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Learn Online: New Trends in Online Education

Whether it's a free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) or a tuition-based online degree program, distance learning is increasing in popularity, especially for people pursuing graduate degrees. Today's technology and tools make online education more convenient than ever, and several top schools offer courses identical, or nearly identical, to their on-campus counterparts.

"We're proud of the fact that we've done online learning in a very integrated way so students receive the same benefits and support services as students-in-residence," says Karen Pollack. She's the assistant vice provost for Pennsylvania State University's Undergraduate Online and Blended Programs at Penn State Online, The World Campus.

"Online education is definitely influencing the traditional classroom experience," says Deanna Raineri, associate provost for Educational Innovation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "We see much more blending of courses. A lot of the course content is online, and students work through it independently or in groups with the oversight/assistance of an instructor or teaching assistant, and instructors use the in-class time to focus on discussion, case studies, teamwork, etc."

Whether you want to pursue a bachelor's degree, an MBA, or simply earn a certificate to help advance your career, you'll need to weigh the same pros and cons before deciding if an online program is for you.

Convenience is a big reason to study online. Perhaps you live on the west coast, but the university with the best program for your major is on the east coast, and you can't afford to relocate. Maybe a disability or physical condition makes getting to and from campus difficult. Or maybe you plan to work while earning your degree and need a flexible schedule.

Whatever the reason, studying online only works if you're focused and motivated.

"A student in an online class has to take far more responsibility for his or her learning," Raineri says. "Students with poor time management skills may struggle in online courses. Students who register for our online courses under the false impression that they are a diluted version of the face-to-face courses often struggle in those courses." She says online classes are as rigorous as those taught in traditional classrooms.

To some extent, students study at their own pace, but online course schedules tend to keep pace with their on-campus counterparts.

"We have courses that run in the traditional 15-week format, particularly at the undergraduate level," Pollack says. "That's done to be in compliance and make sure students are Federal-financial -aid eligible. However, in some key areas we do have programs that run in a more accelerated format where they may take two 7-1/2-week semesters."

At schools like Penn State and University of Illinois, tuition for online degree programs is comparable with traditional campus programs. Penn State Online is priced at the in-state rate, which means considerable cost savings for out-of-state and international students.

There is also often flexibility in choosing what you want from a program and paying accordingly. For example, starting in 2016, in addition to its 13 free, noncredit courses, University of Illinois will offer an iMBA degree in partnership with Coursera. You can opt to take iMBA courses for free, but won't receive a degree or certificate upon completion. As with their other online courses, for a small fee you can enroll to earn a verified certificate, or you can apply for a for-credit iMBA with enhanced studies, which at $250 per credit hour plus fees, is a fraction of the cost of a traditional MBA.

Ranieri and Pollack both suggest doing plenty of homework before enrolling in any online degree program.

"Consider the history and reputation of the university - do companies hire graduates from this particular institution? Are courses taught by tenured faculty? What does the program's student and technology support structure look like? Does the program offer a comprehensive online orientation? These are just a few questions for online students to consider when selective a course or program," Raineri says.

Pollack adds, "Find out the rank or standing of their online institution. How is it accredited? Is it part of an institution that is state-supported or has a public service and research mission? Those factors can have implications on the reputation or standing of the program. It's getting to the issue: is it for-profit, or does it have a broader mission?"


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