Pursuing an undergraduate or post-graduate degree can be one of the most important, rewarding, and daunting challenges of your life. While many students still opt to pursue a traditional on-campus schooling experience, opportunities for remote learning through online education are rapidly expanding in scope, quality, and respectability.

When choosing whether or not to pursue an online education, a number of factors should be at the forefront of your mind. Affordability, quality of instruction, and future marketability of your degree should be carefully weighed against your own personal goals. Our guide is here to provide you with the highest quality information on the do’s and don’ts of online education. Also, suggestions for enhancing the quality of your online learning experience.

Some questions to ask yourself while reading this guide should include, what do I hope to gain from an online education? How much time do I have to devote to an online education? What am I willing to pay for online education? Am I willing to go into debt? Do I have the time management and willpower to complete assignments on my own? And, for my purposes do I need a degree or a skill set? These questions should be carefully considered before deciding if online education is the proper choice for you.


Who does it?

6.7 million students took at least one online class in the fall of 2011. This is an 8.5% increase from the year before. With the two years before showing 10.1% and 21.1% increases, there has been a 39.7% increase in online students over the past three years. This brings the total number of online students to 1/3 of all higher education students. The number of online learners is much higher if you include certificate or skillset centered programs, as well as non-degree courses online.

Online education has been a staple of continuing education in the workplace for years. With the expansion of curriculum and affordability it has become a viable alternative to night school and traditional continuing education classes, as well as normal schooling. 65.5% of all academic chief officers report that “online education is critical to their long-term strategy.”

This being said, business men/women, working parents, returning students, new students, traditional students, and those just wanting to learn a skill or fill out their education are all a part of the online education community. And the prevalence, affordability, and ease of access to quality online education is projected to continue to rise for some time.



"Online courses are easier"
Online courses from reputable institutions may very well be harder than the same course in a classroom setting. Along with covering the same material, students must be self-motivated and good at managing their time. Unlike some classroom courses, no one is babysitting you, and you probably aren’t surrounded by people taking the same class.

"Online degrees are not respected"
The key here is, are you attending an accredited program? The same accrediting bodies monitor online education as monitor traditional colleges. Institutional accreditation refers to an entire institution’s accreditation status. Programmatic accreditation refers to one particular program (i.e. an engineering, nursing, or social work school). If you are not sure whether or not an online program is well respected in regards to accreditation practices. Some important questions to ask include:

  • Does the organization allow accredited status (or degrees) to be purchased?
  • Are few, if any, standards for quality published by the organization?
  • Is the organization’s name similar to those used by recognized accrediting agencies (but not exactly the same)?
  • Does the organization make claims for which there is no evidence?
  • Are there few requirements for accreditation (or graduation)?

"Online courses only take place on the computer"
Just as traditional courses begin in the classroom, and oftentimes send students out into the world around them. Online courses often prompt students to begin field research, projects in the community, and research at local libraries. Just because a course is online does not mean it doesn’t involve utilizing resources elsewhere.

"Online courses do not tailor instruction to individual students"
Here is where you really need to be honest with yourself about what type of learner you are. Some students are comfortable working through online materials alone, and others need interaction with their peers, demonstrations, and Q and A time with their instructors. The latter type of learners should check to see if the courses they are embarking upon offer virtual meetings with the instructors. Many courses offer weekly consultations on skype, via chat, or even on the phone with instructors. This component of a program is oftentimes mentioned on the program’s website, or on a course by course basis on syllabi.

"Students are much more likely to cheat online"
Studies have shown that students are no less likely to cheat in an online environment than in a traditional classroom setting. Many online testing programs provide ways to track and deter cheating behavior, and, over time professors become good at identifying the “voice” of student writing, answers, and test taking habits.

"There are no attendance policies in online classes"
For some classes this is true. But for many classes, particularly with live video feeds, there are attendance policies very similar to traditional classes. If you are not able to commit to saving the time for when the class is held, make sure to check the attendance policy!

"Online classes do not require the purchasing of a physical textbook"
For some classes, all of the materials are online. And many online classes do have more materials online than traditional classes. Many online courses, however, do require the purchasing of many of the same materials a traditional class would require. Consult the class syllabi.

"All I have to do is turn in the homework on time and take exams"
Online discussions are often required. Even if not required, those that participate in online discussion often receive higher grades in the course. Discussion is a crucial part of mastering a topic.

"Online education works for everyone"
No, online education works best for somewhat skilled and highly motivated students. Many studies show that students that are already struggling very much benefit from having face to face interactions with a student peer group and professor.


Assessing your options

Are you seeking an online degree and planning to take a full course load online until you graduate? Are you supplementing traditional courses with a few online courses? Are you just seeking a skillset, or to brush up on some skills? These are important questions, the answers of which will dictate your options in online education.

For those seeking full time online education

Synchronous (literally, “at the same time”) online courses offer experiences more similar to traditional courses. This form of course involves live communication by sitting in a computer lab, teleconferences, videos, or live message boards. If you’re going to invest enough time, energy, and money into an online program to obtain a degree, synchronous courses give you greater support with which to get the most from your education. Synchronous courses also offer better chances at forming lasting relationships (professional and otherwise), an important part of college particularly for first-time degree seekers.

For those supplementing traditional courses

Asynchronous (literally, “not at the same time”) courses offer flexibility to fit around the rest of your traditional courses. These courses largely allow students to proceed at their own pace, with assignments answered via email and message boards on your own time. This type of course, however, should be avoided unless you are disciplined enough to complete the work in a timely manner, and will not need much one on one attention or customized instruction to master the material.

For those building up a skillset

There are a variety of certificate programs and unofficial programs of study centered on skills. If you are not in need of a certificate or proof of completion, there are many free courses from top universities that allow you to study everything from philosophy to photography to computer science on your own time.



There are a few prerequisites to participating in any online course. Online education is almost impossible without basic computer literacy. Strong reading and writing skills are required as most of the material will be in written format online and the ability to communicate in writing with professors and on discussion boards is a must. Self-motivation and the ability to be an independent learner will also be more important than in a traditional classroom setting. Even if there is no set time for each class online, time to study and work through the material is essential. 12 hours a week for every 3 credit hour class is a good rule of thumb. You must also be a good self-starter. As it is your responsibility to speak up if you do not understand something. There is no one looking over your shoulder making sure you’re completing your assignments in online education.

For online branches of traditional schools, admission standards are the same as the traditional classroom setting. This typically involves taking the SAT or ACT, completing high school or obtaining a GED equivalent, and writing one (or several) admission essay(s).

For certificate or skill based programs, it’s all about learning the skill set well enough to apply it in a work setting. Certificate programs can range from a certificate in java programming to midwifery. Many programs, however, simply afford you the opportunity to learn a skill without the certificate. For these programs “the proof is in the pudding” and the program was a good choice for you if it enabled you to learn a marketable skill.


For-Profit Online Universities

There is a common misconception that all online universities are for-profit. Several years ago this might have been closer to the case, with Kaplan College and University of Phoenix boasting massive enrollments. However, due to exposure of high student debt rates and low job prospects for graduates, enrollments to the previous two colleges have dropped enormously. Coupled with the rise of online education at more traditional schools, most online universities are no longer for profit.

While schools like Devry, Kaplan, and University of Phoenix are accredited, they are also regularly sued for not preparing students for the workplace, or under review in regards to their accreditation status. While there is hope that for-profit colleges will enact meaningful reform in the coming years, the fact that they are “for-profit” and not for education in and of itself should cue you in to a potential conflict between what the University wants and what is best for the students. Some students do come out from for profit institutions and do just fine, but others are quite ill-prepared for the work force and have massive student debt. This being said, if you plan to go to school for a particular skillset (IT skills, graphic design) then a for-profit institution can teach you that trade. But if you are really a self-starter, you might also be able to teach yourself the skillset on your own. Online courses at traditional non-profit colleges serve as a good middle ground if you are unsure as they tend to provide good counseling on your own career and funding options.


Paying for an online education

Online education can be cheaper than traditional education, depending on several factors. If you are working to develop a skill set, you may be able to find courses for free, or only complete part of an online degree. And if you are continuing your studies part time, you can spread the expenses out over more time. Online courses taken as part of a traditional course degree, however, are often equally as expensive as normal courses. Here are a few resources to help you deal with your educational expenses.



Be your own advocate.
No one else is going to help you with funding, or remind you to do your homework. If you are having trouble keeping up with a topic, let a school administrator or professor know what you are dealing with.

Assure the quality of educators.
Phd’s are a good sign of quality training, but we’ve all heard of research professors that care nothing for their classes. Reach out, interact on forums, check rankings, and ask the opinions of those with firsthand experience with the school.

Relevance of Curriculum
For those heading back to school to further their own career, choosing a program that fits your personal goals is particularly important. If you know the particular skills that you need to advance your career, you’re ahead of the game and can find a program that fits your needs.

Start out part time
For those balancing work with returning to school, or heading to school after a while off, start off part time. This allows you to slowly work your way up to a manageable amount of work. Otherwise you might overcommit yourself and perform less well with everything.

Create a study space in your home.
For those out of school for a while, create a quiet space in your homes. Make a break from your previous routines and head into “school mode.”

If employed, seek support from your employer
Whenever you further your education, it makes you a more valuable employee. Your employer wants to work with you to increase what you have to offer. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and consult your boss.

Make money plans.
If you’re in a degree program, it may not mean much unless it’s finished. Make the proper plans and don’t run out of money part way into your program.



Obtaining an online education can be an important turning point towards a life of opportunity and stability, a way to keep your mind active, or a way to attach yourself to unnecessary student debt and an unaccredited institution. Be careful and realistic when considering your options, if an option appears to be too good to be true, beware. And most of all, take advantage of the connectivity of the digital age to enhance your education and life.