Learning Online

All about online education

Online learning has changed a great deal since it first became widely available in the late 1990s and early 2000s. During its early years, online education was mainly available through specialized institutions that operated primarily or exclusively on the Internet. However, the online learning landscape has changed a great deal since then. Today, online education for just about any academic discipline you can imagine is available, and the vast majority of traditional "brick and mortar" schools now offer online programs. Consequently, concerns about accreditation and the value of online education are largely a thing of the past.

About Online Education: Teaching Methods

Part of the reason that learning online has come such a long way is that technological improvements have made a wider range of teaching methods available to instructors. In addition to the digital distribution of course readings and instructional materials, students can participate in discussion forums and submit their assignments via email or by posting them to a school-supported web hosting service. These approaches formed the backbone of online learning when Internet-based education first came on the scene, and are still widely used today.

However, thanks to major advances in online streaming and digital video technology, it is now possible for instructors to post lectures online, or simulate a real classroom environment by holding interactive sessions with students in real time. During such sessions, all participating students sign in to a secure website and listen while the instructor delivers a lecture.

Just as in a regular classroom, students can submit questions and engage in discussions with their fellow learners. One major advantage of this approach is that lectures remain available and accessible to students for the duration of the course. If you miss a session or want to review an important concept, you can simply play back the digital audio or video content. Interactive web-based whiteboards can also be used to explain and demonstrate key concepts. These approaches are known as "synchronous learning," as they take place in real time.

Learning Online

Online courses also utilize a number of "asynchronous learning" approaches, which allow students to set their own schedules and work at their own pace. Examples of asynchronous learning tools include:

  • Email and blog-based assignment submissions
  • Course forums and discussion boards
  • Digital and HTML textbooks
  • Social networks

Many online courses use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous approaches, allowing the student to tailor his or her learning experience to a degree not possible in the traditional classroom. This is one reason online learning has become such a popular alternative to attending actual classes.

Online Learning's Rapid Expansion

A far cry from the niche position it occupied when it first appeared, online learning has become an indispensable part of modern education. Consider these statistics:

  • In 2008, approximately 25 percent of all full-time postsecondary students in the United States took their courses exclusively online
  • By 2014, over 80 percent of American postsecondary students will be taking at least some of their courses online
  • The vast majority (more than two-thirds) of academics and instructors believe that online learning is crucial to the success of their students and the long-term viability of their educational institutions

If you have only participated in traditional classroom environments in the past, preparing for online learning will require a shift in your approach. It is a much more independent means of learning, and thus requires higher levels of self-motivation. While most online courses are designed to keep students engaged, the learning environment is far different than what you will experience in a regular classroom. If you are considering an online program and you aren't sure whether or not learning online is right for you, start out by taking one or two classes. Once you've adjusted to the online learning environment, you can then determine if and when you are ready to commit to it on a full-time basis.