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Online Degrees: Are They Right for You?

Search for "online degree" on Google and you are liable to come back with more than 23 million returns.

"Get your degree fast!"

"Never go into a university!"

"We are accredited!"

As gimmicky as it may seem, there's a real need for this service. To advance careers, many professionals find they need to return to school to obtain a degree or to further their education with a graduate program. It has become possible for universities to offer distance learning options via the Internet that can be flexible enough to avoid interrupting professionals' jobs. These programs are noted for their reduced cost, increased flexibility and the convenience of obtaining the degree from home in some cases. But there also is the perception that an online degree is easier than obtaining a diploma in a traditional college campus setting.

At the same time, using an Internet-based program of study introduces its own set of challenges. Candidates need to be highly motivated to complete self-study, discipline is needed to complete long-term assignments and for synchronous programs - those in which you attend a class with a teacher in real time online - students still have to make time to attend classes. Online students have to be able to filter out distractions.

As the concept of attending a university online has become more accepted in professional societies around the globe, the number of degree programs and institutions has skyrocketed to address a varied landscape of learning needs. New online learning models have emerged, from hybrid models in which a student takes classes on a flexible schedule at a nearby campus, to options that are completely online with a real-time teacher or completely self-governed. Every year there seem to be more and more options to extend professional learning online, but how can students tell whether an online degree is the right career move?

Types of Degree Programs

The first thing to consider when looking at an online degree is the type of program being offered by an institution. In recent years, programs have been introduced that provide students with more and more autonomy and control of their programs of study. While programs vary by institution, most online degree offerings break down into three categories: hybrid programs and synchronous and asynchronous online learning.

Hybrid study programs offer students the opportunity to take some classes online and some in a traditional university setting. Online synchronized study offers students the choice of studying through an online portal system; however, the student is expected to appear for most classes on a real-time schedule. These classes often are presented via video and webcam over the Internet in the evenings and offer the student the ability to pose questions, interact with a real professor and obtain real-time support for the learning material.

Recently, online institutions have introduced courses that are completely online self-study, also called asynchronous learning. These courses often boast a series of assignments that need to be completed in a certain timeframe, with an online feedback system or forum that allows students to pose questions to the professor and their classmates.

Early distance learning and online learning programs allowed students to attend many of their classes at a local institution's traditional campus and then pay to attend certain courses via an online learning system in a hybrid model. This hybrid model offers students the opportunity to choose the "best" method for their individual learning needs, as well as the option to take some classes at a campus. Even in classes that are entirely presented through the online distance learning mechanism, there still is the opportunity to visit a professor on campus and obtain personal support for concepts presented in the class.

This level of support comes at a cost to the students in the flexibility of their programs of study. Many of the classes offered in this hybrid environment are synchronous - that is, they offer either video or other learning content that is taken by a class of students at a given time. Often, this can mean professionals will need to plan to either be available at home at a certain time, or they will lose that access to the professor and instead attend a recorded session.

Online degrees with synchronous learning provide a completely online program, so the student will not need to plan to attend in-person classes but still will participate in real-time online sessions. These programs attempt to offer students a balanced learning environment. While students are not required to appear on a traditional campus, they still must plan to "attend" some classes online during certain times offered as video broadcasts, usually supplemented with a chat or voice channel to allow students to ask questions.

Many institutions that use this synchronous learning environment for online students will also offer "office hours" - posted times when a professor is available to answer a question quickly - roughly analogous to when a student at a traditional university would be able to come and ask a question of a professor. While many synchronous learning programs will provide better real-time support for students and the ability to directly ask questions and get answers, students interested in one of these programs will need to be careful about scheduling and will need to balance work or other family demands against the times classes are conducted on the computer.

More and more common these days is asynchronous online learning - the completely independent self-study method. In a self-study environment, the student is completely responsible for learning, and the institution takes more of a mentoring role, connecting students with resources for study material and textbooks, ways to get help and grading exams. As the student is completely responsible for his or her own learning, the course can be self-paced and there is no time that the student is required to be available to attend an online class.

Stephen Gatlin, president of Gatlin Education Services, a provider of learning content to online organizations, described the independent self-study method. "Students can create their own study schedule and complete courses in their own time," Gatlin said. "The instructional design is such high quality that the actual learning experience is rich and interesting, as well as effective." These kinds of programs offer the most flexibility for the student but the least direct support for the student's learning. Students often can look forward to online Web-based forums or e-mail for learning assistance.

Online Degrees Fit in the IT Industry

With online degree programs' relatively recent introduction to the IT industry, many students are unfamiliar with the level of acceptance of online degrees offered and how certifications fit into the degree programs. This varies by institution and can be based on the location of a learning institution's headquarters and the university's technology partners. These are key questions students should ask the counselor of any institution they approach because many programs offer certification as part of the program; however, the degree of integration varies, including how program fees are incorporated.

When examining a school's value for your career, one of the most important things to examine is the level of accreditation of the school. There are six regional accreditation associations in the United States, and the school you are considering should be listed with one of them. Without regional accreditation, the degree or credits you earn with a given school may not be recognized by outside businesses or other schools.

As long as the school has been accredited by one of these six associations, the degree you earn from their programs will have the same standing as a degree earned from a traditional university. When asked what caution he would have for a student considering an online degree, Pat Partridge, vice president of enrollment at Western Governors University, indicated that a student shouldn't "think it's easier. It's generally not. Studying and preparation is still essential."

Many of these online degrees are focused on technology, and as a result, can offer a student a more comprehensive learning experience than some traditional university settings.

"Our programs are developed around core competencies recognized by the marketplace as being relevant," said Ruki Jayaraman, director of the College of Information Technology at Western Governors University. "Unlike traditional degrees in [computer science] or IT, the degree programs at WGU are not only designed to develop hands-on skills and capabilities in current areas of information technology, but also help students become competent in project management, leadership and professionalism."

By attending programs integrating additional components that go beyond the technology and general education focuses of many traditional institutions, students can gain exposure to many of the real-world scenarios they will encounter in the field.

As part of this beyond-the-classroom focus, many organizations integrate information technology-centric industry certifications into their degree programs. Being aware of how an institution of choice uses certifications can help a student choose a program that will provide the basis to build a successful career right after graduation. Many institutions provide the learning necessary for a student to certify and then allow students to choose whether or not they would like to take that extra step on their own. Other programs integrate certifications as exams in technology-focused courses to provide an industry-based assessment of a student's learning. An enrollment counselor at any university should be able to explain how certifications are integrated into the degree program.

Matching a Program With Your Life

With the wide array of options that students have to pick from in online study programs, they should take the time to choose the program and university that works best for them. Each of the available types of programs places different demands on the student, and institutions have different ways of implementing the programs within each category. Students interested in self-study programs should be aware that a balance exists in most programs between flexibility for the student and the amount of support resources available for each class.

When considering an online program, it is important to take the time to find out about the program and the institution offering it. It is important that a student understands the time and commitment involved in enrolling in an online degree program.

"Do the research," Jayaraman said. "Talk to people who have had experience in online learning to ensure that you not only understand what the learning responsibilities entail, but that you are prepared for them."

Some students may choose to give up some of the flexibility in a fully self-paced asynchronous online program in order to obtain some of the advanced support from professors that a synchronous or hybrid program may make available. For self-study programs, it is critical that each student is prepared to put in the time to complete course material every week.

"Students will need to have the discipline to commit themselves to 20 to 30 hours a week for learning and preparation," Jayaraman said. "Unlike a traditional brick-and-mortar institution, where students have structure and a schedule for attending classes, students can sometimes get lost in an online world, where they lose the connection with others in their cohort group and, sometimes, the motivation for learning. They must have the discipline necessary to stay focused."

Making the Decision

In the end, students will have to make the decision about which program type and institution most closely matches their schedules, abilities and career aspirations.

Each program has differences in learning format, mentoring resources, exams and assessments, access to professors and resources required for completion. Taking the time to examine the available programs, find out how the university works, how certifications are integrated and the total costs will help you determine if an online degree program is right for you.

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