Back to School: Wired Education

December 9, 2005

Back to School: The Benefits of a Wired Education
originally published in Family Circle/Computers Made Easy

In the great To Do List of Life, there are always a number of items that are forever being bumped to the bottom. What with family, kids, work and the simple day-to-day coping of modern living, big projects often tend to get put on the back burner. Sometimes, they boil away for good.

Probably the most common of these perpetually put-off endeavors is the idea of going back to school. Wouldn’t it be great to finish that undergrad degree, or maybe get another? How about an MBA that could equal a bigger salary, or even that long-contemplated master’s degree?

The happy news is that it is now arguably easier than it has ever been to continue your education as an adult — via online courses conducted primarily, and sometimes entirely, over the Internet. In fact, adult education and what is called “distance learning” are experiencing a kind of renaissance by leveraging the uniquely interactive nature of online learning.

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There are now hundreds of colleges and universities offering online courses, covering just about every area of study you’re likely to find at a real-world university, such as business, health, social sciences, humanities, math…. Look hard enough, and you can probably even take another crack at that basket-weaving class you blew off sophomore year. Online offerings range from vocational training classes to actual degree coursework — up to and including master degree programs.

Vicki Phillips, author of “Best Distance Learning Graduate Schools,” says her company currently tracks more than 500 fully accredited learning institutions offering graduate degrees that can be earned online. Add to this number another 1000 or so that offer undergraduate degrees or individual courses. These include traditional universities as well as new “virtual universites” which have no real-world campus at all. Even crusty old Harvard, which resisted Internet ventures for years, recently annouced plans to launch 180 continuing education courses for doctors online within a year.

It’s a booming area of growth. “In 1989, when we first started tracking accredited institutions offering distance learning graduate degrees, we had exactly five,” Phillips says.

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Online courses are just the latest addition to that larger and older institution known as distance learning. Essentially, it’s any kind of educational program where the instructor and student are at a distance. Historically, its origins go back to correspondence courses in which lessons and papers were mailed back and forth.

“As technology has developed, distance learning has incorporated a lot of different delivery systems,” Phillips says. “For example, in the 70s videotape became popular; in the 80s, satellite. In the 90s, it’s the Internet.

Phillips says the Internet has opened up the potential of distance learning like nothing else before. “It’s changed the nature of the educational experience. It’s made it possible to be much more interactive.”

“For example with mail correspondence courses — and I’ve both taken and taught these — you’d get the text book in the mail, do one lesson, and mail it back. It would take three to five days to get to the university, and it’d take a week to ten days for the faculty to read it and write a few notes. Then you’ve got to put in back in the envelope and send it out again. It can be four weeks to complete the cycle. That kind of lag time in response rate leads to high attrition.”

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So what, exactly, does an online class consist of? It varies greatly, but most Internet based courses use e-mail, online message boards, live chat, and occasionally video teleconferencing or real-time audio conversations over the Web. Many online courses take a kind of hybrid approach, combining videotape lectures sent through the mail with reading material on a Web site and online discussion groups.

For busy returning students, the bottom line is that studying and coursework takes place on their terms. Ask anyone taking online classes what the chief benefit is, and they’ll tell you: flexibility. You can do your studying at your own convenience, and never have to worry about making it to class on time. Perfect for those of us with an already overbooked schedule. Just ask Russ Blahetka, who is by any measure A Very Busy Guy.

Blahetka, 47, is a dedicated proponent of online education. Currently a senior manager for a telecommunications company, he earned his undergraduate degree in Business Management via online courses at the University of Phoenix, and got his MBA through an off campus accelerated program at San Jose State University.

“I’m a full time employee, I teach part time, and I’m working on a book,” Blahetka says. “[With online classes], I can schedule study time to fit my schedule — early morning with coffee, late at night with fuzzy bunny slippers and a scotch.”

Blahetka says his the structure of his online courses are essentially the same as traditional courses. “They generally require reading, research, and a lot of writing. And there are opportunities for the students to discuss the courses with each other. There is a posting area on the school’s Web site, which can only be accessed by students.”

And just like in a real classroom, there are definite deadlines. “While there are no limitations when a student does the required work, it still must be completed in 16 weeks.”

Ranjit Krishnamurthi, 25, is currently taking several distance learning courses in management and accounting through the University of Windsor. Formerly a traditional student at the University of Toronto, he says he prefers the flexibility of online coursework.

“I tried attending courses on campus at University of Toronto while juggling the various rituals of my daily schedule, and found it nearly impossible to attend classes on time. Distance learning allows you to attend your classes at anytime you wish.”

That flexibility works both ways. Tony Maranto currently serves as Dean of the College of Science and Technology at Greenwich University, an accredited online university based in Australia. He currently teaches several courses online, including Environmental Biology and Natural Resource Management.

“The principal benefit of distance education, for both the student and the educator, is the flexibility of the programs,” Maranto says. “The ability to work on a flexible schedule and not be tied to the physical location of the university allows both our students and faculty to continue to meet their other professional, personal, family obligations.”

Which brings up another point. Because online students can take classes from anywhere, students often find themselves in online discussions with fellow learners from all over the world. For example, a student in Canada might take a class from an Australian university and find an American, a Greek, and a German in her study group.

“It allows for connections with others across the country and across the world,” says Marilyn Drury, director of University of Northern Iowa’s Educational Technology department and the Iowa Educational Technology Training Institute. “It brings interaction from thousands of miles away, right to you. If your local university does not offer a particular course, you can take it from another university that does and receive or transfer that credit. It allows access to more courses that specifically fit your needs and interests.”

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If you’re considering signing up for classes over the Internet, there are some issues you should be aware of. First, you want to be sure the college or university offering the classes is legit. There are many so-called “degree mills” online which hand out diplomas to the highest bidder, whether you undertake coursework or not. Needless to say, these degrees are essentially worthless.

“The selling of degrees has become an area rife with fraud,” Phillips says. “People don’t think about it, but right now in this country, the second most expensive thing people will buy in their life is a college education, the home being the most expensive.”

That kind of money inevitably attracts con artists. Phillips says the first thing to do is be sure the college is not just accredited, but properly accredited.

“A lot of degree mills will tell you they are accredited, but they’ve set up their own accrediting boards,” Phillips says. “They’re accredited by, you know, their wife or their grandmother.”

The quickest way to filter out the scamsters, Phillips says, is to be sure the accrediting agency is approved by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

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There’s no doubt that legitimate online classes offer much in the way of flexibility and convenience to adults interested in furthering their education. Still, the system has its critics.

Georgetown Univerity English professor Carole Fungaroli is a tenacious proponent of on-campus, traditional degrees for adult college students looking to achieve a degree. Her new book, “Traditional Degrees for Non-Traditional Students” outlines her argument that higher education should be in person, not online.

“Some form of distance learning tends to flourish every time a new technology appears, so this Internet version is nothing new” Fungaroli says. “When the first movies were introduced in the 1890s, most people thought that film would soon replace college professors in the typical classroom.”

“Distance learning proponents aggressively over-sell it to ‘busy adults,’ those nine-to-five workers who may already feel alienated from campus culture,” she continues. “I am very pro-technology, and I think it’s just terrific in the classroom. I only get grumpy when technology tries to come between me and my beloved students. If technology facilitates our personal interaction by making me more available to them, then fine.”

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For many adult students, though, going back to campus simply isn’t an option. Perhaps it’s a job, or family, or the disquieting suspicion that we will no longer be able to hold our own at a keg party.

In fact, teachers and students both agree that the one attribute most valuable for students taking online classes is the one that was often in least supply in our undergrad days: Discipline.

“Organization is everything when you are planning to enroll in a distance education course or program,” Maranto says. “Since, in effect, you are trying to squeeze your courses into the free spaces of your life, you really need to be able to plan out your time and activities in order to be able to effectively undertake your studies.”

Krishnamurthi agrees. “It’s easy to lose sights of your studies with other distractions,” he says. “As you no longer have the pressure to attend classes at a certain time, you can easily get into the habit of letting your distance studies slip. This lack of formal academic discipline is probably the biggest challenge of distance learning.”

But, hey — we’re older now, right? Life has taught us some lessons, and we’re a little wiser these days. We’ve learned the value of a quiet night spent reading.

“A lot has happened over the years since high school,” Blahetka says. “While we may not have been motivated students at 18, at 38 or 48 or 58 we have as much to offer our classmates and instructors as we have to receive.

“I used the 25 year plan to complete my BS degree. If someone told me even 10 years ago that I would have an MBA, I would’ve offered to drive them to therapy.”

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