What Every Student Should Know About Online Learning

This article has been reprinted here with permission from the author.


John E. Reid, Jr. Ph.D.
Coordinator of Distance Education Technology
Kennesaw State University,
Kennesaw Georgia.

Dee Baxley and Russell Smith would be the first to tell you that taking a college course over the Internet was one of the best experiences of their academic lives. As students enrolled in Shorter College’s Professional Program in Marietta, Georgia both agree that having the opportunity to learn by navigating the Internet has taught them more about their course of study then they could have ever imagined.

Baxley is an adult student on a mission. With just under three years for completion of her General Education degree, the administrative assistant for The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta believes that exposure to an online class has helped significantly with time management. With limited access to local library resources on weekends, Baxley is happy that world-wide choices at anytime provide her with some very viable options. Smith, at age 26 is also moving ahead with his career as a Financial Sales analyst for Pitney Bowles. Working in the Southeastern Region he devotes much of his time to trends analysis, reporting findings to executive officers and senior management. A General Education major with an eye on someday pursuing a Business Degree, Smith feels that the melding of Internet technology with educational studies has arrived on the scene just in time for him. "For adults returning to pursue their education," Smith suggests "this form of study might be the right approach."

Computer-Mediated Distance Education

Most of our students haven’t heard about computer-mediated distance education yet because the whole idea is relatively new and is now just beginning to catch on. Traditional resistance in academe seems to be limited to a few as the more technologically adept are embracing the idea of legitimizing the "virtual classroom." According to Dr. Bob Roper, an educational researcher, approximately 600 courses are now offered on the Internet by 35 different academic institutions. That number is growing as more assessment, study and research continues to point the way. "The Carnegie Unit is no longer an appropriate model for structuring the classrooms of higher education," according to John Murphy, Senior Vice President for Institutional Affairs for the Apollo Group. Murphy argues that "advancements not only in technology, but in the sciences of instruction and curriculum development along with assessment have made online instruction a desirable and efficient alternative." He points to the success of the University of Phoenix and its program that currently enrolls 1100 degree seeking students, all via a virtual learning environment. With a 65 percent graduation rate, UOP’s success lends credibility to the notion of a learning paradigm shift.

Virtual Online Education

By definition, "virtual education" is the study of credit and non credit courses from world-wide remote sites that are neither bound by time or physical location. In essence, a student hooks up with other students and an instructor in both real and virtual time. Whether in a plane comfortably cruising at 33,000 feet, or at home, at any given moment a student can log into a virtual classroom. From desktop or laptop, e-mail assignments can be sent and received. Study, research, discovery and new knowledge are at a student’s fingertips. It is here that the student’s enthusiasm level is piqued.

Finding the right program—Thanks to Internet search engines like Lycos, Excite, Yahoo, anyone interested in discovering more about online study can do so by simply typing in keywords such as "Online Courses," "Virtual Universities," "Continuing Education," and "Online Distance Education". An example page 2 Going back to school online of this type of search resulted in the discovery of The CASO Guide (http://www.caso.com). Here a number of pages have been created expressly for the purpose of compiling a substantial database of information. The CASO Guide is designed so that users can easily choose courses spanning a broad range of disciplines. In addition CAS0 also indexes documentation regarding the providers of Internet-based courses. This is particularly useful for those seeking organizational information along with vital school statistics, such as tuition, fees and policies. The CASO Internet University Course Index is most impressive, breaking down course listings across twenty-four categories. Included are courses in the Arts, Economics, Business, Health Sciences, Psychology and Sociology. A nice descriptive feature, each category lists how many courses are offered in a particular discipline. Under Communications for instance 23 course offerings are made through several accredited colleges and universities. Schools offering online programs—Nationally, schools such as the University of Wisconsin, The University of Massachusetts and Penn state are conferring B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees along with continuing education and elective courses. Among the leaders in computer-mediated distance education are Nova Southeastern University (57 courses), The University of Phoenix (60 courses) and the New York Institute of Technology (106 courses). Smaller schools such as Rogers State College (33 courses), Antioch University (7 courses) and Norwich University (2 courses) are also offering online study. In Atlanta, Shorter College’s Professional Program (2 courses) is actively engaged in developing an online curriculum. It’s new MBA program is computerized and plans are in the offing for a complete leadership curriculum delivered solely over the "net".. The good news is that the cost of attending anyone of these schools will normally be no different than the advertised bulletin fees. In most cases out- of-state fees are waived with full credit or non-credit hours being earned just as if a student was attending class on campus.

Computer-mediated distance education-is it for everyone? Since the main objective is to give everyone an opportunity to enroll in an online class, it is important to advise prospective students considering credit or non-credit study. This form of learning may not be for everyone however, at least not initially. Listed below are several key considerations that faculty and advisors may wish to consider:

1. Advise students not to be too quick to enroll in a full course of online study. They should first introduce themselves to the use of technology by enrolling in an elective course offered over the Internet. Generally these courses require less commitment to time and study and will give a "first timer" an approximate means of gauging how well they will perform in future classes. The advice given should be, "don’t bite off more than you can chew."

2. Next, these classes tend to circumvent scheduling problems by allowing learners to make choices as to where and when they study and participate. This can also be the Achilles heel for some of the more disorganized in the student population. It’s just too easy to put off study with all the freedom technology provides. Perhaps the biggest problem is going to be letting tasks and time get away. A high degree of time management skills are needed for assured success. These skills are a absolute necessity and as such should be stressed over and over.

3. A big part of computer-mediated education is making the student more responsible for self-learning. Instructors in the online environment facilitate, leaving the student to find their own way. Some students like the idea of having an instructor meeting and leading class discussion with them at a regular time. In the virtual classroom, students and instructors come and go at all hours. Some learners are sure to discover that this form of communication is difficult for them. How well they do at learning on their own will have a significant bearing on performance.

4. Enough cannot be stressed about the students ability to navigate around the Internet. Using a variety of search engines and database managers is a prerequisite for most courses. Knowing how to use the World Wide Web, Newsgroups, FTP and e-mail for research and study are all part of the necessary tools a student should possess. A few weeks of navigation using the free demo time provided by Internet service providers service will get some of the weaker student’s pointed in the right direction. Still, it is suggested that proficiency tests be administered to any student who shows an interest in a computer-mediated class.

Something to think about

The shift in the teaching and learning paradigm (the old Carnegie model) is steadily evolving as technology itself does (the Computer-mediated model). Students are becoming more responsible for discovery and self-learning while teachers take on the role of facilitator. Occupying a seat in a physical classroom for a specific period of time is fast becoming the exception rather than the rule. With online access and a desktop or portable computer, students are never more than a phone call away from the classroom.

For adult learners Dee Baxley and Russell Smith, learning over the Internet has meant that critical and undefined work schedules don’t have to keep them from their educational goals. Both agree that computer-mediated distance education is at the cutting edge of instructional delivery and the future growth of technology will offer them even more opportunities. This according to Baxley is "just another magnificent demonstration of the Internet’s capabilities."


Dr. Reid is Coordinator of Distance Education Technology for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw Georgia. He is also President of JER Group, Inc. producers of online courses for computer savvy learners and the Internet’s first WebPosition Online Workshop and Tutorial (see http://www.onlineworkshops.com)