Online courses are rapidly becoming the modern learner’s pièce de résistance of continuing education. With a wide spectrum of online colleges, a student has the flexibility to earn their degree without the physical limitations of choosing a local school or the cost investment of moving to the school of their choice. According to the 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning, approximately 5.6 million students were enrolled in at least one course as of fall 2009. That’s an increase of one million students from the previous year and is the largest year-to-year increase to date. “Nearly thirty percent of all college and university students now take at least one course online.” says I Elaine Allen, Co-Director of the Babson Survey Research Group and Professor of Statistics & Entrepreneurship at Babson College.

Many universities, state colleges and community colleges offer distance learning in lieu of being physically present within their walls. During the 2006-2007 school year, the National Center for Educational Statistics found that two-thirds of Title IV, degree-granting post secondary schools offered some form of online learning. This is great news for students, especially those who opt for blended learning. According to a 2009 meta study from the Department of Education: “Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.”

Students who mix online learning with traditional coursework (i.e. blended learning) do even better. Mariah, a student who utilizes blending learning says “I have thoroughly enjoyed the online learning format in my classes at Tacoma Community College. It allows me to work at my own pace to meet deadlines and adds flexibility to my schedule that I really love. With a class that is completed completely online, my schooling isn’t disrupted by traveling. I can do my work at a time that is convenient to me, whether that is first thing in the morning or in the middle of the night. You can often purchase an online version of the required textbooks at a reduced cost, which is wallet-friendly and eases my backpack’s load. When I have questions or concerns, I can usually get a quick response from a teacher via email, and at TCC all teachers have office hours on campus if I require additional assistance.”

Assess yourself

There are a number of considerations to be made when choosing a distance learning education. What are your reasons for remote learning? Is it convenience, flexibility, cost, availability of course work? Online college is both for everyone, but not for everybody. Wendy Alsup, who teaches in Seattle, says “I have taught online classes for seven years at a community college that offers both in person and online classes. Online classes are attractive because they offer an appearance of convenience. But often students assume that they will actually have to do less work in such a class. It's important for a student choosing an online class to assess exactly what it will take for them to successfully finish the work in the time allowed.” Just as you would make a commitment to succeeding in the classroom, you need to commit to being disciplined to succeed in the virtual classroom.

So what does a successful online student look like?

Those who do well learning via technology are almost always self-motivated, highly initiative and not prone to distraction. Online student, Mariah, says “I would only recommend online learning to people who are self-motivated and who don’t usually require a lot of assistance with assignments and such. With online work, you are in charge of making sure everything is done in a timely manner without the constant reminders or prodding you might get in a regular classroom. If you constantly need to contact the teacher or take a longer amount of time to finish work, you can fall behind pretty fast. You also learn your limitations with online work. I’ve found that I learn math and science subject matter more easily and more thoroughly in a normal classroom than online, so I limit my online classes to other subjects like English and electives.”

There is much freedom and flexibility as an online student, which is a huge plus, provided that freedom isn’t an excuse to procrastinate. What you might forego socially in a traditional school environment, is made up in the benefit of creating your own schedule. Online classes can be made to work for your lifestyle and interests, allowing you the option to pursue activities according to your time, rather than your school’s.

Learning style is a large component in making your decision as well. Successful online students are typically skilled in reading comprehension. Most of your course work will be delivered in the form of text, rather than lectured from the front of the room. There are options for learning via audio and video technology, however, the majority of your education will be absorbed through the written word. Many colleges offer video conferencing or online chat forums for discussion and questions, so you’re not completely on your own; however, it’s best to know up front that most of your work will be done solo.

The Educational Smorgasbord

Gone are the days of defaulting to the college in your hometown, or packing up your dad’s station wagon for the cross-country trip. With so many options for remote learning, how do you determine which school will best meet your needs?

Accreditation: This is like an insurance policy for your education. It protects you the student, the school, and gives potential employers peace of mind that you are coming in knowing what you’re doing. When choosing a school, it should be accredited by an agency recognized by either the United States Department of Education (USDE) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

The most widely accepted online degrees are accredited through these six agencies, which are recognized by both the CHEA and the USDE:

Cost: One benefit of choosing an online education, is that your out of pocket costs are typically less than a brick-and-mortar school. Aside from tuition, you’ll need to determine whether or not your program offers online text books, if you will need additional hardware or software, and be sure to ask if there are any other fees associated with your courses.

Goal: Whether you are taking a light course load for personal enrichment, learning a trade or getting your degree, keep the big picture in mind when choosing a school. If you aspire to becoming an electrician, seek out an accredited school that specializes in the courses needed to complete your education efficiently. Time is on your side with online education. Keep your goal in mind in order to maximize that asset, allowing you to be on the road to your career before you know it.

Full List of Online School Subjects