How would an online college work for you?

Over the past decade, online colleges have crept into mainstream American education. In the fall of 2002, an estimated 1.6 million college students were taking at least one course online--just 9.6 percent of the total US college population. By the fall of 2010, the number of college students taking at least one course via the Web had more than quadrupled, to nearly 6.1 million--31 percent of the US college population, according to the Sloan Consortium (sloanconsortium.org, 2011).

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The years ahead should see the reach of online schools expand, creating more and more options for post-secondary students, including those looking for vocational certification. The more you understand about online schools--how they work and what's available--the better prepared you'll be to make the right decision.

Blurring the line: traditional and online colleges

Perhaps you have an image in your head of what an "online college" is. If so, you may need to rethink that image. Increasingly, online colleges are not a unique subset of academic institutions, but a representative cross-section of those institutions.

For example, while online education is often associated with for-profit colleges, online public colleges are a major part of the academic landscape. According to the Sloan Consortium (sloanconsortium.org, 2011), 65 percent of higher education institutions identify online education as critical to the long-term strategy of their institutions.

While the trend towards online public colleges is striking, perhaps most significant is that a majority of academic officials at all types of colleges see online learning as a key part of their future efforts.

How online colleges work

Online education is growing, but how exactly does it work? There are several approaches. Some institutions combine face-to-face learning with online instruction, while others operate purely online. Some feature interactive lessons via live chat and other interactive tools, while others focus on pre-packaged materials that can be studied at the student's convenience.

Each approach carries unique benefits, and despite the variation, a few best practices have emerged. For example, the Sloan Consortium (sloanconsortium.org), which is focused on issues of quality in online education, recommends "The 5 Pillars" of effective online education. (1) Academic control by the faculty, (2) organizational commitment to improving capabilities while controlling costs, (3) admissions and support practices that enhance access by qualified students, (4) faculty support and (5) measurable student satisfaction.

    The bottom line is that the quality of online education varies, as does the quality of campus-based schools. Additionally, students looking for specific certificates in a specialized field will benefit from the increased number of educational options that have become available through web-based learning. Researching accreditation status and student success statistics (graduation rates, job placement, starting salaries, etc.) are good ways to assess a school's effectiveness.

    Assessing the trade-offs

    Given that the efficacy of online colleges can be compared to that of campus-based schools, are there any drawbacks to online education? Notably, you might miss what has traditionally been perceived as the college experience, including social interaction with peers and personal relationships with teachers. On the other hand, online learning can also eliminate a host of potential distractions from your learning experience.

    Online schools can also reduce costs and eliminate barriers of distance. On the other hand, they may require more discipline because you work in a less structured environment. There is no universal answer as to which approach is best, but it is a judgement you should make based on your individual preferences and work habits.

    Online schools have the potential to address many of the challenges facing American education, including cost, capacity, time and distance. As a new generation grows up with the concept of online schools firmly in place, this method of education could seem as normal as walking onto a college campus.