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3 great majors for online degrees

Each day my Inbox is stuffed with news and marketing describing the latest educational technology revolution about to reduce the traditional higher ed system to rubble. But having seen enough of these alleged disruptors come and go (leaving no footprints, other than lost investor dollars), I've become far more enamored with ed-tech solutions that build on what's right about a particular academic course or major, rather than just trying to fix everything that's wrong.

Perhaps this is why the college degree programs that seem most suited for online delivery are those where the substance of the subject being studied fits the nature of the medium (i.e., the small screen linked through the Internet to fellow learners and educational resources around the world).

So if you are interested in an online degree in a field where format follows function, consider the following majors:

1. Computer Programming/IT

If successful online learning requires students to work independently while focused intensely on information delivered via the computer screen, it's no accident that skills such as mastering programming languages and configuring network operating systems are so effectively and frequently taught online.

Technology also offers ways to replicate parts of the programmer's life that don't involve cutting code while zoned out from the rest of the world. For example, online white boards -- or similar devices used by working programmers to collaborate remotely -- are available for students collaborating on projects as part of online computer programming degrees. And simulation software allows students to learn from mistakes (like the typical errors one makes when configuring mission-critical networks) without breaking live vital systems.

2. Web Development and Design

Like programming courses, online classes in web development and design involve creating things for the same medium you are using as your learning platform (the World Wide Web). And while web developers may not spend as much time generating and tinkering with raw code as do other types of programmers, their work involves a similar mix of planning, designing, building, and problem solving associated with any technical or engineering field.

Because the use of existing tools, such as applications and scripts, are such an important part of web development, learning to work in a collaborative and sharing online community (like the ones developed within online degree programs) helps build skills that translate directly into success in the field. And like other STEM fields, both programming and web development lend themselves to meaningful assignments (such as examinations containing questions with correct or incorrect answers, or programming projects that either run or don't) that can be objectively graded using automated assessment tools.

3. Business

Given that business is the number one major in the US, both on-campus and online, it is no surprise that numbers are driving investment-driven innovation in both undergraduate- and graduate-level online business degrees.

While not a STEM field, several components of the business discipline (such as accounting and finance) lend themselves to competency-based learning built around information transfer, drill, and knowledge measurement via automated assessment.

At the same time, those aspects of business education that involve human interaction and collaboration are increasingly being built around a structured case method that Harvard Business School pioneered in the 1920s. This is a methodology generating increasing interest as undergraduate, graduate, and non-degree business programs (including Harvard Business School's new HBX program) expand their online reach.

Bonus: Introductory (101) Courses

When I interviewed Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan University, about his school's involvement with massive open online courses (MOOCs), he wondered out loud why those courses (which have drawn online enrollments in the tens of thousands) were still considered worse than some of the huge 500+ person lecture courses taught by graduate students or adjuncts at state universities and other large institutions.

Perhaps it is the existence of a mass market for 101-level courses that has drawn attention from groups like Straighterline (which offers a range of introductory online courses that are accepted by a growing number of public and private colleges and universities) or edX (the MOOC consortium which has just released a set of "Preparing for AP" courses in subjects like physics and English language composition).

In addition to numbers driving investment (and innovation), intro-level courses also tend to be built around subjects with well-defined learning objectives, such as high-school or college-level state standards for math and language skills. And such detailed curricula provide the foundation for competency-based learning methods that translate particularly well to online teaching and learning.

Conclusion

This short list should not leave the impression that online degree programs outside these fields are worthless, or that degree programs in subjects like programming and business are universally fabulous (or the right fit for you). But if you are considering degree options that include an online component, give careful consideration to which parts of your studies are a natural fit for the small screen.