Studying Online

15 Dec

So you’re thinking of studying online…

There are many people like you. Although distance learning has been around for centuries, the rise of the internet has suddenly made the whole concept much more attractive. You would be treading a well-trodden path!

This article explores some of the pitfalls and promises of e-learning, distance learning and online education. My hope is that you will be able to make a choice that is right for you.

Distance Learning Terms

First, lets understand what some of these words mean.

  • Distance Learning means that the learner is geographically far away from the educational establishment. Distance learning existed well before the internet – indeed, well before the computer was invented! For example the University of London’s External System has been granting degrees via distance learning since 1858. Students receive study materials by post, and sit exams at designated testing centres. Students doing distance learning are often called External Students.
  • E-learning means that the teaching and learning make use of electronic resources, perhaps instead of, perhaps as well as more traditional books, lectures, notes and tutorials. E-learning doesn’t have to take place over the internet, or even use computers – a student watching a calculus video, or listening to language tapes is also engaged in e-learning. Likewise, e-learning doesn’t necessarily involve distance learning.
  • Online learning means learning experienced through the internet. Usually, when we hear online learning, we think of distance learning mediated by the internet. Even then, there is a world of difference being able to interact with tutors in real time through webcam chat, or just being able to download lecture notes from a website. However, both could be claimed to be “online learning”.

Why Study Online?

Online study has a number of advantages over traditional modes

  • You can study whenever you like – you don’t have to attend lectures and tutorials at pre-set times. This flexibility is great if you have work or family commitments, but can also set aside the odd hour or three each day (or big chunks of your weekend) for study.
  • You can study wherever you like – when I did my Masters with an Australian university, I wasn’t in Australia. In fact, I never set foot in their campus the whole time I was a student! This means that your studies will not be interrupted if you have to move cities, for example. You don’t have to commute to lectures, or pay rental on a student apartment.
  • This means, of course, that you have a much wider choice when it comes to selecting a university or college – instead of just the ones in your city, you have the whole world to explore.

Of course, there are also disadvantages

  • Online learning needs a lot of self-discipline. If you are attending classes, your whole environment and schedule remind you every day that you are a student. Once you enrol in an online degree, you are still in the same house, same family, same circle of friends. Unless you remind yourself all the time, it’s easy to forget you are a student – and that’s a sure path to academic failure.
  • Typically, online learners have other commitments on their time. Is your family willing to support you in your studies? Will your boss give you time off to sit for exams? Can you be sure of their support for the whole time – that you will be a student?
  • Prospective employers are sometimes skeptical about the quality of an online degree. Degrees earned online – and the universities offering them – might be seen as second-rate.
  • Even when the ‘net is at its best, online communication falls short of good ‘ole face-to-face discussion.

My own reasons for taking up an online course were very simple. I wanted to further my knowledge, earn an academic qualification from an Australian university, but I didn’t want to quit my job in Malaysia. I had the support of my family and employer. Online learning seemed the perfect choice. Even so, it wasn’t easy.

What To Consider Before You Enrol

Before you enrol in an online course, you should think carefully about why you want to do it.

  • Do you just want the knowledge, but don’t really care about the degree?
  • Do you just want the degree, but don’t really care if you learn much?
  • Do you want both learning, and a degree to prove it?

If you are in the second category, I should warn you that a good degree will require hard work – and learning. Yes, there are “diploma mills” – non-accredited universities who essentially just print a scroll for you when you pay your fees. And yes, there are also accredited universities which impose minimal standards on their students. Be warned, however, that good employers are not easily fooled by this sort of nonsense. And even if someone does bluff their way into a good job with a lousy degree, their lack of knowledge will more often than not become quickly evident.

If you are in the first category, you may be able to get what you want without paying a cent.

  • Many universities and colleges are putting their courseware online for anyone at all to download. Notable initiatives are the OpenCourseWare initiative by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – MIT’s plan is to have all courseware for all their courses available online – and Apple’s iTunes U, which collects together similar resources from many different universities around the world. So if you are keen, just download and start studying!
  • Even more universities and colleges allow people to audit their courses. This doesn’t mean you prepare a financial report! It means you attend the lectures like a normal student, perhaps even do the coursework, but you are not graded on what you learned, and the effort doesn’t count towards a degree.

Most of us are in the third category. After all, when it comes to getting a job, the diploma may unlock the door, but the knowledge keeps the welcome warm. So, here are some points you need to consider.

  • Have you spoken to the important people in your life about your plans to study? Your family, friends, employer and co-workers can make or break your self-improvement efforts. Get their support before you begin. When I first thought of pursuing my Masters online, I realised my job would have kept me too busy. I shelved my plans. One year later, my circumstances had changed, so I took the plunge and enrolled.
  • Do you have self-discipline? Typically, if you are considering taking an online course, you have other demands on your time. Are you able to balance your studies with the rest of your life? Are you able to plan your study in advance so as not to be caught out at exam time? Is an email enough to prompt you to action on something important?
  • How long will your course take? Are your circumstances likely to change in that time?
  • How much will your course cost? Estimate the costs of books, computing equipment and anything else you may need to fork out. Can you afford the cost? Can you persuade your employer to pay for part or all of it? Is it tax-deductible?
  • Is the university or college well regarded? Does their online learning programme have a long track record? Unfortunately, the best universities have been the slowest to start offering their courses online. However, it is possible to find good universities which have successfully graduated several batches of students from their online or external degree programmes. I’m always skeptical of so-called university rankings, and recommend you take them with a pinch of salt. However, they are useful as a rough guide to university quality.
  • How will you interact with the lecturers? What support will be provided for you as an external student? How will you interact with your classmates?

I don’t want to discourage you from pursuing your course online. I pursued my Masters online, and I can honestly say it was a 100% worthwhile experience. Let me tell you about it.

My E-Learning Story

My first and second degrees were in Mathematics. After I graduated, I got a job teaching mathematics in a college in Malaysia. A few years later, I began to teach computer science as well. Although I was able to learn what I needed to know easily enough, I soon grew aware that I would be better off pursuing a formal course of education.

  • The gaps in my knowledge would be properly filled in, through the formal curriculum
  • I would get a piece of paper to prove I knew something about what I was teaching
I chose to get an Australian degree, since being an Australian citizen, I would not have to pay the full course fees. Unfortunately, none of the “Group of Eight” (the best of the best) Australian universities offered online courses. I settled on the University of South Australia.

  • I had some familiarity with their courses, and knew some of the staff there.
  • I had some respect for the quality of their courses, and noted that they also rank well
  • Most importantly, the course I wanted to do was available fully online.
Having gone through the checklist in the last section, and assured myself, I took the plunge. I applied and was accepted. The Masters course would have taken me one year full-time. I stretched it over three years. During this time, I changed employer once, and my family increased in size. Challenging!

  • The university sent me (by post) course materials for each subject I enrolled in. These included the summaries of the lecture notes, sometimes the slides, tutorial questions. There was also an information pack for External Students, including details on how to contact the university’s external students’ support department.
  • Each subject has a subject website. There, I could obtain still more course materials, including lecture slides, assignments, sometimes even audio recordings of the lectures. There was a discussion board for the whole class, and a second discussion board just for external students.
  • With one exception, assignments were submitted electronically. Often this was the way internal students had to submit their assignments too. The one exception was a project for a course that officially was only offered to internal students.
  • To sit exams, I could either attend on campus (which was out of the question for me), or appoint an invigilator for the exam. The university had restrictions on who could be an invigilator, and procedures for detecting cheating. I usually would nominate the examinations officer of the college where I had been teaching.
  • The most fun part was the group projects. My project team members were external students just like me (but always living closer to the university than me). We never met face-to-face, and I have fond memories of lively Instant Messaging meetings late at night, back-and-forth emailing of draft submissions, and rushing to the office because my home internet line was down.

In the end, I got my Masters, a good solid grounding in the fundamentals of computer science, and a new job where I need both Mathematics and Computer Science together. Altogether a very worthwhile experience.


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