Getting Started: Equipping Yourself For Success
All online learning programs differ in how they work and the type of equipment they require. Some courses are done through learning management systems, such as Canvas or Blackboard, where students review lecture material and complete assignments. Others are done using live video lectures where students meet as a virtual class.
These are some of the most basic equipment pieces you may need to begin an online learning program:
Access to an up-to-date computer (preferably made within the last three years) – it’s best to have a laptop or desktop, as most tablets won’t be adequate for online programs
Webcam/microphone – Most newer laptops come equipped with both
Headphones – These are optional but make it easier to study and attend lectures if you can’t find a quiet space
Built-in or external speakers
Laptops that fulfill these requirements can be purchased for as little as $250. Your school may have other school supply requirements, including laptop memory and processor requirements. Check your school’s website for specific technology recommendations.
If you don't have access to this type of technology, there are several alternative options. Public libraries usually provide access to computers and high-speed internet, although this method may not be sustainable in the long-term.
Many organizations offer free or low-cost laptops, desktops, and discounted internet access for low-income families. Here are a few resources for students who demonstrate financial need:
Some schools offer free or discounted laptops or lease equipment for students as well. Check your institution’s financial aid hub or a financial aid advisor for more information.
If you have a computer with wireless capability but no internet connection in your home, there are still many ways of getting online. For example, free and low-fee Internet networks offered through local businesses, such as coffee shops and bookstores, would be great for accessing accredited online learning programs. Your public library also likely offers free wifi. There may be low-cost internet opportunities in your area as well. Check with your local internet providers to find discounts for low-income families or students.
The Online Learning Structure
The increasing number of online degree programs means it's becoming easier to choose an online school that fits your needs. If you're worried that distance education might be too isolating, many accredited online programs offer synchronous courses consisting of streaming video lectures and live chat discussions. If you like to make your own schedule, many programs are completely asynchronous – that is, you can do your coursework any time you like.
Most online degree programs will use both types of courses. Some courses will have recorded audio or video lectures followed by exercises or quizzes. Others will provide text online, requiring the student to complete essays and send them to the instructor.
Many classes will have a discussion component. In asynchronous classes, this discussion will consist of a message board, with students posting their thoughts and responding to others over several days. In synchronous classes, discussions will occur using a designated chat room, video chat, or instant messaging.
Types of Online Classes
Not all online courses have the same delivery method or time commitment. Depending on your course type, you can expect a more or less flexible online class experience. The major types of online classes include the following:
Types of Distance Learning
There are several forms of distance learning, and many institutions use a combination of methods to teach their students. However, there are four common distance learning techniques: open schedule, blended learning, computer-based learning, and fixed time e-learning.
Things to Keep in Mind While Selecting an Online School
Choosing the right online college and degree can be extremely difficult. With hundreds of institutions and programs currently operating online, it's easy to get bogged down by the seemingly endless amount of research you must conduct to make an informed decision. This may be one of the most important decisions you make in your lifetime, but information is available to help guide your way when applying to college.
The number of degrees and subjects an online school offers can vary greatly. Some schools may offer only one fully online degree, while others offer one hundred or more different degree options to online students. Whether or not a school offers your desired degree will likely be the most important attribute of a school to you, so it's worth looking into program offerings early on in your decision-making process. If you're unsure what you want to study and would like time to take classes in multiple program areas, find a school that offers multiple degrees that interest you. This will prevent you from the lengthy and frustrating process of transferring schools.
One thing to consider when evaluating programs is whether or not there is an in-person component and where that component needs to be completed. For many professions, such as teaching or social work, a hands-on practicum may be required for licensure. Graduates with professional experience or credentials, such as an internship or certification, will have an advantage when seeking post-graduation employment.
Accreditation is an important thing to consider when deciding which school to apply to. Accreditation is a mark of excellence that tells students, employers, and other schools that you have received a quality education. Attending an accredited program ensures the time and money you spend on your education is worth it, so you should confirm that whichever school you attend has been accredited by a well-respected agency. Accrediting agencies take the time to ensure that the training and knowledge you receive are up-to-date, enriching, and respected by employers. Many different accrediting bodies are well known for upholding high standards in education. These accrediting agencies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Higher Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Note the difference between regional and national accreditation, as well as the importance of institutional accreditation. If the subject you want to study has an associated programmatic accrediting agency, you should consider whether it's important to you if your chosen program has been recognized by this agency.
Do you have credits from prior college experience? Do you expect that you may need to transfer to another college before finishing your degree? If so, it's important to talk to counselors at your college about the possibility of transferring your credits. Transfer credits can help save time and money on your degree, but colleges review credit transfers on a case-by-case basis and are not required to accept credits from other institutions.
Often, colleges will only accept credits from schools or programs that have been accredited by the same type of accrediting agency.
The reputation of the school that you attend may affect how your degree is perceived by employers and other institutions. This is especially true for online programs, which can vary in quality. Attending an online program that is widely respected and well-liked increases the likelihood that you will be satisfied with your education and feel prepared to enter the field. Getting your degree will take a lot of time, effort, and money; therefore, it's important to understand the reputation of the school that will be giving you your degree when you graduate.
Tuition and Financial Aid
The cost of college is highly variable, and a higher cost does not necessarily mean better education. No matter how you plan to finance your college education, you likely do not have unlimited resources to spend. Look closely at the cost of each school and consider how it compares to other colleges. We've listed the annual tuition for each school, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, in our school lists.
If you plan to take advantage of federal financial aid, whether in the form of grants, work-study programs, or loans, it's important to ensure the school you attend is eligible to participate in federal financial aid programs. Schools often offer various financial aid and support services, including institutional scholarships and free laptops, for online students as well.
For more information about financial aid and other ways to fund your education, check out our Financial Aid section.
Traditional campus-based colleges are known for a vast array of student services, including tutoring, libraries, and career services. Some online colleges offer these services as well. These services can often enhance the college experience and the success a student sees after graduation. Decide which services you would likely take advantage of, and find schools that provide them.