Daily Hampshire Gazette - Getting your money's worth from online learning
By Shay Sullivan
More and more people are converting their computers into classrooms. For years, universities such as the University of Massachusetts have offered entire degree programs online and, increasingly, computer tools are being integrated into the traditional classroom experience as well.
Despite the prevalence of online learning, the pursuit is still new to many prospective students.
In fact, according to UMassOnline Chief Executive Officer David Gray, the majority of his students are not members of the 'instant messaging generation.' Rather, he said, they are working adults seeking to make a career change or enhance their existing skills, and are by no means computer whizzes.
Luckily, Gray said, online programs such as his require only the most rudimentary Web skills to navigate, such as a proficiency with Web browsers and e-mail.'I don't think that folks who are less familiar with computers ought to shy away from it,' he said.
Of course, there are some things prospective online students should know.
Here are five tips to help one prepare to be a PC pupil:
- Choose online programs wisely.
There are numerous online programs available and selecting the right one is important. One way to weigh the options is to visit www.mco.mass.edu, a site with information about all the institutions in the state with online offerings.
In choosing an online institution, there are two things to keep in mind, Gray said. First of all, the consumer should be careful to evaluate the quality of the faculty. He said many UMass Online instructors are also classroom teachers on campus. Not all online instructors are experienced and well-educated, he warned.
Also, students should be sure to check that the program in which they are interested is accredited by a related professional group. Just because an online institution as a whole is accredited does not necessarily mean that the specific program being offered is. For example, the University of Massachusetts' MBA program is specifically accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
- Take a 'test drive' of online program.
Before committing to an online program, it is possible to get a feel for what the experience will be like by looking at a sample course on the Web. For instance, there is a demonstration version of a biology course available at www.umassonline.net.
Clicking on any of the tabs along the top of the page brings up an option to connect to the demo course. The site shows how the information is presented in a typical online class and offers users the chance to practice navigating the content.
- Take advantage of tutorial programs.
The typical online course involves computerized calendars, communication tools and more. The wide array of features can seem daunting at first, but interactive tutorials are available to help put students at ease and are included with online teaching software such as WebCT, which is used by many of the institutions in Massachusetts.
Slide-show displays walk students through the various features of the software, illustrating how to manipulate the tools with step-by-step instructions. The tutorials employ point-and-click quizzes to ensure that students understand how to use a particular tool before moving on.
- Is online learning your right option?
The flexibility of online courses can be a boon or a burden, depending on one's personality. Although online learners have the freedom to accomplish their tasks at a time of day that is convenient for them - whether it be over a cup of coffee in the morning or over a bowl of ice cream late at night - there are still regular deadlines to be met.
'Online students have to be self-motivated,' Gray said. Some students find they have difficulty accomplishing their work without the discipline and human interaction of a classroom environment, he added.
- Make sure your stuff is up to snuff, tech-wise.
Online learning by no means requires a supercomputer. A basic computer with the ability to connect with the Internet will suffice. But there are some technical requirements, especially for those who plan to take advantage of the multimedia displays, such as audio conferencing or video lectures. Be sure to investigate the technical specifications for a given course before committing.
Finally, a high-speed connection to the Internet is not necessary in most cases - but it is recommended, said Gray. 'I would say it is a huge convenience. Online students who have broadband connection will find it a more pleasurable, more satisfying experience,' Gray said.