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E-Learning: Computer As Classroom

OK. So the kids are back at school. Now, maybe it's your turn, by continuing your education online. AOL online adviser Regina Lewis visited The Saturday Early Show to talk about the possibilities.

By continuing your education, she explains, you can enhance your career, earn a degree, or pursue a hobby. You name it! These days, "going" back to school might not ean "going" anywhere at all.

Lewis answers several questions.

How big a trend is online learning?

The overall trend of lifelong learning is very big, and online learning (or "e-learning") is really an extension of that. While it's still a relatively new phenomenon, it's really taking off. The largest private university, the University of Phoenix, now has more students online than on campus – a whopping 89,000.

In a recent survey, 63 percent of Internet users said they had a high interest in taking a course online. Those between the ages of 25 and 44 and those with children in their homes are also more likely to express interest, and I think that speaks to that age group's comfort with the medium and the need for -- and value of -- flexibility.

How do you know if you're a candidate for online education?

You need to be a self starter. To gauge how well online learning fits your style and personality, you can take a a self-assessment quiz put together by Western Governors. The quiz asks questions like: How important to you is face-to-face interaction?

Also, to get a sense for the day-to-day life of real-life online students, posts some helpful testimonials.

Can online learning really be as effective as the traditional in-class experience?

Well, first of all, you have to show up for class! So, if you're juggling a full-time job and family responsibilities (as many e-learners are), then right out of the box, an online education may be the way to go. Interestingly, and importantly, studies done by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment show that, compared to traditional students, distance learners do as well or better in courses and on tests.

Now, there's a real range of online education resources. Right?

Generally, there are three kinds. Those that enable you to:

  1. Advance your career
  2. Further your education
  3. Pursue your interests
Let's look first at advancing your career.

A lot of people who are working want to pursue coursework that can further their careers and even earn advanced degrees, and there are many options for this.

Many courses online are designed to help people advance their careers, and a lot of companies are embracing this and will even cover the cost for people who want to pursue this path. From an employer's perspective, one of the biggest benefits of online learning is the fac that it allows employees to gain training when it fits into their own individual schedules, without interfering with their regular course of work. You might check out your employer's policy on this.

A lot of in-house and company-specific training has moved online because it is so efficient and bridges distances. In fact, approximately 2,000 companies provide some sort of e-learning for their employees. General Electric alone says it spends $500 million a year on training and education, 10 times more than the $50 million Harvard's MBA students spent this year in tuition.

And, you can now earn an accredited MBA online and specialize in an area that will specifically benefit your profession from prestigious universities like Duke University School of Nursing.

What about furthering your education? Can you really earn a degree online?

Absolutely. Here's how it works: You start by applying online, just as you would mail an application into a traditional university. You'll also want to look into accreditation, if having the credits count toward a degree is important to you. This will be clearly spelled out on the university site.

Once you join an online class, many of them begin by asking participants to email a bio, so people have a better sense of the person with whom they're working and exchanging ideas. Often, your classmates will be from different areas of the U.S., and even different countries. They will have with diverse professional and personal backgrounds. Many people who participate in online courses say this really adds to the overall experience and that they end up being closer to the people they study with online than they ever were with people they physically sat next to in a lecture hall.

Course work, reading lists, and related articles are posted on Web sites or emailed. Group discussions happen in chat rooms and message boards. Papers are submitted online. Some online courses are "synchronous," requiring teachers and students to participate at the same time using "real time" videoconferencing.

But, for the most part, the real draw and the lion's share of the work s "asynchronous" -- meaning you work at your own pace and on your own time. It's 24/7 -- the library is always open.

Not everyone is looking for a degree online. What other kinds of offerings are there?

You name it! There's a terrific site called The Learning Network, offering quick courses, lectures and instruction on everything from languages to investing, from nutrition to gardening and from yoga and the arts. There's even information for aspiring authors on collecting your thoughts and writing a book. Just scanning the site is inspiring.

What about tuition?

Tuition for online programs is usually comparable to traditional on-campus programs. Whle free courses do exist, most of the comprehensive courses do charge a fee. An online degree can cost, on average, approximately $7,000, so the draw here is usually not cost-savings, though there can be significant savings in terms of room, board and transportation. The online advantage is convenience and the ability to pursue personal and professional goals while managing day-to-day responsibilities.

Where is this all headed?

The traditional picture of a college student on campus between the ages of 18 and 22 only makes up 16 percent of the current student population. Increasingly, the population is composed of people holding down full or part-time work and rearing children. For that reason, experts predict this is the new way to learn and that higher and continuing education will never be the same.

From an opportunity perspective, it may mean that there will be broader access to the world's very best educators. As one expert predicted, the world's best professors will now have much broader reach; in an increasingly connected world, they'll be rock stars.

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