Getting the most out of an online education

Fri Oct 19, 2012 3:29pm EDT

A teacher speaks at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School while his students use their laptops during a class in Dorchester, Massachusetts June 20, 2008. REUTERS/Adam Hunger

A teacher speaks at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School while his students use their laptops during a class in Dorchester, Massachusetts June 20, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Adam Hunger

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(Reuters) - Online learning just got a lot bigger: Last week the University of Texas announced plans to bring its nine universities and six health institutions to the Internet.

Courses from the state higher education system will soon be offered via edX, the $60 million initiative launched last spring by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to provide free, Web-based classes. The University of California at Berkeley joined forces with edX in July, and now Texas will invest $5 million.

EdX is only one of several online platforms offering so-called MOOCs, or "massive open online courses." Rival startup Coursera, founded by two Stanford University computer science professors and funded by Silicon Valley venture capital, last month added 17 top institutions to its roster, including Columbia University, the University of London and the University of Science and Technology. A total of 33 Coursera university partners teach courses in a broad range of subjects, from electrical engineering to modern poetry to neuroethics. More than 1.5 million students have enrolled.

Welcome to the brave new world of higher education. Already, about 10 percent of college graduates earn degrees online, according to EducationDynamics research. Workers especially are turning to online courses to improve their job credentials, whether it's to get a foot in the door, move up the ladder or change careers. Employers are embracing the trend, too; a recent survey found 99 percent of Fortune 1,000 corporations allowed tuition reimbursement for Web-based training.

As online learning continues to expand rapidly, it pays to be a savvy consumer. Quality and price can vary as much — and sometimes more — as in any traditional degree program, and students are smart to do their homework on accreditation, time commitment and cost upfront.

Here are some pointers for how to get the most out of an online education:

KNOW WHAT YOU'RE SIGNING UP FOR

Hugo Martins, a civil engineer from Faro, Portugal, was drawn to the online course "How to Build a Startup" offered by Udacity, another MOOC platform because of its teacher, legendary Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank. Since the course cost is free, Martins figured he had little to lose.

"If I do not find it to have impact, I stop," Martins said. Midway through the course, he has no plans to drop it.

Indeed, MOOCs can provide unparallel learning opportunities taught by world-class faculty with no money down. So far, though, none award academic credit or degrees, just certificates of completion. And the jury is still out on how managers will value online certificates in the hiring process.

"With MOOCs, there isn't a quantifiable way to assess what the student has gained," said Carol Aslanian of the market research firm EducationDynamics. "Firms don't know what kind of value or weight to give them yet."

At least for now, she adds, a MOOC certificate is more likely to sweeten your resume than get you hired -- and that's only if you already hold a four-year degree.

Coursera did not respond for requests to comment.

Studies indicate that about 90 percent of online learners are signing up for professional gain. So, while MOOCs are getting all the attention at the moment, even more students each year enroll in fee-based online degree or certificate programs.

"More and more employers are beginning to recognize the value of an online degree and don't even distinguish from a more traditional path," Aslanian said. "Going online can be the easiest way for most working professionals to access a new credential."

Some online educators are brick-and-mortar institutions, such as Penn State, Duke or University of Nebraska, which are expanding their cyber footprint. Others, such as the nonprofit Western Governors University, operate solely on the Internet. Law, business, information technology and healthcare are among the most popular subjects to study.

Brittany Martin, a product manager at Pittsburgh startup SnapRetail, said the lack of a credential at the end shouldn't dissuade students from using MOOCs for career advancement. She has taken several Coursera classes to improve her coding skills and sees them as equal in value to the MBA she's pursuing in the classrooms of Robert Morris University.

"At the end of it, I am able to walk away with a project that I can show employers," she said. Plus, she has been able to network with classmates who work nearby. "How useful it is depends more on the effort you put in."

CHECK FOR ACCREDITATION

Adding oomph to your job credentials with an online course can often depend on the institution where you take it. One key step is ensuring that the provider is properly accredited.

"You want that security," said Patricia Book of the Center for Lifelong Learning at the American Council on Education (ACE). "Like with any higher education degree, reputation and quality matter."

Two quick stops for more information are ACE's website and the U.S. Department of Education.

UNDERSTAND THE COSTS

Costs can range from free for MOOCs (for now) to $60,000 for full-degree programs. The number of years you'll commit to coursework varies by program. Online educators will frequently offer the same financial aid options as a traditional campus — that is, some scholarships but mostly student loans.

Mike Lambert, executive director of the independent nonprofit Distance Education and Training Council, said a course shouldn't cost any more than $250 per credit hour.

"If the price is higher than that, it should raise a red flag," he said. "Understand what the total financial obligation is before you jump in."

Naturally, it pays to see whether your employer will cover some or all of the expense.

RECOGNIZE YOUR OWN LEARNING STYLE

Online learning is not for everyone. One way to know whether you'll be a good fit is to take a self-assessment quiz before enrolling. Schools generally offer these short questionnaires on their websites. Questions probe how well you set personal deadlines as well as how good your computer skills are.

Joan Thormann, a professor of technology and education at Lesley University, recommends asking to see a professor's syllabus before enrolling in a course as well as any evaluations by past students. "Don't be afraid to press a faculty member about his or her teaching style," Thormann said. "How responsive they are will tell you what to expect during the course as well."

(Editing By Lauren Young and Douglas Royalty)

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