate schools won’t ask for lump sum payments.
Fourth, the school might have only American students, often providing glowing testimonials, but if you research the school, you find that it’s located in some small foreign country with no accreditation.
Fifth, you might be promised a degree within 30 days even if you perform no work and attend no classes. No real school would make a promise like that. If the school has no faculty, that’s also a dead giveaway. The same applies if the school’s faculty has bogus schools on their CVs. Often, the faculty members will have their degrees from the very mill you’re researching!
Sixth, the school might have complaints on file with organizations like the Better Business Bureau. If this is the case, watch out. It is true that legitimate schools might get complaints from disgruntled students, but even casual research in other areas will yield enough information for you to be able to tell the difference between a mill and a legitimate school.
In short, the bottom line is that you will never get a legitimate education for “next to nothing.” You will have to work for it, and you will have to pay for it. Anything that seems too good to be true isn’t. Savvy students will be suspicious of mills in any circumstance. If you don’t think an online school is legit, research it. Call the school and ask questions. If the school is legit, then the school’s personnel won’t be afraid to answer questions.
Are Online College Courses Recognized By Employers?
If you are an independent learner who can stay organized and learn without face-to-face instruction, online college courses may be right for you. You can access the text online, read or view lectures, communicate with classmates and professors, and work any time of the day on your lessons, which is a highlight for those who are busy. But do employers like when applicants have an online degree? While some employers frown upon online degrees, most employers view an online degree the same way that they would perceive a traditional degree as long as the degree is earned from an accredited school.
Online study provides nontraditional students with good opportunities to further their education. Legitimate online schools award degrees that are every bit as valid and accepted by employers as traditional schools. If students are wary of mills and stick to real schools, there’s no reason that they won’ be successful.
When you earn a degree online, you have the benefit of saving money while still enjoying a flexible schedule. While there are obvious benefits, you must be realistic when you enroll in an online program. Online college courses are challenging and unique, and they are not for all college students.