A Day in the Internet

Posted on December 08, 2009

The Internet is big…real big. Check out this graphic to see the staggering statistics for an average day!

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Is Social Media Ruining Students?

Posted on April 21, 2011

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While people celebrate the fact that vast WiFi networks cover every college campus in America, many are concerned that much of the bandwidth is being hogged by students on Facebook and Twitter. That fact is that nearly every college student uses social media, but the effect this has had on them has been an issue of heated debate. Some argue that Facebook turns students into addicts too glued to their News Feeds to study. Others claim that it's a valuable resource that enriches the college experience. Is social media destroying students, or making their lives better? The answer is not so simple.

While the answer is not simple we can break it up into a few questions to better understand social media’s effects. The first question is “Does it affect student’s grades?” Well, that actually depends on the social media source and how it is used. Studies actually show that classes that use twitter typically have up to half a grade point higher scores. It is also directly tied to students collaborating online with 75% saying that they would engage in online collaboration. But unsurprisingly those that try and study while using Facebook are actually hurting their grades. In fact those that multitask between Facebook and studying have 20% lower grades. What is interesting is that 79% of students surveyed don’t believe this statistic.

The second questions we need to answer is “How will using social media effect your college life experience?” A couple data points yield some insight. One, we know that Facebook users make far less money while in college. Fully 85% of Facebook users worked less than 5hrs a week as compared to the 80% of non-Facebook users that worked over 16hrs a week. Money isn’t everything, but surviving on ramen noodles isn’t the best way to live! However, many people associate the quality of college life to the ways that they were involved with their schools. Studies show that Facebook users are twice as likely to be involved in campus activities. All work and no Facebook, just might make you a dull student. Which brings us to our next topic: Self-Esteem.

The third question we must answer is “What effect does social media have on the emotional health of students?” As it turns out social media really does make people feel connected with a 20% experiencing a feeling of social connectedness among Facebook users, furthermore they were twice as likely to feel “Popular”. But it is also true that 48% of students think they are sadder than their Facebook friends. This wouldn’t be troubling except that we know from other studies that 25% of college students show serious depression in their status updates.

Even after addressing some of the key questions about social media the results are mixed. Hopefully after reading this as a student you will be able to see the pros and cons of spending your hours using social media.

How the Internet is Revolutionizing Education

Posted on June 10, 2011

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Change is like water running over stones: give it enough time, and it will certainly sculpt and reform those stones into completely new objects. The Internet has swept the entire globe and has changed the way we think about social interaction, media, money, shopping... essentially, the way we think about life.

But most of all the Internet continues to change how we learn. It continues to reshape education just like water reshapes stones. Whereas once it was only possible to acquire niche knowledge by attending expensive universities lined with ivy, today more than 3 million people in the US alone get their education online. Today, millions and millions of people have access to free educational information that they can absorb at their own pace, on their own terms, and in ways that work best for them. The age of rote memorization, of learning “from the books”, is over. It's time to accept that the Internet has—and will continue—to change what education is.

Consider this: in 1971 the famous Open University (OU) in England opened its doors for enrollment. OU is especially well-known for their open admissions policy, which is blind to a prospective student's previous academic records. In other words, you aren't judged by your grades when considered for enrollment at OU—if you're hungry for knowledge, why should you be denied the opportunity to learn based on your academic history? You shouldn't, and now OU has approximately 250,000 students, effectively dwarfing all other colleges in the UK. And guess what? It offers most of its classes online.

67% of colleges today are unable to meet demand for online college courses, which says a lot about what students actually value when it comes to learning. More and more people are beginning to realize that learning at your own pace is the most effective way to retain information. Too often are students discouraged or crushed by institutional standards that force them to learn in ways that are uncomfortable and just not right for them. This is probably why the University of Phoenix, a for-profit online university, has over 500,000 students, making it the largest in the US.

Learning is a life-long endeavor and online education incarnates this age-old ideology quite flawlessly. Today nearly half of all online students are 26 years or older. But what about tomorrow?

10 Top Schools Endorsing Free Online Learning

Posted on January 11, 2013


While there has overall been an enormous surge in the number of students who are pursuing degree programs and coursework online, in recent years there has been an increased focus, perhaps spurred on by the economic crisis, on providing high quality online courses free of charge. While these courses often can't be used toward a degree, they do provide students all over the world with the opportunity to learn, grow, and potentially even prepare themselves for the working world. Surprisingly, some of the schools getting in on the popularity of free online courses (and in some cases even pioneering the practice) are among the best schools in the U.S., if not the world. Here are just a handful of the great schools that are now offering, and encouraging others to offer, free online courses that anyone can use.

  1. Harvard University :

    Harvard launched a much publicized collaborative program with MIT in 2012 called edX, offering online university-level courses in a wide range of fields for no charge. The non-profit project has attracted a lot of attention and in its first semester more than 100,000 students signed up for free online versions of its computer science and public health courses. Harvard Law has also gotten in on the free online course game, and just this year announced that it will be offering a free course on copyright law to 500 lucky students, complete with certificates of completion.

  2. MIT:

    When you think of free online courses, the first name that comes to mind is probably MIT. MIT was one of the first to offer free online course content through its Open Courseware project, and in its collaboration with Harvard via edX will likely offer much more in-depth material in the form of MOOCs. Currently, MIT professors are offering four courses students can take through edX, covering topics like global poverty, chemistry, electronics, and computer science. edX was an outgrowth of MITx, a similar project that offered courses through just MIT. While similar, edX covers a much broader spectrum, allowing students to take courses from not only MIT and Harvard but also UC Berkeley, Georgetown, Wellesley, and the University of Texas.

  3. Stanford University :

    MOOC was perhaps the biggest buzzword in online education in the past year, and innovators at this school are largely to thank for that. Stanford academics were behind two of the biggest names in MOOCs today: Coursera and Udacity. Coursera, now a collaborative effort between Stanford and more than 30 other top universities, offers courses in a wide range of topics. At present students cannot get college credit for the courses, but can get certification that they've completed them, which could help in looking for work. Coursera was founded by Stanford academics Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, who've been awed by the support it has received so far. Another big name coming from the school has been Udacity, an outgrowth of a free computer course offered at Stanford in 2011 by professor Sebastian Thrun. Launched in 2012, the MOOC provider has since helped thousands of students learn about tech-centered topics from AI to web development.

  4. Carnegie Mellon University:

    Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative has been in operation for over a decade, offering free course materials that any student or teacher can use. Currently, there are 17 free courses offered through OLI, but more are planned for the future. OLI resources aren't just used by individuals; many colleges have also been integrating the features offered by Carnegie Mellon into their own hybrid courses, capitalizing on data-driven programs that track and push students not to just memorize material but to truly learn it. The results look promising, with in-house and exterior studies showing that students using the OLI model perform better than those who take traditional courses.

  5. University of Pennsylvania:

    The University of Pennsylvania is one of dozens of schools to offer courses through the MOOC platform Coursera. The school isn't just offering courses through Coursera, however; it has also pledged millions in investments into the company, which may just give it a firm foundation for success in the future. Administrators at the school said that the school felt compelled to take part in the online program because it was a chance to play a role in shaping the future of online educational technology. Currently, Penn is offering three different courses through Coursera, but there are numerous others planned, some of which may even count for course credit at certain schools around the globe.

  6. Columbia University:

    Columbia is no stranger to free online education; it created its own online education portal in 2000 called Fathom, that, while earning some major collaborators (the London School of Economics, Cambridge University Press to name a few), never took off, folding in 2003. Despite this previous failure, as well as other early initiatives that didn't pan out (Columbia Interactive is another now defunct experiment in online education), the school didn't hesitate to join Coursera when the chance arose and pledged to begin offering online courses through the site in early 2013. Currently, the school has three courses listed on the Coursera site, ranging in topic from financial engineering to natural language processing.

  7. Johns Hopkins:

    Johns Hopkins has been offering open courseware through its Bloomberg School of Public Health for nearly a decade, but in just the past year has taken a major leap, now offering not only course materials but also lectures and evaluation through Coursera. While the content still focuses on public health topics, students can get a much more in-depth introduction to the courses regularly offered at Johns Hopkins, a leap that may just help many aspiring healthcare professionals become much more knowledgeable about serious public health concerns.

  8. University of Michigan:

    Another big-name school getting in on Coursera is the University of Michigan. In February of 2012, the University of Michigan offered its first free online course through the site. Called "Model Thinking" and focused on political science and economics, the course reached an impressive 50,000 students. Since then, the school has expanded its online offerings, now giving students the chance to participate in seven different courses from a wide range of departments on campus. Students can still take the "Model Thinking" course as well as those on Internet history, finance, science fiction, and computer vision.

  9. Princeton University:

    Along with Stanford, Michigan, and Penn, Princeton was one of the first big-name schools to sign on to work with Coursera. In September, the school delved into the world of free online education with three courses: "A History of the World Since 1300," "Networks: Friends, Money, and Bytes," and "Computer Architecture." Since then, Princeton has added four more courses that will take place in the Spring semester, as well as two more that have yet to be announced. Some of the professors participating have said that Coursera has not only allowed them to reach more students but to improve the educational outcomes of students on campus, as the flipped classroom model allows for more time to discuss topics and meet with guest speakers in class.

  10. Caltech:

    It makes sense that a school dedicated to the study of technology would wholeheartedly embrace online education, and that's just what Caltech is doing. The school has partnered with Coursera to offer a number of different courses. Last year, Caltech's Henry Lester taught a course on drugs and the brain and this semester students can sign up to learn about cosmology and economics. Before signing on with Coursera, Caltech offered a free "Machine Learning" course through its own website. With loads of students enrolled, it was an incredible success, which may have been a big part of the school's willingness to get on board with Coursera and experiment further with online education.

These are only a handful of the top universities that are endorsing free online courses. Others include Oxford, Brown, Emory, University of Virginia, Duke, John Hopkins, Berkeley, Rice, and Wesleyan, and the list is likely to grow further over the next year as MOOCs and other online courses become increasingly popular.

Facebooking Your Parents

Posted on January 21, 2013
Whether you've always thought of your parents as ahead-of-the-curve trendsetters, or if they seem impossibly behind the times to you, there's a good chance that even the least modern of parents are now hip to the world of Facebook. With each passing year, more and more parents are signing up, signing on, and becoming the proud operators of their very own social media profiles. Even if your parents are some of your best friends, there's still a good chance that they could embarrass you in front of your 500+ Facebook friends. Even if your parents don't write directly on your Facebook wall, you might be surprised at how often they take a peek at your profile, just to make sure you're staying out of trouble. Nearly half of the parents who have Facebook accounts look at their son or daughter's profile every single day, and one in two parents on the social media network confess that part of why they joined Facebook was primarily to keep an eye on their kids. Love it or hate it, your parents are probably on Facebook to stay—but before you click "accept" on their friend requests, make sure you're prepared to have mom and dad regularly peeking at your profile.

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Parents Facebooking Infographic

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The Schools that Do the Most to Welcome Online Students

Posted on January 22, 2013


As an online student, it's easy to feel isolated and a little left out. After all, while students on campus are socializing in the dorms and going to football games, you're miles away and physically disconnected from what's happening on campus. Many schools recognize the need to offer additional support and outreach to online students, providing special perks and online services. These schools do a particularly good job of making online students feel welcome and taken care of.

  • Texas Woman's University:

    Texas Woman's University has lots of fun on-campus events that online students may miss out on seeing in person. But the school takes great care to make sure that online students can still take part in the action, offering live streaming, podcasts, and connections through social media. Plus, online students get access to Epsilon Omega Epsilon, an honor society reserved exclusively for online students.

  • Liberty University:

    On campus, students at Liberty University enjoy the benefits of a Flames Pass, which offers access to activities and services on and off-campus. Now, Liberty online students can get one too, with free ice skating, skiing, snowboarding, special student rates and discounts, public transit, and campus recreation.

  • University of Minnesota:

    The University of Minnesota has created a "Digital Campus" that offers access to online student resources. Digital Campus students can find technology tools, free email, a graduation planner, plus student services including academic advising, tutoring, and career planning. Unique resources include an online learning assessment and learning style inventory designed to help online students determine the best method of learning for their individual needs.

  • Ball State University:

    Ball State University has an extensive online orientation for new students, including a step-by-step getting-started guide, live webinar, and how-to videos for accessing online courses. Plus, online students get access to The Writing Center, which offers remote support and feedback for writing projects and presentation through tutoring sessions, email, and IM.

  • Santa Fe College:

    At Santa Fe College, online students are encouraged to become a part of the community. Many student organizations maintain an online presence so that members can participate online. The college provides an Evening Services Office for students who need services after the college's standard office hours, too. And online students get access to great resources like online health services and information, equipment loans, free financial literacy learning, and carpool registration.

  • Florida State University:

    Florida State University's Office of Distance Learning does a great job of making things clear and easy for online students. On their site, you'll find listings of degree programs and courses, frequently asked questions, and information about accessing resources as an online student. FSU online students can take advantage of the career resource center, IT services, technology training, and a virtual computer lab with remote access to campus computer lab software. Additionally, FSU offers specialized librarians who work exclusively with distance students for reference and research assistance, as well as subject specialists and research guides.

  • University of North Carolina Greensboro:

    Like Florida State University online students, UNC-Greensboro online health sciences students enjoy special perks at the online library. These students enjoy a dedicated library tutor to help via phone, email, or IM. If they're in need of a book, they can use their student ID to check out books from a library at another school, or, have library books shipped to them at no cost. Students can also search for e-books on health topics to use online.

  • Drexel University:

    Drexel University makes sure that its online students get access to services much like on-campus students do. Online students have access to instructors, academic advisers, and other educational services, as well as online electronic resources and specific library services for distance learners. They can schedule on-on-one appointments with tutors in the Drexel Writing Center and take advantage of the services offered by the Stainbright Career Development Center, making it easy to study and succeed as an online student at Drexel.

Top YouTube Moments in Education History

Posted on January 30, 2013

Since its inception in 2005, YouTube has become a global phenomenon. Last year, the site reported an average of 4 billion views per day, nearly four times the prime-time audience for all three major U.S. television networks combined. That's a lot of video watching, and not all of it has been concentrated on classics like "Charlie Bit My Finger" (now with more than half a billion views, the most of any user-submitted video) and funny videos of cats. There's also a significant market out there for videos focusing on education, an audience that YouTube itself has worked to cater to over the past few years. These changes have helped bring the Google-owned video site into the forefront of educational technology, and with the popularity of its educational content rising at a rapid clip, it's unlikely to lose that status anytime soon. To commemorate YouTube's committment to delivering educational content, here's a quick look back at some of the pivotal moment in the site's history that have made it such an educational powerhouse today.

  • February 2005: YouTube is launched.

    It's hard to believe that it's been almost a decade since the video-sharing site debuted. It was so successful in its first two years that it drew the attention of Google, who purchased the site in November of 2006 for a whopping $1.65 billion.

  • November 2005, MIT creates an account on YouTube.

    It shouldn't come as a surprise that MIT was one of the first colleges to get on board with YouTube, as the school has been at the leading edge of online education for nearly a decade. While it was a few years before the school really got into posting loads of videos and online content, today some of its oldest offerings highlight the famous MIT OpenCourseWare program and feature superstar professor Walter Lewin.

  • November 2006: Salman Khan begins posting tutoring videos to YouTube.

    Salman Khan originally created his YouTube feed to tutor his niece in math, but it has grown by leaps and bounds since then, becoming the eponymous academy in 2010. Today, The Khan Academy's videos have nearly 230 million views and are among the best-known and widely used educational content on YouTube.

  • June 2007: Vsauce's YouTube channel uploads its first video.

    Vsauce is one of the most popular educational channels on YouTube, with more than 280 million views to date. It's popular perhaps because it makes science more accessible to the average person, answering questions like "What's the most dangerous place on Earth?" and "Why do we have two nostrils?" in fun but still educational videos on the channel.

  • Fall 2007: The first course college course on YouTube is delivered.

    Media studies professor Alexandra Juhasz was the first to teach a course about YouTube. It was called "Learning from YouTube" and helped students to better understand how YouTube could affect education, especially in the classroom.

  • October 2007: The first YouTube channels for universities are launched.

    In late 2007, YouTube struck deals with several major universities to create dedicated channels from which to distribute their own content. The first university to get on board? UC Berkeley, which launched its channel with more than 300 hours of videotaped course content and events. It was quickly followed by USC.

  • November 2007: The Last Lecture garners more than a million hits.

    Professor Randy Pausch's inspiring lecture about how to achieve childhood dreams was a nationwide sensation, spawning a book and numerous reports throughout the media. A recording of it also saw incredible popularity on YouTube, scoring well over a million views within the first month. Today, it has 15.5 million hits and counting.

  • April 2008, YouTube is awarded a Peabody Award.

    In mid-2008, YouTube earned a Peabody Award for being a "a 'Speakers' Corner' that both embodies and promotes democracy." The award, created to recognize outstanding achievement in electronic media, was one of the first signs that YouTube's content was seeing rapid diversification.

  • Fall 2008: Stanford professors offer free courses via YouTube. In 2008, some of Stanford's leading professors decided to offer lectures free of charge through YouTube, along with the accompanying class materials. Among those professors were Andrew Ng and Sebastian Thrun, who have since gone on to start their own online education companies, Coursera and Udacity, after experimenting with more applied versions of their early YouTube experiments with online education.

  • March 2009: YouTube EDU launches.

    Early 2009 marked one of YouTube's most monumental changes in becoming a more education-friendly site. Initially starting as a pet project of YouTube employees who wanted to highlight great educational content from college, universities, and educators, YouTube EDU has grown to include videos on nearly every educational topic imaginable.

  • November 2010: Vi Hart begins posting videos of math class doodles.

    Doodling may not sound educational, but it is the way Vi Hart does it. Soon after this mathemuscian began posting her videos they went viral and her channel now has nearly 33 million views. In the year since, she has teamed up with Khan Academy to create even more great educational content, much of it popular with middle and high school girls.

  • January 2011: Crash Course begins offering lessons on biology and world history.

    Great animation and smart humor have made this educational channel one of YouTube's most popular. The channel earned 275,000 views within days of launching, and today boasts more than 22 million. Those early videos remain among the most popular on the site, however, exploring the Agricultural Revolution and World War I to millions of viewers.

  • February 2011: YouTube announces twice the number of views of educational content.

    Between 2010 and 2011, views of the educational videos on YouTube doubled. Oddly enough, it may be the rest of the world spurring on this trend: 80% of the views came from outside the U.S.

  • March 2011: TedEd creates a YouTube channel.

    TED lectures have been incredibly popular with educators, but this new channel is geared specifically towards helping spread new ideas about education, technology, and a wide range of academic topics. It's proven to be a popular spin off, garnering almost 15 million views in the past two years. Even better, many of the videos are modifications of TED's most popular lectures that allow them to be more easily used the classroom.

  • June 2011: MinutePhysics starts offering physics videos on YouTube. Minute Physics is currently one of YouTube's most widely viewed educational channels. It has only been around for few years but has already managed to draw in nearly 70 million views. Videos on MinutePhysics, created by Henry Reich, explain physics concepts and ideas through simple black and white drawings. The most popular video on the channel, with 3.5 million views, explains what you should do to avoid getting soaked when caught in a rainstorm.

  • September 2011: YouTube Teachers channel launched. Teachers who want to better understand how to use YouTube in the classroom now only need to head to YouTube.com/Teachers. The channel offers help with everything from organizing videos, to using them in class, to helping struggling students. Even better, teachers can sign up to be part of the YouTube Teachers Community, a mailing list that allows to them to easily share ideas and best practices.

  • October 2011: YouTube gets another popular educational addition: SciShow: Students or teachers hoping to learn about science can head to this great YouTube channel. Featuring videos that range in topic from explaining overpopulation to documenting the Mars rover landing, SciShow has garnered nearly 36 million views in just over a year.

  • December 2011: YouTube for Schools launches.

    While YouTube may have already been a great educational tool by late 2011, it was often blocked on most K-12 campuses do to other potentially offensive or distracting content on the site. To solve this problem and to make YouTube's educational content more accessible to teachers, developers created a new tool that allowed teachers to bypass the ban most schools had on the site by creating a setting that limits access to only educational materials.

  • May 2012: AsapScience creates its own channel.

    AsapScience may be relatively new to YouTube but it's quickly becoming a visitor favorite. In less than a year, it's raked in more than 23 million views of its fun and educational content. Among AsapScience's most popular videos are "Amazing Facts to Blow Your Mind," "The Science of Orgasms," and "The Scientific Power of Naps."

  • September 2012: YouTube teams with Khan Academy to train and promote new content creators.

    Due to the rise in popularity of YouTube's educational channels in recent years, the site decided to work to create even more high quality, unique content for viewers. Ten rising stars were chosen, with each earning additional support and funding for their YouTube channel. Among them are some names we've already mentioned, like AsapScience, as well as those who are still building their online following like KemushiChan.

  • October 2012: YouTube reaches a record-breaking 1,000 educational channels.

    While you can still find a myriad of silly, funny, or just plain stupid videos on YouTube, evidence of just how far the site has come in supporting content of greater substance happened just last year when the site reached a milestone with its educational content. In early October (appropriately on World Teachers' Day), Google announced that visitors to the site could now choose from more than 1,000 educational channels, teaching everything from algebra to art history.

  • October 2012: The first YouTube Education Summit is held.

    Educators, tech gurus, and marketers came together this past fall to discuss ways to expand and more fully develop YouTube's EDU portal. It was the first get together of it's kind and featured big names in YouTube content like Sal Khan and big names in education, like Sesame Street Workshop, alike.

Studying the Long-Term Effects of Online Education

Posted on February 26, 2013


Online learning has grown into an integral element of higher education. No longer an experimental novelty practiced by a handful of tech-loving pioneers, digital classrooms have enjoyed a steady surge in popularity for their low cost and ease of access. But you can't change the way people approach learning without permanently impacting a few things along the way. Recent studies offer plenty of insight when it comes to better understanding how online and blended courses influence the students enrolled in them. And current trends and undertakings might reveal some of the possible hamstrings they might encounter — and, thankfully, some of their possible solutions.

As It Stands Now

According to the Sloan Consortium, more than 6.7 million American college students are currently enrolled in at least one online course. This follows a steady increase from previous years, and educators these days generally look upon blended or wholly Internet-based classes favorably. Seventy-seven percent reported that they believe that the learning outcomes for such courses met or exceeded those of the traditional in-person options. And when it comes to administrators, 69.1% say online education is a major component of their future plans.

The U.S. Department of Education's 2010 evaluation of online learning unearthed compelling reasons to keep providing digital classrooms. Like the Sloan Consortium after it, the organization noted that students from online classes display the same amount of competence as their counterparts; however, they did not see the same examples of them performing above the stated objectives. Individuals enrolled in blended courses merging online and face-to-face educational strategies yielded the highest results of all. These findings provide schools with more evidence towards greater on-campus tech integration.

Because online education has proven itself a viable alternative — if not outright replacement in some instances — to brick-and-mortar institutions, it is now available for military personnel and their qualified dependents using the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Even if they enroll in Internet-based degree programs, they receive a living stipend, just like their equivalents in more traditional classrooms. Most online education options have by and large proven themselves well worth the investment.

The Cost of Going to Class

And with tuition at more traditional colleges and universities increasing, online schooling might very well supplant face-to-face in the coming years. College Board findings noted that the published tuition and fees for public, four-year schools "increased by 31% beyond the rate of inflation over the five years from 2002-03 to 2007-08, and by another 27% between 2007-08 and 2012-13."

If these numbers continue to rise, the comparatively low cost of online courses and programs might force more and more students toward them. Education experts, investors, and innovators agree. Brick-and-mortar schools cannot survive unless they become more affordable.

As The New York Times noted in 2008, gas prices also impact the decision regarding which type of classroom students opt to enter — digital or face-to-face. The same sentiment holds true now, when the national average hovers around $3.776 per gallon. So many economic factors influence the sustainability of online education, all of them currently favoring its status as a permanent option.

Size Really Does Matter

Although they've been around since 2008, it wasn't until 2012 that massive open online courses (MOOCs) hit the mainstream. Although these classes, with enrollment in the hundreds or thousands, have made education more accessible for many students, they aren't without their downsides. The Sloan Consortium study discovered that despite all the press and positivity levied towards MOOCs, most professors and academics remain skeptical regarding their efficacy.

And these concerns are not unfounded. While online classes' more "traditional" form typically engages and educates on par with face-to-face learning, MOOCs still need some maintenance to meet these standards. Ten percent of students (or fewer) enrolled in these courses complete them, with 20% held up as a victory. Only 9.4% of American schools plan to incorporate MOOCs into the curriculum, and just 2.6% have them already. It'll take some tweaking and following through on these promises of democratizing the learning process before more colleges and universities embrace the relatively new approach.

The Physical Tolls of Online Learning

Because the structure of online courses places learners behind a computer or smartphone screen all day, concerns unique to them arise — and require addressing. Research may prove that pursuing an Internet-based class or degree plan undeniably proves a fine academic undertaking. But that doesn't mean that potential issues should go ignored.

Face-to-face interaction is a necessity in social education, and even advocates of online lessons believe the best programs need to account for this discrepancy. Sherry Turkle's 2011 book Alone Together analyzes how the rapid influx of technology has dramatically altered human communication. Digital spaces provide more conduits for connecting with others than ever before in history, but the MIT professor noted how they also promote more instances of loneliness and inauthenticity.

Mental health isn't the only concern: optometrists worry about the physiological side effects of spending too much time on a computer. An estimated 50% to 90% of individuals behind the screen suffer from some degree of eye strain as a direct result of their technology usage. For the ones with astigmatism and other visual impairments, this means even further damage over time. Computer Vision Syndrome could escalate and compromise ocular health if online education entirely overtakes the traditional campus. At the present moment, all enrollees can do is adjust their screen settings and take regular breaks to give their eyes a rest.

How Things Can Get Better

"Learning needs to become more open, mobile, social, and analytical because today’s students — active learners — demand it," says Stacey Fontenot, Vice President of Product Marketing, Academic Platforms at Blackboard. Just because there are concerns regarding online education doesn't mean it needs to disappear altogether, especially since most of the concerns have fixes in place or currently being developed.

"Engagement with the learning should always be the primary focus (after the content itself), and that means dynamic, participatory experiences," she continues. "The question isn't whether education tools are physical or digital, but rather which tools are interactive and which ones are static. Digital is not a requirement, but adaptive and flexible are … The new education experience will be more consistent with what teachers and learners have come to expect from current technology."

MOOCs are only about five years old, which means educators are still looking for comparatively solid strategies. It stands to reason that more schools will warm to the idea of online courses for hundreds of students once the pioneers discern how to approach the inherent problems; some of the solutions will come simply from trial and error. In November 2012, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation donated more than $13 million toward 12 grants experimenting with the MOOC format. Nine of these went to colleges such as Georgia Institute of Technology (which partners with provider Coursera) and University of Wisconsin (whichpartners with Desire2Learn). All of these schools and their associates plan to develop MOOCs in subjects like English and math, tracking the positives and negatives along the way.

Even beyond the generous Gates Foundation gifts, other progress in the MOOC sector might reveal the tactics necessary to keep them for phasing out into just another higher education fad. The MOOC2Degree initiative offers free, professionally developed courses that participating institutions accept for credit. Major MOOC provider Udacity now proctors final exams for its Intro to Computer Science course, thanks to its relationship with Pearson. University of Colorado accepts transfer credit for select Udacity courses. All of these pushes might hopefully uncover a valid solution for the retention issues currently inspiring skepticism and apathy. Improving MOOCs could very well lead to spreading the perks of online classrooms to even more students.

Another way to increase MOOCs' sustainability might involve incorporating more social media, blogs, and wikis. Pearson studies noted that 33.8% of higher education professionals now include at least one of these tools in their curricula. Although wikis and blogs remain the most popular media, all the aforementioned digital resources increase student engagement and knowledge retention. Both of these benefits might promote MOOCs as an attractive option in due time.

Collaborative textbooks, sometimes in wiki format, open up even more possibilities for greater learning opportunities. These not only make education more accessible through teamwork, but they often lower the cost of required reading materials as well — if they don't eliminate them altogether. One of the most show-stopping examples of an effective multimedia textbook is Smarthistory. Run by Khan Academy, professional art historians and other approved contributors lend their knowledge, photos, and more to cover the entirety of humanity's creative achievements in the visual arts. For free. The Dynamic Textbook Project, presented by University of California, Davis, provides an ever-changing online academic environment where allowed participants promote the STEM fields. Visitors receive a comprehensive look at chemistry, biology, physics, geology, and more at no cost. Visitors who truly love these industries and have something to offer are encouraged to contribute to the overarching body of work.

Blackboard also embraces the push toward group efforts with its upcoming xpLor initiative. Teachers upload course materials, and their contemporaries or students (or both) alter them as they see fit. Everyone enjoys a chance to contribute their own creativity and perspectives in a dynamic environment, rather than merely downloading an assignment and working straight from the instructions. Built-in copyrighting and Creative Commons tools allow educators to share work for others to alter without worrying about plagiarism. "Versioning" help them keep track of changes without requiring loads of documents. The xpLor initiative launches in summer 2013.

The socialization might bother some parents and educators, but they don't need to worry. K12 Inc.'s 2009 study on the subject, which focused on the comparatively more vulnerable kindergarten through high school demographics rather than higher ed, proved that students enrolled in full-time online courses boasted social skills at or exceeding their mainstream classroom counterparts. Just because their classes take place on the Internet does not mean they completely disconnect from kids their own age. While they foster many of their communication and collaboration skills online, they do participate in field trips and extracurricular activities for face time.

At the college level, Meetup.com groups based around online courses are available for study groups, field trips, and general hangouts. Students hoping to collaborate face to face take advantage of the site (Facebook as well) to organize a wide variety of events, so they never have to fret over slipping into antisocialism. MOOC leader Udacity tackled the problem with its laudable Udacity Meetup efforts. More than 3,000 students in nearly 500 cities participate in the offline communities to share their love of collaborative learning beyond the digital walls.

In the long term, online education seems destined to keep traveling a positive path. Some aspects, particularly when it comes to guarding against vision loss and building sustainable MOOCs, still require some adjustment. But more studies and more experiments will hopefully unveil more solutions. For now, though, the overall student and professor reports illustrate how things are and will probably continue to be largely fine in the online learning classroom.

The Fundamentals of Feedback for Online Students

Posted on April 03, 2013

Of all the massive open online courses out there, what are the odds that the one to devolve into a massive mess in its first week would be called "Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application"?

On January 28, the Coursera class went live, and instructor Fatimah Wirth of Georgia Tech kicked things off by inviting her 41,000 pupils — many of them educators themselves — to form themselves into groups via a shared spreadsheet in Google Drive. Two hours and a crashed Google server later, students were voicing their confusion and consternation in hundreds of threads on the class forum. The group situation was not their only concern; many had trouble understanding class requirements or getting videos to play. By February 2, Coursera had announced it was suspending the course.

It's a tribute to MOOCs that this is the first major story of a massive open course falling on its face. Many educators have praised Professor Wirth for her willingness to even tackle the subject, much less push the envelope of the world of online education. And even though it didn't come off as planned, the class managed to teach us all about an important aspect of online learning: the impact of student feedback.

Whether they're reaching out for help, expressing gratitude for a particularly exceptional lesson, complaining about a shortcoming, or just proving that they're out there and they're listening, both for- and not-for-credit online students maximize their learning experience when they give their professors feedback.

Courses For Credit

In general, online classes taken for credit are much closer to the traditional classroom experience. Because they're much smaller (and paid for), professors can be expected to respond to feedback in a timely manner. Of course, the reverse is also true: one student of 30 has much less room to hide than one student of 30,000.

Participation in for-credit classes is even more vital in an online environment than a traditional one because the teacher is not able to see confusion written on a student's face as he lectures to know he needs to go back and review. If the professor hears silence from the student quarter, he has to assume everyone is up to speed in their learning. This participation applies not only to how much a student is learning but how well a professor is communicating.

Debbie Morrison is an online curriculum developer for The Master's College, who has taken both for-credit classes and MOOCs. (She was one of the 41,000 students of "Fundamentals of Online Education" and wrote about her experience on her blog.) She said she always tries to incorporate student comments with the closed, for-credit courses she designs.

"I like to analyze student feedback at two points in a newly developed course: first, halfway through, which serves as formative feedback that allows the instructor to make any adjustments to the course before it ends by reviewing the student responses," she said. "The best method is an anonymous survey with three or four open-ended questions that students can freely expand.

"The other point, which I recommend for all online courses, is the end-of-course feedback survey. This provides summative feedback for the professor, course designer, and institution administrators. This feedback is helpful for identifying the course from several perspectives: the technical experience (problems with videos, logging on, etc.), the instruction, the course interface, etc."

Since online schools are on the forefront of educational technology, students have an important role to play in shaping what works and what doesn't. For example, student feedback has helped educators develop some good practices for instructional blogging. Most online schools continually seek out feedback through permanent web forms, while others, as Morrison mentioned, employ surveys either before or after a course begins.

Some of the tips for for-credit classes can also apply to open courses, but they're especially advisable when you're enrolled in an online school where you'll be taking more courses in the future.

Read the syllabus first.Teachers of online courses — for-credit and otherwise — are no different than those in traditional classrooms in that they don't much appreciate questions that are plainly answered in the syllabus, introductory video, in the first forum thread, or somewhere else on a course's web page. Before you add a question (or worse, negative feedback) to a forum or email the professor, make sure your criticism does not qualify you for one of online students' most annoying complaints.

Be tactful. That being said, legitimate suggestions for improving a course's user-friendliness can be effective, if delivered appropriately. After all, teachers are people like the rest of us, and they're apt to respond much better to a polite private email than a snarky forum post that the entire class can see.

To clear up what would be a legitimate criticism, Morrison said online students should be able to find information on the site about how to participate, a schedule of topics for the weeks, a place to access content, and resources for help (i.e. YouTube videos, Q& A page, etc.). This information should be easy to locate. If it isn't, you've got the ammunition for an email.

Keep up with the course. Many classes will make participation on discussion boards and forums a mandatory exercise, e.g., a certain number of posts and a certain number of replies. Know that professors can spot in a heartbeat the people that copy and pasting from elsewhere, just as they can spot the people writing just to write, with nothing real to add. You will be tempted to fall into one of those groups unless you're studying, keeping up with the material, and developing your own insights.

Go above and beyond. As an online student, it's more difficult to stand out and make your presence known to professors because you're not meeting in the same room. So you have to develop another way to show them you're absorbing what they're teaching. Strike up a conversation via email with them about a news item that's relevant to your coursework. Create a forum thread asking your classmates' thoughts on a book you read to help you in class that wasn't required. You could even write your prof a snail-mail letter once the class has concluded, thanking them for a good semester — you can bet they would remember that!

Open Courses

Open courses, especially MOOCs, can be a different ballgame from for-credit courses because of their potential size and the fact that instructors are volunteers. However, as we've already shown, students in these online classes can have as much or more sway on how they're developed and implemented by sharing their thoughts with their professors, the vast majority of who welcome such discussions.

John Owens is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, Davis. His first experience with MOOCs, Udacity's "Introduction to Parallel Programming," is available now.

"I feel like the time I spend answering questions and discussing topics with students is one of the most gratifying teaching experiences I've ever had, and my understanding is it adds an enormous amount to the experience of the students as well," Owens said. "I think the ability for students to give feedback and ask questions during the class is critical to the success of the MOOC in terms of clearing up particular parts of lectures, extending what they learn into more advanced areas, bringing the external experience of students into discussions between students and staff, and keeping them excited about the material and how it might be useful to them."

Owens added that because his course makes use of pre-recorded videos (as the vast majority of MOOCs currently do), it's not possible to make changes once the course has started ("unless something has gone horribly wrong"). However, open courseware (OCW) professors can and do take student feedback into consideration after a course has ended and factor it into the updates they make. Follow these pointers for using feedback to its maximum efficacy.

Use the forum. Hands down, the heart of open course student feedback is the forum. It's here that students discuss anything and everything with their teachers and with each other. It was forum posts, not blogs or articles, that spurred Coursera to action on "Fundamentals of Online Education." Feedback posted here has the added benefit of helping anyone else taking the course who might have the same question.

Needless to say, different sites handle their forums in different ways. Udacity's Discussions page for a course lumps all threads together, though they can be sorted by activity status, newest, "hottest," most voted, and unanswered. Students can see how many views and answers a question has, and students may posts up or down based on their level of helpfulness. Udacity also has a full-fledged Feedback Program that seeks out input from current, former, and prospective students.

Coursera's class discussion boards are a bit better thought out. Forums are divided into sub-forums that, in addition to course-specific threads, usually include areas for questions and comments about the lectures themselves, clarification for assignments, general discussion, course material feedback, and technical feedback that Coursera staff members monitor. As with Udacity, students can see a post's views, votes, and replies at a glance, but unlike Udacity staff replies are clearly delineated with a gray icon saying so.

Bear in mind that most OCW professors are volunteers. Speaking of staff replies, teacher response times in a MOOC will vary widely from minutes to days to weeks, depending on the amount of students, the individual teacher's schedule, and other factors. But as a presumably self-directed learner, the MOOC student's expectations of a professor should be low; very low, according to Morrison.

"Quite honestly, I don't expect the professor to answer student questions," Morrison said. "A MOOC is completely different than a closed, for-credit online course, with 30 or 40 students maximum. A MOOC has thousands. I would not expect feedback, and it is unrealistic to think that the instructor reads every discussion board and can answer every question."

Depending on the size of the class, a professor may have one or more assistants who handle questions and comments for him or her. Of course, all that isn't to say MOOC professors simply post their videos and check back in three months. Many spend hours of their own time responding to forum posts. Morrison said that a Coursera course she's currently taking on e-learning and digital cultures has offered two Google Hangouts with the instructors where they shared some of the student feedback and posts from the previous week. In her Introduction to Sociology course, Professor Mitchell Duneier reads letters and specific forum posts students have sent and left.

Take it outside. Because access to class forums is usually restricted to enrolled students, prospective students have no way of viewing them to learn about the course. For general reviews of open courses and their instructors, Coursetalk is an excellent tool. Courses offered by eight MOOC open courseware providers — including lesser-knowns like Venture Lab and Canvas Network — can be sorted by rating, subject, or university. Former students give their thoughts on how interesting the material was, how entertaining the professor, how helpful the tools were, and more. Knollop is a similar MOOC review site that includes offerings from MIT's OpenCourseWare, Harvard OLI, and Open Yale Courses.

Just days before this writing, another Coursera MOOC made news in the education world for its professor quitting the course, requiring the course's suspension. Though the details are still murky, the professor had apparently spent time arguing with students over the course workload, insisting he "will not give in on standards." In other words, he seems to have gotten fed up with all the negative feedback and thrown in the towel.

The moral of the story is that feedback can be powerful stuff. "Fundamentals of Online Education" proved that not once, but twice: thanks to feedback from students who wanted the course to continue, Coursera lifted its suspension the next day.

Autism and Online Learning: A Guide for Teachers

Posted on April 05, 2013

Today, one in every 88 American children is on the autism spectrum. Autism affects more than 2 million people in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide. But it hasn't always been this way. Statistics show a tenfold increase in autism in the past 40 years, and prevalence rates are increasing 10%-17% each year.

With autism on the rise, many schools struggle to meet the needs of autistic students. Often, autistic adults do not take the next step to go on to college or meaningful employment, even though they may be incredibly gifted. Letting students fall behind should not be an option.

If traditional classrooms struggle to effectively educate autistic students, what can online education offer autistic learners? Tech tools and virtual learning environments present an opportunity to better serve autistic students with flexibility and resources that are well suited to guide them in learning. The more educators learn about working with autistic students, the better equipped teachers and students will be for success.

The Needs of Autistic Students

Autism represents a broad spectrum of students, from high-functioning individuals to those with significant disability. "You've got some kids who are brilliant in one area and can't work at all in another area. There's really a range," explains autism consultant Lisa Jo Rudy. Each autistic individual is unique with their own set of needs, making it difficult for some educational programs to reach every student. But there are common characteristics that online educators should be aware of and work with, including anxiety and difficulties with attention, communication, and social interaction, as well as a need for multiple learning styles.

Strong feelings of anxiety are common among those with autism or Asperger syndrome. Researchers have found that more than 80% of children with autism have at least one anxiety disorder, and many young adults with Asperger syndrome feel intense anxiety, some to a point that requires treatment. Bullying, being put on the spot, time limits, and win-lose situations can be a source of anxiety for autistic students.

Communication abilities will vary among individual students, but all people with autism experience language and communication difficulties of some kind. Teaching Students With Autism: A Resource Guide for Schools identifies common language difficulties among autistic students, including a lack of eye contact, unusual gestures, a lack of expressive language skills, and a difficulty in changing topics.

Social interaction for autistic students can be a challenge, which makes it difficult for these individuals to participate in class discussions. Teaching Students With Autism explains that people with autism have difficulty reading body language and may not pick up on important social cues. They also typically have trouble understanding the perspectives of others.

Attention difficulties are also common among autistic students. They may find it difficult to give their attention to important concepts, instead focusing on insignificant details. A short attention span, and difficulty shifting attention from one stimulus to the next is also common.

Autistic students often need to be presented with a variety of learning styles. Stephen Edelson of the Autism Research Institute explains, "It appears that autistic individuals are more likely to rely on only one style of learning." That means autism educators will need to offer multiple learning styles — visual, auditory, and hands-on — to discover the method that works best for each student.

Success for Autistic Students Online

The benefits of online education can be life-changing for autistic students. One 17-year-old with autism, Daniel, found success participating in massive open online courses (MOOCs) with Coursera. Daniel took a modern poetry class from Penn, thriving in the exclusively online format. He and his parents discovered that the online learning system worked well with his social skills and attention deficit, and the rigorous academic curriculum required him to stay on task. Says Daniel, "I can't yet sit still in a classroom, so [Coursera's online offering] was my first real course ever. During the course, I had to keep pace with the class, which is unheard of in special ed. Now I know I can benefit from having to work hard and enjoy being in sync with the world."

College student Ryan Fox has experienced similar success in online learning. For Fox, high school was distracting and stressful. He had trouble keeping up with teachers and had to start his school day all over again when he got home, relearning all of the information he didn't understand or hear the first time around. But when Fox was introduced to an online learning environment, it made him feel "very organized, calm, and safe." With online learning, he was able to find order and correctness, and knew what to expect, with no surprises and limited changes.

Where Fox struggled in traditional school, he thrives online. He's able to get his schoolwork done quickly and needs almost no accommodations. Says Fox, "When I was really little, I was curious and loved to learn, but then for a while I got so frustrated I forgot what that was like. I think any student who has certain needs and wants to rediscover his or her love of learning should try online learning. I really believe that in the future everyone will learn this way! We will all be able to learn from the very smartest people on Earth, and we will do it at our own pace every day. Our abilities will matter more than our disabilities."

How the Online Environment Helps Autistic Learners

Online learning can be a good idea for students with Asperger's or high-functioning autism. "For these students, open-ended time limits, the ability to repeat activities over and over again, and other modifications could be quite helpful," says Misty Jones, Board-Certified Behavior Analyst with Kids First Spectrum Services.

Studying online can remove elements of anxiety for autistic students. Although cyberbullying exists, online learning tools may allow autistic students to study without fear of negative interaction. The digital environment also offers the opportunity to remove anxiety triggers like being put on the spot and working within time constraints.

Autistic students can benefit from focused communication available in the online learning format. Many struggle to learn in a classroom environment where most communication is verbal. Online, autistic learners can benefit from visual tools, cues, and guided notes, as well as interactive and scenario-based learning. Autistic adult learners may also be more comfortable communicating online, especially through social media.

Online learning is also useful for catering to the social needs of autistic students. Communication is often more black and white, with limited social cues, and a lack of non-verbal communication that can be difficult to understand. Additionally, the typical discussion board format takes away students' pressure to respond immediately.

Educators can support autistic students' attention needs with clear, guided online instruction. In the online format, autistic students who may struggle with short attention spans and misplaced focus can be carefully walked through concepts in a step-by-step guide that emphasizes the most important information.

The online learning environment also offers the ability to teach the same material in multiple ways for a variety of students. As autistic learners typically benefit from learning in one specific style, each lesson should be available in multiple formats to allow students to choose the learning method that they can use best, whether they're visual, auditory, or hands on. This is difficult in the traditional classroom but possible online. Educators can offer lectures in audio or video, written text, or even in step-by-step interactive guides, all in one learning hub.

Additional benefits of online learning for autistic students include the ability to repeat learning materials and interactive elements over and over, flexible course offerings for students with "splinter skills," and open time limits. Autistic students also appreciate the consistent format of online learning, as it can be difficult to deal with small differences in each individual classroom.

There are many benefits to online learning for autistic students, but there can also be challenges. The online environment is so appealing to the autistic brain that some students struggle with cyber addiction, creating an unhealthy imbalance. Additionally, autistic students who need to develop in-person social interaction and appropriate behavior will not find many opportunities online. "Most of our students need so much real life practice to develop skills that the Internet is more of a leisure activity. It's supplemental to what they are learning in vivo," says behavior analyst Jones.

Recommendations for Online Teachers with Autistic Students

  • Make use of discussion boards: Being put on the spot can make autistic students feel anxious. But online course discussion boards give them the opportunity to create a planned and well-crafted response. Avoid live chats or group Skype discussions that may cause autistic students to freeze up.
  • Help students build their responses: A great way to improve online participation among autistic students is through planned, guided discussion. Autism consultant Lisa Jo Rudy recommends that online educators "have the conversation ahead of time, and prep them, and actually have them go through and prepare. ... Give them a lot of time and a lot of extra prep before the event itself." An online tool with question prompts that allows students to build responses for later discussion may be helpful.
  • Allow students to try again and again: Autistic students may need to take extra time to process information and complete tasks. They may even need to do activities more than once to understand the concept and focus. You can cater to this need by offering learning materials without limits on time or turns.
  • Carefully monitor for cyberbullying: The online learning environment can make autistic students feel safe, but bullying may bring up feelings of anxiety. Preventing cyberbullying can make all students feel more comfortable and open in online learning.
  • Allow students to pick and choose courses: Autistic students with splinter skills may do well in math but struggle with writing. Rather than restricting students to freshman- or senior-level courses across the board, give students the opportunity to pick the right course level for their skills.
  • Offer multiple learning formats: Encourage autistic students to adopt the learning style that works best for them by providing students with materials that fit different learning styles. Lectures may be delivered in audio/visual format or interactive walk-throughs, as well as in text documents.
  • Guide students on a learning path: Give students the freedom to spend as much time as they need, try tasks multiple times, and allow them to do it all in a variety of different formats, but remember to guide their learning at all times. Keep their focus and attention by always showing them the next step to take.

Online learning for autistic students is largely still in development, but there's growing potential, especially at the high school and college level. "So much of what goes on in high school is not about learning academics but about fitting in with other kids. If that is what's standing in the way of a young person finishing school or excelling academically, then online is the way to go," says Jones. "For those individuals who could go to college if it weren't for the social aspect, it is a great way for them to get an education."

What's next? Dictation tools, resources for turning ideas into outlines, and even exclusive online degree programs for autistic students. Says Lisa Jo Rudy, "A lot of those types of support can be built into virtual learning environments, and probably will be, because they're not only useful for students with autism, but for any student."

The At-Risk Students' Guide to Finishing an Online Degree, Part 1

Posted on April 12, 2013


Ready for a shock? We're fans of online education. To us, there is no better way to mold your pursuit of a degree to fit the schedule of your life, and not the other way around. It puts access to schools, courses, and professors within your reach that you never would have had otherwise. In many cases it makes an affordable undertaking out of what's become an outrageously costly endeavor.

However, just like traditional campuses, online schools are not without their share of students who drop out. Online students drop out at a rate that is 15-20% higher than students who attend class in person. All things being equal, this would seem to imply that in-person education is the option that ensures success more readily.

But as is almost always the case in life, all things are not equal, particularly when it comes to education while working. Fewer than 40% of online undergraduates go to school full-time, and according to a recent survey, the "average" online student works full-time (compared to just 20% of college students as a whole who do so.

Because of their busy schedules, these online students with job and families face risks that can put their degree completion on the line. If you count yourself among their number, check out these tips and tools for guaranteeing you see the quest through to the end.

Risk 1: You get fired, fail class, or both.

The most obvious risk of being a degree-seeking online student with a job is that you'll spread yourself too thin and succeed at nothing. Dedicate too much night time to studying and you'll be too tired to do your job well the next day. Try to put in too many hours at work and your grades will slip. It's definitely a balancing act, and one that every student will have to experiment with on his or her own to find the perfect ratio of time spent.

How you can overcome it:

  • Communicate with your professor and boss: The worst thing you can do is wait until the day a major project is due to frantically email your professor with excuses for why yours isn't ready. Reach out to your professor at the start of the semester and let him or her know that you also work or have family obligations that may conflict with schoolwork. Individual profs may be willing to work with you, but not if you wait until the last minute.

    Scott Mason is the program manager in the Office of Distance Education at the University of Houston. He says, "If students tell their employers and professors that they're working and going to school, it might make them more sympathetic to their issues or concerns, especially if asking for an extension for an assignment or test. However, students shouldn't expect to receive special treatment. Most of their fellow classmates are probably doing the same thing."

  • Combine the two: Most businesses give employees some kind of lunch break or other rest breaks during their work period. Don't waste that time gossiping with coworkers or reading a magazine; spend that time cracking the books or knocking out a little homework. If you're asking, "What work breaks?", you need to look into whether your employer is breaking state law by not giving you a rest period. Although there is no federal law requiring employers to give lunch or other breaks, several states mandate short breaks for every four hours worked.
  • Don't take on too much: Jillian Reading is an academic advisor in the School of Public Health & Health Professions at the University of Buffalo. Although she said working while going to school is beneficial not just for the economic aspect but for the experience a student can gain, Reading cautioned against trying to work more than 20 hours per week. She said students in certain majors might want to consider leaving work entirely to focus on their degree, if possible.

    "Students who are pursuing science-based degrees that require extensive laboratory components come immediately to mind," she said, "or those students who are looking to apply to competitive graduate or professional programs and need extremely high GPAs in their coursework."

Tools to use:

  • Time management apps: If you're like two-thirds of 18- to 29-year-olds, you own a smartphone. With the planning and calendar apps of an iPhone or Android at your side, there's no excuse for ever letting an assignment fall through the cracks. Without a smartphone, a good old-fashioned calendar or personal planner work just as well. The key is to write everything down somewhere.

    Don't worry about buying a calendar app; free options abound. For Android, My Class Schedule, School Helper, and Yasp have very strong ratings by users. For iPhones (and Android), Trello is a great app for individual or group project task scheduling. CalenMob, a reliable version of the Google Calendar for Apple, is also a solid choice.

  • Efficiency tools: Reading gave us two special recommendations of productivity apps that she finds particularly helpful to all her students. The first is Evernote for taking and storing notes and class documents that can be easily accessed from anywhere with an Internet connection. She also likes iAnnotatePDF for highlighting or taking notes on lecture slides and other PDF documents. We would add to those a flashcard app like Flashcards+ and a dictionary app.

Risk 2: Your health suffers.

In any situation where a person is under significant pressure to perform, is faced with a seemingly never-ending list of tasks that need addressing, and is constantly stressed, maintaining good health is going to be an issue. The harmful effects of stress — high blood pressure, depression, muscle pain, loss of sex drive — are well-documented, but stress is not the only risk factor.

Being constantly on the go encourages people to eat fast food, which we don't even need to mention is usually a health no-no. It may also mean cutting back on sleep, which would be bad enough if stress wasn't already causing you sleep problems. Sleep is vital to overall health but particularly knowledge retention, so those long nights you're studying may be doing more harm than good when it comes to remembering information.

In short, working online students run the risk of damaging their health to the point they get sick and can neither work nor study. And, really, is education even worth it if you have to damage your health in the process?

How you can overcome it:

  • Exercise: If your job requires you to be up on your feet moving around, thank your lucky stars; sitting at a desk for both work and school is far too much inactivity. If that's your situation, look for every opportunity to move your body. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Get your textbooks on tape and walk around while you listen to them. Even just standing at your desk instead of sitting could literally save your life. The general rule of 30 minutes of exercise per day still applies.
  • Don't sacrifice your sleep: Contrary to the longstanding 8-hour rule, the optimum amount of sleep for health and productivity seems to be between 6.5-7.5 hours. But what's more important than sleep quantity is sleep quality. Good quality sleep comes from having a restful environment, exercising regularly (another good reason to move around), cutting out caffeine, and going to bed at the same time each night.
  • Watch what you eat: We understand the temptation of fast or packaged food: it's generally cheap, it's easy to pack and eat on the go, and it's usually pretty tasty. But since you're going to such an effort to improve your life by earning a degree, why set yourself back by not taking care of your health? Or think of it this way: junk food may be cheap, but an angioplasty is not.

    Instead of throwing a candy bar in your backpack, bring along a banana (which cost about $0.15 each) or an apple (about $0.50) and some peanut butter, which will give you protein and fiber. For an easy dinner, throw a russet potato (about $0.33) in the oven for an hour while you study. Simple tips like these are all over the Internet; all you really need is the determination to eat better.

Tools to use:

  • Health apps: It's never been easier to find an app that streamlines your efforts to get healthy and lets you have fun doing it. Take your workouts social with apps like Fitocracy and Zombies, Run!. Apps like Pocket Yoga and Workout Trainer teach you hundreds of exercises that you can do without going to a gym. For tips and recipes for healthy eating, apps like Fooducate have you covered, and Food Planner helps you save time at the grocery store.
  • Stress and sleep apps: Sometimes you have to make time to just zone out, even if it's only for a few moments. In those instances, a meditation app like Self can work wonders. Or you can play a mindless game of slingshotting birds through space. For sleep help, try Relax Melodies to drift off and Sleep as Android to track your sleep and wake you up gently.
  • Study area supplies: Setting up a healthy, ergonomic study area is extremely important for online students. For your mouse, we're fans of the Logitech Trackman to stave off carpal tunnel. Microsoft's 4000 is a good, inexpensive ergonomic keyboard. Whatever chair you use should give you good back support and let your knees bend at a 90-degree angle. Refer to OSHA's guide to computer workstations for more ergonomic tips.

Risk 3: You lose your motivation.

At a certain point in your journey toward an online degree, there is a risk that your motivation will begin to wane. You may forget why you wanted to get that degree in the first place and begin to come at your schoolwork halfheartedly. You may think you can just power through on sheer stubbornness, but you shouldn't underestimate the power of motivation in learning.

For example, a new study by researchers at the Educational Testing Service entitled "Motivation Matters: Measuring Learning Outcomes in Higher Education" found personal motivation enables students to perform "significantly and consistently" better on tests than their peers. Researchers from Reed College found in 2004 that college roommates who are studious can have "strong effects" on academic performance. This means that for online students, especially ones with families, the risk of distraction from "roommates" harming your grades might be a concern.

How you can overcome it:

  • Remember why you're there: Sure, you're making money at your current job, but what are you missing out on without a degree? Well, on average over a lifetime, about $1 million for those with just a high school diploma. You're also ensuring your job security. During the recession, jobless rates were inversely proportionate to education levels: 7% for bachelor's holders, 11% for associate degree holders, and 16% for those with just a high school education.
  • Get involved: Connecting with your fellow students is a crucial part of the college experience. Commiserating with them over your shared problems understanding a certain lesson will help you realize you're not going it alone. Reading suggests interacting with students who've successfully taken classes while working to get their tips and tricks.
  • Set goals and reward yourself: We mentioned not trying to take on too much, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't set reasonable study or grade goals for yourself. Make sure they're realistic, otherwise you'll burn yourself out. When you reach your goals, celebrate by spending an evening with family or watching a movie with friends or whatever it is you do to recharge.

Tools to use:

  • Class forums: Many individual online courses will have class forums that are required for class participation grades; most of them have an area dedicated to homework questions and off-topic discussions. Make use of the former if you need it, and the latter early and often. Find out who your classmates are, what they do, how old they are, what they think about the class. That's what college is all about.
  • Motivational apps: There really is an app for everything. Lift lets you set any kind of goal, from ceasing to bite your fingernails to passing the GMAT, and get support from your friends along the way. For motivational sayings on the go, use Inspirational Quotes. For movie pep talks, just fire up the YouTube app and queue up the Braveheart speech.
  • Lean on family: While they can be a distraction, family members are a built-in support team you'd be foolish to overlook. According to Reading, "I recommend sitting down with family members and explaining what you are undertaking and how much work/commitment it will require. Family members who are supportive of student efforts are key." Being up-front and honest may also help you avoid arousing resentment in them over how much time you are spending studying and working.

There's nothing easy about getting a degree, online or otherwise, and for students with time constraints it's even harder. Knowing what you're up against is half the battle of making it all the way through to graduation day.

The At-Risk Students' Guide to Finishing an Online Degree, Part 2

Posted on April 17, 2013


In the first part, we laid out some of the risks facing online students with heavy time demands from work and family. This time, we're looking at a related group of at-risk online learners: those with financial constraints. Although working students may be short on time, their paycheck can help them avoid some of the pitfalls that face students struggling with the economics of education.

While college attendance has gone for both affluent college students and their poorer counterparts, the gap between them in completing bachelor's degrees has increased from a 31% difference in 1972 to 45% in 2012. In the bottom 25% of incomes for the U.S., fewer than a third even enroll in a four-year college, and less than half of those go on to graduate.

However, the good news is that low-income students are high achievers at a rate much higher than was previously thought. The Brookings Institution recently published findings from data on millions of American students that the rate of high-achieving, high-income students only outnumber high-achieving, low-income students two to one (a rate 8-15 times higher than some college admissions offices had estimated).

So the data proves what low-income students hopefully already knew: they can achieve great heights in their education. It just takes the right approach.

Risk 1: You don't have adequate access to necessary equipment.

It's easy for those with ample access to high-speed Internet — including college professors and administrators — to forget that not all Americans enjoy the same luxury. According to the Economics and Statistics Administration, an estimated 100 million citizens cannot access the Internet from home. And the lower the income level for the household, the lower the rate of both computer and broadband use. While a quarter of households at incomes $25,000-$50,000 have no computer, that number jumps to almost half of households (46%) with incomes below $25,000.

How you can overcome it:

  • Use it where you find it: The most common places students without home Internet access get online are at their jobs, their school, public libraries, or a friend's house. Many college campuses offer free wifi for students, so if you have your own Internet-equipped device you don't have to be tied to a computer lab. Sites like Wi-Fi-Freespot are good resources for finding businesses like Panera Bread and McDonald's that offer free wifi to customers.
  • Take advantage of discounts: Students in low-income households may not be aware that they qualify for discounts on things like broadband Internet service. For example, Comcast provides a plan called Internet Essentials where families with children who are eligible for reduced-price lunches at school can receive Internet at home for $9.95 a month. (But just 100,000 of the 2.3 million eligible families have signed up). There's even a new startup called FreedomPop that allows users in certain areas to get broadband access for free (with data limits), or for as little as $10 a month.

Tools to use:

  • Tablets: Many people from poorer households site the high initial cost of buying a computer as a barrier to getting broadband Internet access at home. One way to cut the cost is to purchase a comparatively inexpensive netbook or tablet that would allow you to access Blackboard, watch lectures, take notes, and keep track of assignments. Google's Nexus 7 sports a fast processor, vivid 7-inch display, and easy connectivity with other Google products like Gmail and Drive. At $200, it costs about 10% of a Macbook Pro.
  • Netbooks: You may find you need the full range of computing features a laptop provides, like a built-in keyboard. If that is the case, you still have some cheap options. On the low end of the computing power and price scale, there are Chromebooks starting at $199. Netbooks represent a nice middle ground, giving you solid computing ability for $300-$400. Keep an eye on sites like Microcenter.com or Tiger Direct for deals on refurbished laptops, or check the sales at local electronics stores like Fry's.

Risk 2: Your family doesn't support you.

In about 80% of cases, being a low-income college student means also being a first-generation college student, and the risks of this group are well-documented. As of late 2010, the rate that low-income first-gens left college in six years without a degree was an astounding 89%. Financial troubles are frequently part of the problem, but for many, they drop out or fail out because they simply weren't prepared, and because they did not get the moral support of their friends and family.

Parents who did not go to college themselves can be misunderstanding and even critical when their children choose to pursue a degree. Even those who are supportive usually cannot offer any advice on selecting a major, managing time and finances, or other skills critical to success in college. Moreover, according to the American Psychological Association, students who self-identify as low-income often report feelings of not belonging in school and an intention of dropping out before graduation.

How you can overcome it:

  • Lean on others: Even more than other students, first-gen and low-income students need to seek out their online academic advisors or go see them in person on campus. A good counselor will be able to answer your questions about counseling services, special programs for first-gen students, mentor and tutoring services, and financial aid.
    As we said in Part 1, making connections with other online learners is crucial to staying motivated. It will also have the added benefit of giving you a sense of belonging that may be lacking as a first-gen student. So taking part in class discussions and attending on-campus events to meet your fellow learners is highly advisable.
  • Take the wheel: Joel P. Spiess, academic advisor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said he also emphasizes the importance of each student being his or her own advocate. "I often remind students that they are in the driver's seat when it comes to their education," he said, "and they are the ones to decided when to hit the gas, when to slow things down, and when to turn and change directions. For so many students, this is a big adjustment from high school, where much of their education was dictated for them."
  • Brush up on your study skills: There's no shame in admitting you need help preparing to be a college student; earning your degree online will be every bit as difficult, if not more so, than earning it on a traditional campus. Many first-gen students begin their classes without understanding how to maximize their study time or how to interact online with professors. Somewhere on their websites, most schools include a section of study tips, often tying it into student orientation. Be sure to read them over thoroughly.

Tools to use:

  • Mentors: While college counselors are a good place to start, they're often overloaded with a high volume of students. So before even settling on an online college, you might want to inquire as to whether it offers a mentoring program of some kind, like the student mentoring program at Western Governors University. At WGU, the student mentor works with the enrollment counselor to develop a "personalized degree plan." Such a system is an excellent way to set yourself up to complete a degree.
  • Online resources: Some schools offer special programs for first-generation students to help them get acclimated and succeed, so be sure to ask your advisor about them. But even if yours doesn't, you're already online — use the Web. Online resources from other schools' programs like MIT's First Generation Project or .orgs like First in the Family offer some helpful resources. The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies also features useful info for adult and distance learners on its site, as does the Illinois Online Network.

Risk 3: The stress of dealing with finances causes your grades to drop and/or your graduation to be postponed.

According to a 2012 survey by Inceptia, a branch of the National Student Loan Program, the stress of finances has negatively affected one-third of college students. An additional 20% said finances had created a need to reduce their course load to deal with the problem. The researchers were convinced of a direct link between financial stress — whether the worry over college borrowing, the need to repay loans, or the pressure to find a job after graduation — and academic performance.

Rather than drop out, some students even take the reverse route. Spiess said has had numerous students tell him they want to stay in school as long as possible so they can delay the start of payments on their loans. He said this "avoidance mentality" is common among students who don't understand the nature of financial aid, particularly loans.

How you can overcome it:

  • Get a scholarship or loan: Hopefully you weren't under the false impression that online students can't get scholarships. With all the grants and scholarships at individual universities, plus private scholarships, there is money to be had. There are even scholarships strictly for first-generation students, like the Mercedes-Benz "Drive Your Future" scholarship and the Coca-Cola Foundation First Generation Scholarships. The low-interest federal Stafford loan is also available to online students.
  • Get a job: We don't mean to imply you don't already have a job, or that you're sitting around with all kinds of free time. This is mainly for students who want to make a little extra cash when they have time, close to where they live, doing something they already know how to do or that can also be done while studying. Thanks to the Web, it's never been easier to find these jobs.
    Although only currently available in nine cities, Taskrabbit is a fast-growing network of people that need a task like furniture assembly or pet sitting completed, and the "task rabbits" who sign up for work. Fiverr works in a similar manner and includes hundreds of small jobs that don't even require moving away from your computer. If you want to sell your services as a tutor, Thumbtack is another good option.

Tools to use:

  • Financial aid counselor: Spiess says this is the appointment he encourages his students to make "first and foremost," because in a school as big as UWM, it's not possible for an academic advisor to stay up-to-date on all the intricacies of financial assistance. A financial aid advisor can tell you what scholarships are available to you as an online student and guide you through the process of dealing with your loans after you graduate, even if such exit counseling is not required by law. Spiess said the information they give you may seem overwhelming or irrelevant to you now, but he urges students to power through all the same.
  • Mint.com: Getting your finances under control now is the smartest way to give yourself the confidence that you can live within your means once you graduate. A good, free financial planning program like Mint can help you track where you're spending too much, set goals for saving, and receive mobile alerts when you're in danger of going over budget.

It's not just online students who are feeling the sting of economic troubles; the student debt didn't get to $1 trillion on distance learners alone. Across the country, college students and graduates of all kinds are dealing with high unemployment and underemployment. If there is a silver lining to facing these financial concerns, it's that you won't be as unprepared for life in this economy as many of your fellow graduates from brick-and-mortar campuses will be. Consider this time your financial training period, just another lesson to be learned.