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by Bob Brooke

The concept of earning a college degree through correspondence courses has taken on a whole new meaning since the advent of the Internet. Ever since the University of Wisconsin offered courses through the Pony Express in the 1880s, people have pursued independent study through correspondence. But that was time consuming and necessitated lengthy written communications with an instructor. With the Internet, communication is instantaneous and courses interactive.

The educational community has often looked down on correspondence courses, many of which have been offered by phony diploma mills. But with new technology, fully accredited institutions like New York University offer courses online leading to degrees.
Online learning is the delivery of courses and programs through a computer, using computer communications to link faculty and students. This process can occur between two computers anywhere.

This form of education is what experts call "asynchronous." This means it’s neither time nor place dependent. Students go online to read lectures, participate in discussions, and complete exams. They complete assignments and exercises off-line using word processing software.

After logging in using a special user name and password, a student can send his or her comments and homeworkthe computer, using web-based technology, deposits it where others can see, or to the instructor’s personal E-mail, in effect giving students 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week access to the classroom.

A recent Stanford University study found that online students perform better on tests than traditional students. And the majority of colleges and universities online offer some credit for life/work experience. Online courses focus strongly on interaction. What makes the difference are group activities, participation in group discussions, and information sharing, including experience sharing, debate, and social interactions that take place during a course.

Who should take online courses? In order to succeed in an online course, a student must be self-motivated and be able to manage his or her time effectively. Students also need strong reading and study skills. Online courses are as challenging as traditional ones.
Online learning best suits those who have busy work and personal lives. One of the barriers prohibiting many working adults from going to college is the requirement to be in a particular place at a particular time. Online courses deliver the same results, but more efficiently. Also, in a traditional classroom, students may chose not to participate. In an online environment, everyone must participate.

Students cannot just sit and listen as in traditional classes. Those who do shouldn’t enroll in an online class. In fact, the instructor won’t know a student is there unless they participate. Success demands participation, so online classes are often much smaller, with typically 12-15 students.

Though online students are typically working adults seeking masters' degrees, the flexibility of taking courses from home is luring more students to their computers, completing all their course work via E-mail, and on their own schedules. In fact, students who participate in online courses achieve closer relationships with their instructors than they might otherwise.

But even online education has its problems. “The primary ones come from the initial difficulty a student has in getting oriented to the new delivery method and/or lack of computer literacy,” said Joanie Shannon, director of Distance Learning for El Camino College in Torrance, California. “But once acquainted with the process, most report an improved learning situation.”

Costs for online courses are about the same as traditional ones. An MBA from Duke University costs $89,000–online or off! But there are many schools that are very reasonable. According to Shannon, online courses from El Camino cost just $11 per unit for a three-unit course and usually these courses are transferable.

For instance, Ulster County Community College, in Stone Ridge, New York, offers a fully-accredited online Associate of Science Degree in individual studies through the SUNY (State University of New York) Learning Network (SLN). The flexibility of the program allows students to select courses from the many SUNY colleges and universities that make up the SLN that meet their educational and professional goals. In addition, students may transfer as many as 30 applicable credits from accredited institutions.

El Camino College currently offers nine courses online, ranging from Child Development to Physical Geology to Philosophy.

And Palm Beach State College of Lake Worth, Florida, offers courses leading to several Associates of Arts degrees, using one of the best designed educational sites on the Web.

Online education isn’t study by correspondence course, nor is it self-paced. Courses have scheduled beginning and ending dates and there are deadlines assigned for classroom activities, including homework, assigned readings, and even discussion requirements.

Most online courses use a virtual classroom–a common meeting area for all students assigned to that class. Each classroom has a unique name or number. And only students taking that particular class have access to that classroom, thus ensuring privacy. In most respects, online and traditional classes have more in common than not. They both share the same credits and grading system. One just requires a little more homework.

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