Recently, it seems like every nook and cranny of Internet browser space is crammed with a banner ad for online education. Whether the source is the ubiquitous University of Phoenix or the obscure Roosevelt University—where, incidentally, you can receive an online education in online education—these schools have become the bread and butter of many websites’ advertising incomes.

It’s no surprise that the electronic learning industry has a plethora of cash to devote to advertising, given that according to conservative estimates, the worldwide industry is worth over 50 billion U.S. dollars. And as technologies improve—bringing faster Internet to users and more interactivity to the e-classroom—that number is likely to increase. Online education has become a veritable nest egg for the emerging educational market.

The Sloan Consortium, an authority on institutions of higher education, places the yearly growth of online education at roughly 25 percent. This is probably due, in part, to the proliferation of fast and affordable Internet access. However, new Internet traffickers cannot receive all the credit. As traditional universities see the boon of online education, more are stepping over the fence into the pastures of E-learning. Institutions like Harvard and Stanford, with their inveterate teaching practices and traditionally post-high school students, are now offering an increasing number of virtual classes to accommodate the busy lives and demanding needs of today’s students.
Career websites, such as careerbuilders.com and monster.com, provide a cybernetic onslaught of flashing messages, like “Earn your degree in 1 year!” or “Want to earn more $$$?” Following one of these omni-present links can draw a person into a spiraling vortex of personal questions and demands for contact information. However, before one plunges into this whirlpool of unwanted calls and E-mails, he or she should take a step back and consider the options.

Whether a campus is virtual or brick, one should do his or her homework even before entering school. Most schools will purport the “flexibility and convenience” of their programs; this sort of goes without saying, given that all online universities eliminate the need to commute to or sit in class. Yet the question remains: Is the school a good investment of time and money?
Before so much as batting an eyelash at an online college or university, one should find out of the institution is accredited.  An institution that is not accredited may well be a diploma/degree mill. These businesses, for a price, issue degrees or diplomas to a person based almost entirely on past experience, requiring one to devote little if any time to a classroom. A college or university, whether online or not, generally should be either regionally or nationally accredited, meaning that it abides with certain private or federal standards. A university’s accreditation is also usually a pre-requisite to receive private or federal funding, such as the funds granted from filing out a Federal Application For Student Aid (FAFSA).

Finding an online learning environment also requires a certain degree of practicality and pragmatism on a student’s part. Many online institutions provide a gamut of business- and computer-related programs, which accommodate the internet environment; yet one cannot help but puzzle at the logistics of certain career and trade programs. Penn Foster Career School, for example, offers a slew of hands-on vocations, including locksmithing, gunsmithing, plumbing, and appliance repair. One can perhaps imagine how a week’s lesson in appliance repair would go:

(1)    Go into your kitchen.
(2)    Unplug and pick up coffee maker.
(3)    Throw coffee maker against wall.
(4)    Refer to book (p. 83) for how to repair broken coffee maker.

The point of this example is to elucidate the  practicality one needs whenexploring online education. You may receive a degree or certificate in plumbing, for instance, but whether a client will take you seriously and let you near his or her toilet—or whether you can repair it—is another matter. One should remember the same principle applies to e-learning as traditional learning: A degree is more than a piece of paper; it’s experience.

Prospective students of online education often stumble face first into another common pitfall—they’re so starry-eyed with a career prospect that they fail to look at the ground and see where they’re going. Students of online universities traditionally have full-time family or work commitments, yet for one reason or another (usually inadequate pay), the student is dissatisfied with his or her position. But the prospective student, who watches all one-hundred-and-fifty of the current CSI spin-offs, believes with absolute confidence that he or she wants to be a Criminal Scene Investigator. Or perhaps a nurse or doctor, like on Gray’s Anatomy. Whatever the student’s desired career (or favorite show), he or she needs to be prepared to research the job and uncover what sort of educational background is necessary. One is unlikely to get experience taking blood from a patient in an e-learning environment, and he or she should be aware of this before dedicating the time and money to a program.

And when push comes to shove, most online universities are still businesses that exist to make a profit. While a school’s admission advisor or telemarketer might seem to have one’s best interests at heart, the student should remain skeptical. Evasive language, like how a student “may” be able to get a career as a CSI, or “should” be able to make more money, is not to be confused with promises. The future for any student is unpredictable. As online education becomes more widely accepted, a student’s post-educational opportunities will improve. Like any large expenditure, education is an investment, and before one requests the information from one of those banner ads—let alone, applies to the school—he or she should research the investment carefully and weigh the options on how best to pursue one’s education and dreams.

Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Online_education
http://www.epi.org/content.cfm/webfeatures_snapshots_20060524  

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