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Breaking down barriers, changing the way things are done, allowing people to learn in new ways -- online education can be the answer in many ways. Since its beginnings in the early 90s, online education has grown leaps and bounds in enrollment, student engagement and delivery. What was once more akin to an education based on e-mail correspondence than anything revolutionary has turned into one of the more convenient changes ever to happen in learning.

Online education is more than simply a passing fad -- consider that some 6.1 million students were taking a minimum of at least one online course in the fall of 2010, according to The Sloan Consortium -- but it still carries with it many misconceptions, misunderstandings and underestimations. That's true even though 31 percent of all higher education students now take a minimum of one course online, according The Sloan Consortium. Why do these misconceptions exist? What does online education offer to students pursuing this route? Read on to learn more about online education and what it has come to mean to some today.

Why an online degree?

Getting a degree online isn't a cake walk. You have to work hard and earn it just like you would a degree from a brick-and-mortar university. But don’t let the difficulty of earning an online degree dissuade you, as there are some key benefits: many online programs are flexible, agile and very personalized.

  • Flexible. Online classrooms are not typically bound by standard schedules. You can often fit schooling in whenever you need to – at night, on weekends, during your lunch hour – and pick up wherever you left off. 
  • Agile. Administrators of online colleges and universities may not have to worry about filling a classroom to capacity for every subject.  As a result, online schools may offer a wider range of programs than a traditional university, and may introduce new, cutting-edge programs more quickly to take advantage of emerging educational and career opportunities.
  • Personalized. Online programs allow teachers and staff to quickly assess how you are doing in your studies and then update, iterate upon and adapt a program to better meet your specific needs.  For example, if you spent an inordinate amount of time on a homework assignment, the professor can see which questions gave you trouble, compare that to how the class did on the same problem and tailor subsequent lessons to address your potential problem areas, without wasting your time on subject matter you already understand.

How do online classes work?

Online classes can be broken into two main groups: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous classes are more like traditional classes in that you go through a class with the same group of student peers and things run on a schedule. This means that assignments, quizzes, midterms and finals all need to be completed in a certain time frame. Asynchronous classes run without a schedule, allowing you to start anytime and finish at your own pace. Generally speaking, asynchronous classes might be better suited for self-starters, or those who work well on their own without deadlines, whereas synchronous classes might appeal more to people who need a little structured motivation from peers and deadlines.

As with anything, the lines can blur between these two types of classes, and many online schools allow you to mix and match based on your needs. Whichever type of online class you choose, you can find a host of support options from teachers and peers. Group study sessions can be set up in chat rooms or discussion boards online, or in person if you find you've got local classmates. Need a little more help? Many professors keep virtual office hours during which they'll be available for online chatting.

What kind of people can online programs work for?

The short answer, which is becoming more and more true as techniques and technologies progress, is that online classes and degree programs can work for a wide variety of people. However, online learning may be particularly beneficial to those:

  • Students who are self-starters and highly-motivated. These students may do well in online learning environments because they don't need the admonishing in-class look of a professor or a physical classroom to progress.
  • Students who need a flexible schedule. These students may find a match in online programs. You can sneak a quiz in on your lunch break or watch a lecture after you finally get the kids to bed -- online programs can fit into your life that easily.
  • Students without a college or university nearby. These students can benefit from online classes because there is no commute to class and they do not have to relocate to a school to be able to pursue advanced learning.
  • Computer-literate and Internet-savvy students. These students may be more comfortable with using the various types of online learning and find learning in this way to be a natural, intuitive process.

However, online schools can be beneficial for many different types of students. You may fall into one of the categories mentioned above or any number of other categories of student for whom online learning is beneficial.

How do employers feel about online degrees?

For a variety of reasons -- including new federal regulations, crackdowns on degree/diploma mills and the fact that holders of online degrees have been working in a wide variety of industries for years now -- online degrees are gaining more respect in today's workplace. 

The latest and greatest in online learning

Along with computers and the Internet, online education has been evolving at breakneck speed. Once just a faster version of distance learning that didn't receive much credence from the rest of the educational world, the virtual classroom is now teaching the traditional classroom a thing or two. In fact, a 2010 study from the U.S. Department of Education found that today's online instruction can be more effective than face-to-face instruction in a K-12 setting -- and a combination, or a hybrid of the two, is more effective than each one alone - again, in K-12. However, a 2011 Sloan Consortium survey of over 2,500 colleges and universities backs up this finding for higher education. The study found that 67 percent of academic leaders said that online learning is equal to or better than face-to-face instruction. That's an increase from 66 percent of academic leaders who felt that way in 2009 and from 57 percent who felt that way in 2003, the first year of the report.

Other changes are occurring in online learning. In fact, online education now can allow students to review lectures as needed, rather than feeling pressure to pick up the material the first time around. One of these new technological advancements is the video lecture that allows for pauses for an individual to check their comprehension -- a method that is showing dramatic improvements in knowledge retention and test scores down the line, according to Coursera Co-founder Dr. Daphne Koller in her TED talk "What We're Learning From Online Education."  Even in traditional classrooms, teachers are putting assignments online to reap the benefits of the student data that can be gathered, review information and change lesson plans to suit.

Is online education right for you?

If you're looking for a traditional college experience replete with football games, keggers and terrible parking, then you may want to go the campus route. If these are not what you're after, you may find that online education can be a good fit for you. Here are a few ways online education can work for you:

It's never too late to think about a degree and a career, and online education can help make these more accessible. Keep in mind that a degree never guarantees a salary or even the launch of a particular career, but talking to an advisor at the school you are interested in may be the starting point for expanding your education.

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