What is Online Learning?
Online learning, also known as distance learning or e-learning, is an educational option for students who wish to take a course or even earn a degree without attending on-campus classes. Most brick-and-mortar colleges and universities have online divisions. Students in online courses have instructors and classmates, just as they would in an on-campus course. Instructors and students can communicate extensively through e-mail, Web message boards, chat sessions and video conferences, although they may never meet face-to-face.
Why Choose Online Learning?
Some students choose online learning so they can maintain full-time employment while completing coursework on their own schedules. Others are similarly busy with family obligations. Online learning is a common choice for students in the military, since it allows them to continue their studies no matter where they're stationed. Some online learners live in rural areas, too far away to commute to a campus; others live in foreign countries but pursue online study through a U.S. school. Yet other students simply prefer the convenience of learning from home.
Regardless of their reasons for enrolling in a distance-learning program, online students need to be comfortable using a computer and the Internet. Writing skills are also essential, since almost all interaction in an online program occurs through written communication. Online learners can't take advantage of the physical and verbal cues people use in face-to-face conversation and discussion, so it's important that students express themselves clearly and thoroughly with their words.
Online Program Formats
Programs and courses can be found in fully online format or through a combination of online and on-campus work. This second option is known as a 'hybrid' format.
Fully Online Programs
Fully online courses usually utilize a Web-based learning system that students and instructors log into. Two common e-learning systems are Blackboard and Moodle. These systems allow students to access things like course announcements, syllabi, discussion boards, reading materials and assignments. Some systems have built-in instant messaging capabilities so that students can see when their peers are online and contact them directly.
Students can even conduct group projects over a Web-based system through features like shared document editing. Small groups can write reports and presentations together online, tracking one another's changes.
Hybrid programs and courses also utilize Web-based learning systems, but they require students to attend some sessions in person. The hybrid format is frequently used for fields of study that involve hands-on work, especially lab work. For example, students in a hybrid biology course might study cellular structures online, using readings and diagrams, after which they might attend an on-campus lab to conduct a related experiment.
A particular type of hybrid program is known as a 'low-residency' program. The low-residency format requires students to attend periodic on-campus sessions; for example, students might spend a week on campus at the beginning of each semester. During this time, students often meet their classmates, attend seminars and participate in group discussions. Typically, they also meet extensively with their advisors to develop a plan of study for the semester. After the residency, students return home and complete the rest of their work for the semester online.
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning
Some online courses follow a schedule that requires the students and instructor to all meet online at the same time. Known as 'synchronous' learning, this type of online learning occurs in real-time. Synchronous courses are likely to use technology such as webinars, virtual classrooms or audio-video conferencing. These courses approximate an in-person classroom experience, giving students a closer social connection with their peers.
Conversely, 'asynchronous' online learning does not use a set schedule. A class might conduct a discussion over a message board, with students posting their contributions whenever they log on. A benefit to asynchronous learning is that students have all the time they need to develop and phrase their ideas. In addition, there is no pressure to respond like there is in a live classroom, whether virtual or on-campus.
Areas of Study
Countless areas can be studied through online learning, from business to history to computer science. Even art can be studied online; students can submit their artwork electronically by scanning 2-D work, photographing 3-D work or using a tablet and stylus to draw digitally. Instructors can then hold virtual group critiques.
Students might pursue online learning to complete a full degree - such as an associate's degree in human resources - or to earn a few credits. For example, a student pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing through an on-campus program might take some general education courses online, like math or communications, for convenience.
Online learning is particularly well suited to graduate students, since they already have knowledge and experience in their fields. Graduate students are usually focused on conducting research and completing original work, whether scholarly or creative. Close contact with an advisor, such as through e-mail and instant messaging, is an important part of any online graduate program that involves a thesis or dissertation.
Programs vary according to the field of study; in an online Master of Science in Nursing program, students might complete a number of advanced courses online, then do their clinical work on campus or at a local healthcare facility. Online Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing programs sometimes take a low-residency format, in which students workshop their writing and attend author readings during the residency. Some MFA programs also utilize Web conferencing software to continue workshops online throughout the semester. Online Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs may also use a low-residency format, giving students the opportunity to network with other professionals.