Bytes of knowledge

Getting the most from an online education
By CLEA SIMON  |  April 29, 2009

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Once upon a time, we thought it was novel to be able to buy books in our bathrobes. Then we were downloading music and tweeting in our scanties. Is it any wonder that online learning is on the rise? With colleges and universities from UMass to UCLA offering online programs, and thousands of other Web-based options for credit, degrees, or simple personal enrichment, the wired student need never get dressed at all.

How can you make the most of the online learning experience? The key, say the experts, is to do your prep work and learn how Web courses differ from — and how they're exactly the same as — their in-person counterparts.

Shop carefully
To begin with, even before the semester kicks off, do your homework. Online programs have proliferated like, well, computer bugs. Some offer credits or degrees, others focus on personal enrichment, while still others will probably send you a diploma in exchange for your cash. It's easy to get a feeling for what's out there with a quick Web search — you can google, can't you? Start by looking for programs that interest you (creative writing or animal mindreading) and try cross-referencing with reputable forums. Here in Massachusetts, 15 community colleges and nine state colleges have joined up as Massachusetts Colleges Online consortium, and the group's Web site offers links and contacts for members. But of course one advantage of being online is that you can travel anywhere. Take a course based in California — or Asia. Just check it out first.

"Make sure you're enrolling in the right institution," says Jennifer Brady, UMassOnline's director of marketing and customer relations. This may sound obvious, but as with any extension or adult-learning program, you may discover that the regular faculty is not involved and that the substitutes aren't who you'd want. "Find out in advance if the faculty member teaching the course is of the same high quality you'd expect to find on campus at any reputable school," says Brady.

Just as you would for a real-time course, you should also ask up front how much of a time commitment will be required.

"Web classes are not 'gut courses,' " says Charles Shairs, senior special project coordinator for Bunker Hill Community College. Dr. Matthew Olson, director of Middlesex Interactive, the online learning branch of Middlesex Community College, concurs. "Just because this course is online doesn't mean it will take less time than a face-to-face course would," he says. "It may take more! Find out from your instructor how many hours per week you are expected to put into the course."

In fact, with some courses, you may be required to actually leave the house. "Just because this is an online course doesn't mean all of your work will be online," says Olson. "Many online courses require you to go out into the world and do things. For example, an environmental science course may ask you to make observations in a local woodland, or a humanities course may require you to go to a museum." Before signing up, Shairs suggests asking the following questions: "Are on-site exams required? Where and how are assignments submitted? What textbook do I need? Can I meet with the instructor in person if I need to?"

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