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10 eLearning Questions You Wish You Had Answered

by Paul Rosevear

If you're like many considering eLearning as a way to advance your career or continue your education, you might find the world of online education as confusing as it is intriguing. For those of you wondering how a college experience can be delivered on a computer, we've compiled answers to 10 frequently asked questions about distance learning from seasoned professionals.

1 - Can I earn my degree 100 percent online?
"You can complete your degree entirely online, and the people who truly have committed themselves to it have the possibility of getting an even better experience online than in the classroom," says Dr. Anthony Davidson, professor and assistant dean at New York University Online, which recently launched its first online bachelor's degree programs for adult students. "They take classes together and never meet each other, yet they behave like other college students would, asking each other what courses they've signed up for next semester, etc.," he explains.

"The technology is such that I can actually have great interaction with my students," adds Davidson. "There is a whiteboard available for me to communicate with them; they watch me lecture on live video; I can run PowerPoint presentations; share applications; and break the students into groups in separate chat rooms - everything I'd do in an on-campus classroom."

2 - What are some suggestions for finding a quality online program?
"Unfortunately, it's very easy to develop a slick Web site that can be deceptive about a program's quality," says Paula O'Callaghan, director of the Independent Study MBA Program at Syracuse University's Martin J. Whitman School of Management. O'Callaghan also wrote the forward to "The Idiot's Guide to Getting Your MBA Online" (Alpha Books, 2005).

"Look for accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)," she explains. "That is the toughest thing [for MBA course developers] to earn, so those schools certainly have quality programs. There are anywhere from 800-1,000 business schools in the U.S. and about 300 have that accreditation. Of those, maybe 40 are offering an online MBA."

Believe it or not, just knowing a school should be accredited isn't enough. You need to find out who is conferring the accreditation, and if that particular accreditation is recognized. The recognizers? Washington, D.C.-based Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), a private nonprofit national organization, and the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). They each review the quality and effectiveness of accrediting organizations, recognizing many of the same ones, but not all. USDE recognition is required for institutions that seek eligibility for federal student financial aid, and CHEA recognition confers academic legitimacy.

"Beyond accreditation, look for a curriculum that is the same as a school's brick-and-mortar program," says O'Callaghan. And here is an obvious one - is this a school people have heard of? "If you ask around, and no one has heard of it, that's not a good sign."

3 - Will I have to keep myself accountable to get my work done?
"If you're a procrastinator, you're going to have a challenge in any learning environment," explains Connie Bosse, dean of undergraduate students at Kaplan University. Online students, especially, need to be self-motivated. "Those are the people who really succeed online. They are dedicated, comfortable working on the computer, and really involve themselves in the experience," she says.

Bosse points out the array of responsibilities present in the online environment that you wouldn't necessarily find in a brick-and-mortar school. "You'll need to report in throughout the week and make contributions to message boards or interact with your professor. At Kaplan, we have a synchronized seminar, so you're in a virtual classroom. If you don't show up to do the work, the teacher is going to say you weren't there."

4 - Must I be a good writer?
"Written communication skills are critical to college-level learning, both in the traditional classroom as well as in electronic learning environments," explains Pete Smith, director of distance education at the University of Texas (Arlington, TX). "But even if writing is not your strength at the start, one thing is certain - you will very quickly become a better writer in most distance education class settings. Why? The answer is quite logical - practice, practice, practice.

"Instead of relying on listening and speaking skills alone, as one might in an on-campus classroom, the distance education student works more intensively via e-mail and online discussion groups in the typical distance class," he explains. "So, too, will all of your fellow class members, as well as your teacher." What may have been spoken conversation, debate, or presentation in a traditional classroom will oftentimes take place in written form online. As a result, participants read and write intensively, which research tells us makes better readers and writers," adds Smith.

5 - What is the difference between asynchronous and synchronous education?
"Asynchronous classes are where students interact with the course material, instructor, and other students at any time," explains David Wright, director of curriculum innovation and eLearning at the University of Dayton. In other words, the interaction occurs independently of when other students are online. This is usually the most flexible because students choose when and how to log on and learn.

"The synchronous approach - where everyone has to be online at exactly the same time - is more like a real class," he continues. "The University of Dayton uses software that allows students to watch lecture slides, hear a professor giving the class, and allows a program to behave in a manner that is most closely like a traditional face-to-face program."

6 - Will I get just as good of an education as I would in a traditional classroom?
"The important thing is that if you deliver education online in a high-quality way and if you've made the high-quality investments that need to be made, you can get the equivalent, if not greater," says Brian Mueller, CEO of University of Phoenix Online. "We've developed a successful model for delivering education online, and an assessment process in place to gauge results. Students can definitely make gains equal to an on-campus situation, if not exceed them."

According to the Sloan Consortium, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of online education, 40.7 percent of schools offering online courses agree that students are at least as satisfied with their online courses as their on-campus courses. Only 3.1 percent disagree.

What's important, explains Mueller, is that students have the same basic foundation they would have on campus. "Students need an extensive library available to them online. They need writing labs and math labs. They need to have the same learning support, or better than what they have in a brick-and-mortar situation."

When researching, ask whether faculty members are thoroughly trained on how to be effective online instructors. "Having a faculty member who is well-trained can make online learning as social as, if not more social than, a typical on-campus experience," affirms Mueller.

7 - What are the differences between the various Web platforms?
"I'd say it doesn't matter what system the institution is using," says Allan Gyorke, instructional technology manager for Penn State World Campus. "The three most prominent ones are Web CT, Blackboard, and Angel, and they are all slightly different, but it shouldn't impact at which school you choose to study.

"The platforms vary in terms of their implementation of the course tools," he continues. "So, for example, they all have quizzing capabilities. But Web CT has the most advanced quizzing features. However, it's also the most expensive platform, and a little more difficult to use," he explains. "Each system is going to have the same basic features - an internal e-mail system, Instant Messenger, movies, Flash, multimedia, ways of reporting grades and tracking student progress, and so on."

Make sure your school provides a good support system for whatever platform you're working in, he adds. "Who can you call if you've got a question or a problem?" Gyorke asks. "Make sure your support network is accessible."

8 - How will my professors know I'm not cheating?
"Pepperdine University's program is built on social-constructivist theory and relies on group projects, journaling, and synchronous online participation to evaluate students rather than traditional tests," says Dr. Paul Sparks, director of the school's online master's program in educational technology.

"It's impossible to cheat in such an environment simply because teachers, and other students, can easily hear the 'voices' of their colleagues through the various interactions. You could say our solution to this online learning issue is treating learning as a community activity quite resistant to cheating and fraud."

9 - How can I be certain my degree will have value?
"In the same way that for-profit, degree-granting, brick-and-mortar programs are beginning to gain traction, so, too, are online programs," says Peter Cervieri, senior vice president of marketing at ScribeStudio, a company that creates distance learning coursework. "Many online programs teach skills that employers have highlighted as areas of weakness in the U.S., and employers know it."

Yet a recent survey conducted by Eduventures, an information services company for the education market, showed that 36 percent of people who were skeptical about online education cited questionable employer acceptance as a point of concern.

"The reality we face in America is that employees are busy and companies are demanding that they acquire new skills at a much higher pace than in the past," says Cervieri. "Online learning is viewed by employers as an acceptable way to achieve this goal - to learn a skill or get a degree outside of work hours."

10 - Is it beneficial to have a campus component to online learning?
"[A campus component] clearly helps students bond with each other and the institution," says Robert Colley, associate dean at Syracuse University Continuing Education. "More and more, however, the lives of adult students demand convenience and mobility, so institutions are going with purely online delivery. This requires much more planning and creative course design, since one has to create a virtual community of learning and a bond between distance students and teachers.

"It also depends on the level and nature of the educational experience," he continues. "Some advanced degrees with much discussion and collaboration benefit from short residencies. Corporations use this 'blended' approach increasingly for executive education, but again -- more advanced [learning] techniques geared toward distance students is gradually making this obsolete."