What exactly is online learning?

By Jason D. Baker

Church leaders are increasingly turning to continuing education options to help fill the information gap.

So you’re considering an online program for professional development or to earn a degree?  That’s great!  There are many excellent online opportunities available but there are also some cautions to consider before moving forward. Let’s answer a few common questions associated with online learning to assist in your journey.

What is online learning?

Online learning is an umbrella term referring to structured educational experiences that are delivered via the Internet to students who are geographically separated from the instructor. This latest iteration of distance education is unique because the online environment enables students and instructors to build rich learning communities which simply weren’t possible in the era of corresponding courses and satellite campuses.

What does an online course look like?

As with face-to-face classes, there are a variety of online course styles. They might involve live video or chat sessions using conferencing software or guided tutorials conducted with presentations and email. The most common approach, though, uses an online course management system such as Blackboard or Moodle. Typically courses are divided into weeks where the instructor posts materials (readings, presentations, lectures, etc.) at the beginning of the week and then the students engage in online discussions by posting to threaded message boards. Additional individual and group assignments are also typically used on online courses and are submitted via an online assignment manager or email.

Are online courses as effective as traditional courses?

This is perhaps the single most researched question and the answer is clear: yes, they are. Now, this doesn’t mean that every online course is as effective as every face-to-face course. It also doesn’t mean that online learning is an ideal fit for every student and every subject. In general, however, students can learn as well from online course as from traditional face-to-face courses.

Is online learning easy?

No. In fact, learning online may be more difficult than in traditional classes. Some students have a difficult time with the increased level of self-discipline and personal responsibility associated with online learning. Others may actually work better in the online environment because it fits their personality. For example, introverted learners may find online class discussions easier to participate in than face-to-face discussions since they have time to formulate a response before posting. So while online learning won’t be less work, and might even involve more work, the flexibility might make it a better fit for some students.

Are online courses a good fit for me?

Online courses are not for everyone. Ask yourself the following questions: Am I comfortable using the Internet?  Am I a strong reader?  Am I a strong writer?  Do I manage my time well?  Can I get tasks done without having someone personally remind me?  Can I communicate well with others via email? Can I reserve time for studying even if I don’t have regular class meeting times?  If the answers to most of these questions are yes, then online learning might work well for you. If not, then perhaps you’d be better sticking with more traditional classes.

Jason D. Baker is the founder and educator of Baker’s Guide to Christian Online Learning [ www.BakersGuide.com ] and also a Professor of Education at Regent University, where he conducts research into online learning. [ www.regent.edu ]

Make sure your program is accredited

The following six regional agencies are recognized by both the United States Department of Education (USDE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

—Jason D. Baker


How to choose an online degree

According to a leading study, approximately 5.6 million students were enrolled in online courses, representing a 21 percent growth rate. While there are quality programs offered in a wide variety of subjects, it’s important that you select wisely before you invest time and money in an online degree.

Obviously you want to find a school that offers a degree program in the area you want to study and in a delivery manner conducive to your learning preferences. When selecting a degree program, however, recognized accreditation is also critical.

Accreditation is a voluntary process by which primary and secondary schools, colleges, universities, and professional schools submit themselves to a comprehensive review process by an outside agency to ensure quality and institutional integrity.

Credible accreditation
The most credible type of accreditation in the United States is called regional accreditation, which means that an institution is accredited by one of the six geographically dispersed associations approved by both the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. There are also specialty accrediting agencies for Bible colleges, theological seminaries, business schools and other disciplines.

Pursuing a degree is a significant investment of time and money and accreditation affects how that degree will be received in the marketplace. Many graduate programs and employers (including denominations) require an accredited degree as a prerequisite and simply disregard unaccredited schools. Therefore, this is a stewardship issue to consider before devoting significant time and money to pursue an online degree.

Many emails advertising life experience degrees are most likely from unaccredited and dubious (if not fraudulent and illegal) institutions. If someone offers you an MBA or Ph.D. degree based on life experience, for example, that should be a red flag. On the undergraduate level, you can, earn an entire associate’s or bachelor’s degree from a few accredited universities through a demonstration of prior learning.

Transfering credits
Demonstrating prior learning typically involves using transfer credits, credit by examination, or portfolio development and evaluation. This approach doesn’t apply to graduate programs since accredited masters and doctoral degrees are based on new learning. While you may be able to earn a handful of graduate credits based on prior learning assessment, you cannot earn an entire degree in this fashion.

Every school starts out as unaccredited, so accreditation is certainly not the only measure of educational quality. It is, however, the recognized standard within the United States that you should keep in mind if you’re seeking a degree.

At the minimum, an unaccredited degree could leave you with a credential with little value in the marketplace. At the maximum, you could violate state law by using an unrecognized credential and bring penalties and embarrassment upon yourself. Earn your degree right the first time and your efforts will speak for themselves.

Although you’re not going to find an accredited degree program offered for free, there are a host of online courses that universities, seminaries and ministries make freely available for personal and professional development. A number of seminaries post course lectures to iTunes for download, others make materials available through the OpenCourseWare initiative, and still others share materials on YouTube. With a little searching you should be able to find a wealth of quality educational material available online.


By the numbers

From the Sloan Consortium: Class Differences: Online Education in the United States, 2010,  represents the eighth annual report on the state of online learning in U.S. higher education. The survey is designed, administered and analyzed by the Babson Survey Research Group with support from Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Data collection is conducted in partnership with the College Board. The following data is based on responses from more than 2,500 colleges and universities:

  • Sixty-three percent of all reporting institutions said that online learning was a critical part of their institution’s long term strategy, a small increase from 59 percent in 2009.
  • The year-to-year change was greatest among the for-profit institutions, which increased from 51 percent agreeing in 2009 to 61 percent in 2010.
  • More than 5.6 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2009 term; an increase of nearly one million students over the number reported the previous year.
  • The 21 percent growth rate for online enrollments far exceeds the less than 2 percent growth of the overall higher education student population.
  • In the first report of this series in 2003, 57 percent of academic leaders rated the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face.
  • More than three-quarters of academic leaders at public institutions report that online is as good as or better than face-to-face instruction (compared to only 55.4 percent of private nonprofits and 67 percent of for-profits).
  • Nearly 30 percent of higher education students now take at least one course online.
  • Nearly one-half of institutions report that the economic downturn has increased demand for face-to-face courses and programs.
  • Three-quarters of institutions report that the economic downturn has increased demand for online courses and programs.
  • The economic impact on institutional budgets has been mixed; 47 percent have seen their budgets decrease, but 27 percent have experienced an increase. A majority of institutions continue to report that there is increasing competition for online students.

For more information and to download the complete report visit: http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/survey/index.asp


Featured institutions that offer online programs


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