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Online learning may not be for everyone, educators say

Programs are attractive, but they may not be for everyone

For busy adult learners, already juggling the demands of jobs and families, what could be more appealing than online education? They can earn degrees at home, squeeze in classes before work or after bringing the kids to soccer practice, and never have to kick off their comfortable slippers to attend a lecture.

But as colleges and universities offer more courses over the Internet, many educators say prospective students should consider carefully before enrolling in such programs. Online learning is not for everyone, they say, and success in such programs requires not only proficiency and comfort with technology, but also a combination of personal traits and skills, from self-motivation to fast typing.

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In addition to installing software, online students must be able work independently, manage time efficiently, and write effectively, since so much of what would be discussed orally in a traditional classroom is communicated via text in online courses.

Joe Garland, 31, who is taking online courses at the University of Massachusetts’ University Without Wall to finish a bachelor’s degree he abandoned 10 years ago, said he was surprised at how much reading and writing is required. He recalled his class discussions of 10 years ago, when he would show up at school and talk and listen to his fellow students.

“Today my class discussions consist of me typing my thoughts, and then reading what my classmates have to say,” said Garland, who lives in Northampton. “The result is more reading and writing, a lot more screen time.”

For people looking to finish a degree, start a new one, or just take courses to update skills, the online option is increasingly popular. Nationally, more that 6.1 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall term in 2010, up more than 500,000 students from the previous year, according to a survey done for a consortium of education organizations. In 2010, nearly one in three students in higher education was taking at least one course online.

Since the survey first began collecting data, in the fall of 2002, the number of students taking online courses has nearly quadrupled, an annual growth rate of about 18 percent. By comparison, the number of students in all higher education grew at an annual rate of just over 2 percent during the same period.

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Yet the adjustment to online education can be so jarring for some students that many educational institutions with online programs, such as Westfield State University , suggest that prospective students take online self-evaluation tests before enrolling to help determine whether online courses are right for them.

The evaluations, which can run from 10 to 20 questions, often begin with technology and equipment. Do you have a high speed Internet connection, a computer with a powerful processor that can easily handle video, and recent versions of popular software such as Microsoft Office?

More important, are you comfortable with technology? When an error message pops up, or a screen freezes, can you troubleshoot the problem without spiraling into panic?

Kathleen S. Ives, chief operating officer at the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit in Newburyport that promotes online learning, said students not only need to know how to use the technology in their homes, but they must also become adept at using schools’ online platforms. In addition, they often need to become familiar with various applications such as Skype, the videoconferencing service; TeacherTube, an online site for teacher videos; and Second Life, an online virtual world.

“For first-year students, it can be a deer-in-the-headlights experience,” Ives said.

But faculty who teach online are usually trained to help students overcome such hurdles. In addition, technical challenges are shrinking as software improves and more people become acclimated to the online world.

Other factors that influence online success have nothing to do with technology. If you tend to procrastinate, for example, online courses may not be for you. Since online students make their own class schedules, and are largely free from the structure of regularly scheduled classes, coursework and reading can easily pile up until there’s too much to manage.

“Time management is where most online students hit the wall,’’ said Ives.

Kimberly Tobin, the dean of graduate and continuing education at Westfield State University, said that she often hears about procrastinators who are forced to devote entire weekends, and even take days off from work, to catch up on a course.

Do you like working alone? Some online students discover they prefer the change of scenery and the social interaction of the traditional classroom experience, educators say. They also like the separation between home and school, and getting away from distractions of everyday life.

Online courses also demand more accountability from students. They can’t slip into lecture halls unnoticed, blend in, and avoid class participation. Online, students’ names pop up as soon as they log in. Professors and teachers can easily track how often students post to discussion groups and how substantive those posts are.

“You can’t hide online because the instructor will know exactly how often, and how much, you are contributing,” said Karen Stevens, senior lecturer and chief undergraduate adviser for UMass’s University Without Walls.

Perhaps the most common misconception about online courses is they are easier than traditional, in-person courses. In fact, educators say, they are more challenging.

Students in a traditional course may attend two or three classes every week, and may be asked to submit just two papers a semester, which often can be written in a flurry of activity close to the deadline. In contrast, the online course workload is steady, with readings and assignments that have to be completed every week. An online class is likely to demand 9 to 12 hours of work per week, week after week.

Garland, the UMass student, said making the transition to online education from brick-and-mortar classrooms isn’t easy. It means dealing with computer glitches, managing workloads, and cutting out time from your home life for classes and lectures. His advice to prospective online students: start small.

“Take a bite that you know you can chew,” Garland advised, “even if that means taking just one course to start. Get a successful semester under your belt.”

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.

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