The fact that online degree programs are… well… online means students participating in them tend to log in to learn rather than party, row crew, or take part in any of the life-transition experiences traditionally associated with time spent at a residential college.
But unless you are one of those who just wants a credential and doesn't care how much or how little you learn on the way to obtaining one, getting the most from any online learning experience requires an important set of skills and virtues that enable genuine education via the Web.
Interested in earning a degree online? See how well you stack up with regard to the following:
Learning college-level material is hard. If it's not, you're either a genius or just looking to coast to a diploma by taking un-challenging classes. And really learning (vs. just passing) requires dedicating time to (1) listening to lectures while taking careful notes; (2) processing that material after class ends to make sure you understand what you were taught; (3) reading (not just skimming) everything assigned by the professor; and (4) giving tests and written assignments your all.
We live in a time when many things compete for our time and attention. But if you find yourself skipping lectures, neglecting readings, or cutting corners in classes where you know you can pass by doing the minimum, perhaps a residential program that provides more social scaffolding for success is a better choice for you.
Because of the workload associated with any substantial college degree program (online or off), you will need to juggle lecture time, reading time, and time set aside for participation and assignments for multiple classes simultaneously. And if your online degree is being earned in parallel with working full time or taking care of kids, the ability to create and stick to a structured academic schedule becomes paramount.
Online degree programs have the advantage of letting you pace yourself based on the amount of time you have to commit to studies any given semester. But if you are someone who falls behind on commitments if no one is looking over your shoulder, you might want to consider a different path than online education. That said, if you excel in time management, online courses allow you to accelerate your learning, giving you the opportunity to earn a diploma at whatever pace you can handle.
Think you're a master at juggling multiple tasks simultaneously, like listening to a lecture while checking your e-mail, posting to Facebook, and downloading the latest from Bastille? Guess what? You're wrong! Studies show that while people think they can do several things at once, what we really do when we multitask is dedicate ever smaller slices of time to individual tasks that our brains still handle one at a time.
Why is this important? Because learning requires sustained concentration, not just many tiny moments of concentration spread out over time. So if you have maintained the ability to listen intently through an entire 45-60 minute lecture, read a book from beginning to end, and write a paper without stopping to Tweet, you are not only a candidate for success with genuine online learning but are likely to outcompete those whose attention spans are shriveling from minutes to seconds.
Research also shows that cheating is no more prevalent in online than residential classes. Unfortunately, that's because academic integrity problems are at an all-time high regardless of where learning is (allegedly) taking place. Now those research findings have been challenged. But suffice to say that if you want to cheat your way to a degree, there are ways to accomplish that odious goal, whether in a classroom or logged into an online learning management system.
Despite parental wisdom that says that cheaters only cheat themselves, cheating actually harms others by diminishing the value of all degrees (including those obtained honestly). But that wisdom does hold in that passing a course by doing something other than the assigned work means you will be entering life without the knowledge you supposedly spent time and paid money to learn. Which means anyone with a degree obtained via cheating has successfully credentialized both their dishonesty and foolishness.
Who are you?
If you are a disciplined and patient student, one who can postpone texting until after class and homework is completed, one who welcomes each course as the chance to discover a new world and each assignment as an challenge to put that learning to work, then you have the right stuff to be a successful online learner.
For everyone else, fear not! Even those of us who occasionally Alt-Tab while writing can develop, nurture, and sustain those virtues needed to master the art of successful independent online education.
About the Author:
Jonathan Haber is a writer/researcher who has worked in the fields of professional assessment, employment, curriculum development and educational technology. His Degree of Freedom project (degreeoffreedom.org) chronicled his attempt to learn everything you would get from being enrolled in a four-year, liberal arts degree program in just twelve months using only Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other free educational resources. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at HarvardX and has just completed a book on MOOCs for MIT Press.