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Questions to Ask Yourself

If you're like most people, you know someone who has taken an online class, or has considered it. After all, it makes perfect sense, especially when it comes to furthering your personal and professional goals. You can earn your degree online, minus all the time and location hassles that often accompany attendance at a traditional brick-and-mortar school.

It sounds like the perfect way to finally complete your once-embarked-upon-studies, or add that graduate or executive needed to advance your career, doesn't it? But how much do you really know about online learning? More importantly, is it right for you?

Some questions to ask yourself:

Can you commit 10-15 hours a week on your studies?

Just because online learning is convenient - the very nature of an online course is that you log on when it's easiest for you - doesn't mean the workload is any less intense. In fact, say experts, most online programs require the same amount of dedication, if not more, as traditional college programs.

For most back-to-schoolers, allotting a sufficient number of hours for schoolwork can be one of the most difficult challenges to their established lifestyle. Whether it's online, distance, or brick-and-mortar learning you're pursuing, make an honest assessment of the time you can realistically commit to your coursework.

Are you comfortable expressing your opinion, and taking an active role in communicating your ideas?

If you have no problem elaborating on your viewpoints and expressing yourself, you have the potential to do quite well in an online course. Much of your grade depends upon the feedback and insight you provide via online discussions.

Then again, those who tend to be hesitant to speak out also have an advantage. Online programs give those who may not be the most outspoken in a group setting, or those who need some time to formulate their thoughts, the ability to shine. Since most courses follow a similar format - one where you are typically asked to read or review a lesson plan and then post your thoughts to discussion questions - there is a great opportunity to flesh out your ideas and thoughts. Some students feel the engagement of an online class is actually higher than in the traditional setting because everyone has a chance to sound off, and interaction is encouraged across the board. Shyness no longer matters.

Are you comfortable with technology?

You'll need to be. Although many colleges and universities make the transition from the classroom to the computer virtually seamless, the nature of online learning is technologically demanding. You'll need to be familiar and comfortable with the Internet, downloading software (when necessary), and simulating all classroom activities (discussions, quest-and-answer, quizzes and tests, etc.) online.

Can you work independently?

If you're the type of student who needs a teacher in your face to keep you academically accountable, or who works best in a group setting, feeding off the motivation of others, you may need to re-evaluate your source of determination. You absolutely can learn to guide yourself within an online class environment, but you'll need to be aware of the distinct motivational differences that exist in the online classroom. You won't have an instructor front of you reminding you about coursework, nor will he or she be able to pick up on nonverbal clues that you need motivation. Not only does online learning demand you stay on top of your assignments and keep yourself stimulated, you'll need to communicate your concerns as they arise, and not rely on your classmate next to you to do so.

Are you certain about what you want to study and the outcome you desire?

It's an admirable goal to return to school. Having a specific ambition in mind will put you at an advantage since many online degree programs offer very specific training curriculums, and develop the knowledge and skills needed for certain industries. Of course, due to the nature of its delivery method, those who are not 100% certain about their final area of focus can explore programs at their convenience, starting out with liberal arts studies or taking advantage of a bachelor's degree completion program. Then one can choose to specialize in a particular area upon pursuit of graduate studies.

Now that you have a good sense of your suitability to cyber-school, you'll need to understand the components of online study:

You can school anytime, anywhere. just about. The majority of online programs offer what's called asynchronous study - class work that can be completed at a time convenient for you so long as you meet deadlines). Some programs utilize synchronous study, setting a scheduled class time at which you must sign on. Most online programs are asynchronous, since the academic flexibility for which online higher education is so highly regarded stems from the ability to log on and learn when it is convenient for you.

In fact, most online programs work this way: You receive a user name and password that grants you access to all online class materials (syllabus, supplementary readings, professor and classmate profiles and email, etc.). Most professors establish a specific curriculum with deadlines for assignments, just like a traditional program. The onus is on you, however, to meet all deadlines, post your insight and feedback for readings and lesson questions, etc. That's the major difference, and the major convenience. No longer are you tied into a set time or place to learn; online learning affords you flexibility while maintaining high academic quality. That is, if a school is accredited.

Just because a school's accreditation sounds official, doesn't mean it is.

An "official-sounding" accreditation doesn't ensure anything. There are a multitude of "diploma mills" that grant so-called degrees. One of the most important factors to consider when deciding upon an online program is a school's accreditation. In order for your degree to be widely recognized, the college or university must have this "academic seal of approval.

Corporate America is recognizing online degrees.

After all, virtually no colleges or universities indicate a degree was earned online. And, a growing number of online students report that their employers embrace the initiative and independent learning style indicative of a student with online academic experience. In the classroom and in the workforce, technology is driving innovation. Those who can demonstrate mastery and experience are those who will have the leading edge.

If you take an online course, you may still be eligible for financial aid.

Most colleges and universities extend financial aid to online students in the same manner they do traditional students. Some schools are also able to extend federal financial aid to online students (inquire with your institution). Additionally, many schools and lenders offer loans specifically designed for nontraditional students and programs.

Also be sure to explore scholarship opportunities as well as potential reimbursement funding from your employer. Many corporations recognize the benefit of having leaders with advanced degrees, and will subsidize certain tuition packages accordingly.

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