People tend to hold a number of preconceived notions about online learning. In fact, many of the attributes that make online learning an attractive option for students are the very ones that may be questioned by potential employers.
As with any new paradigm, online learning has been met with some resistance. The name of the school you list on your résumé carries a lot of weight. In the professional world, it is not just that you earned a degree but also where you earned that degree. For many students, especially adult learners, their ability to attend school is only made possible by the availability of online degree programs. Therefore, knowing how to choose a program that not only fits your schedule, but one that will be seen as a valued asset to your resume, is key.
Students should always ask whether an institution is regionally accredited. If you are going for a specialized degree, you also should know whether there are specific accreditations for that area of study. For example, Florida Tech’s 100% online MBA with a specialization in Project Management program is accredited by the Project Management Institute’s Global Accreditation Center. Earning a degree from this program signals to an employer that the courses you completed meet the level of quality expected of graduates seeking a career in project management.
Or, to put it in another way, it is the industry standard for this subject area.
When I first started working in distance learning I was hesitant about the quality and oversight that could be implemented in the online realm. Any questions I had were quickly answered. The structure put in place to ensure the rigor and quality of the online degree and certificate programs mirrors that of our traditional campus programs.
Here are some examples of this oversight:
What online students do not see are the full-time staff members, in locations all over campus, strictly dedicated to helping them succeed in school.
Be Prepared, Be Proactive
Having spent more than five years working and teaching in the online environment, I have gained a great deal of insight into the common obstacles student face, and how instructors view and deal with those obstacles. For example, a student may request to submit her work late due to work and family issues. The instructor must take into consideration the fact that the student had an entire week to complete and submit her work, and that other students are making sacrifices to get their work submitted on time.
The medium through which the education is delivered does not change a basic principle: as a student you must be prepared and proactive. Instructors are looking for these qualities in their students, perhaps even more so from adult learners. Building up goodwill with your instructors is one way to demonstrate you possess these attributes. If a student gets off to a good start, consistently shows she can submit quality work on time, and then later in the term needs an extension, the instructor is more likely to review that request favorably.
Another common challenge I see in the online realm is students’ ability to communicate in a clear and concise manner. Students should think of every class they take as a writing class. Often, students have great ideas about the topic at hand but the manner in which they present the information – grammatical errors and misspellings, for example – distracts the reader.
There are some simple steps that students can take to improve their writing:
In graduate school, I quickly learned that I needed to improve the level of my writing – drastically and quickly – in order to meet expectations. When I asked my professor how I could learn to write well she told me to read things that were written well. It was so simple, and it worked! I thought of myself as a parrot. I would try to mimic the style of writing of the articles I was reading. I took notice of transitions and how the changing of a word or two could make my sentence sound “more academic” – and I learned to phrase my ideas in a way that was better suited for my target audience.
I wrote a lot, got critiqued a lot and cried in the hallway a few times. But, in the end, I gained an invaluable skill. Take time with your writing. Hone that skill. It will serve you well wherever you go.
Online students should also remember to use appropriate style and language for an academic environment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received an email that isn’t addressed or signed. People, in general, are accustomed to using informal language because texting has become one of the dominant forms of communication. However, your instructors will expect you to communicate with them as if you were in a business environment.
A student may be tempted to say something to an online instructor out of frustration that a student in a face-to-face classroom setting would refrain from saying. Remember: Your instructors are professionals and they think of you as professionals, too. There will come a time when you will need an instructor to provide you with some guidance or write you a letter of recommendation. When students ask me to write a recommendation, I not only go back and check their grades, I reread their emails.
‘Never Too Late to Acquire New Skills’
Being a successful online student takes discipline and self-motivation. In one study, a majority of online students reported that setting a study schedule was the most helpful time-management strategy. Nearly half of students, meanwhile, said that handwriting notes from online lectures helped them retain essential points and concepts. Adding these extra steps to your study routine should prove useful when it’s time to take an exam.
Though students are only in my course for a short time, I have seen tremendous improvement for those who take the time to fine-tune their skills. I recently had a woman in my Sociology course who told me this was her first time back in school in over 20 years; she was 50 years old at the time she took my introduction-level course. She came back to school to earn her bachelor’s degree so she could be eligible for a promotion at her place of employment. Her first-week assignments were OK, but they did not present the depth of analysis that is required for the course.
She reached out to see how she could improve her work and together we discussed how to evaluate sources for an academic environment, transitioning from everyday writing where it is OK to use words such as “stuff” and “things” to being more specific in her college work. She took the time to redo the assignment and, by incorporating our notes, she was able to produce an assignment that was much closer to the guidelines and format expected of a college student. She improved each week and at the end of the term when she asked me to write a letter of support to her employer, I was able to write that she is a determined individual who will conquer any task she is given.
I think this anecdote illustrates two common themes that are important for online students. First, it is never too late to acquire new skills. Better yet, once you learn them, they are applicable to every class you take. Second, ask your instructors for this type of help. They would much rather help you acquire these skills than continuously tell you to improve on them week after week. Take their feedback and incorporate it into your assignments. Instead of getting comments back about your writing and formatting, you will be able to engage with your instructors about the topic and their experiences.
‘The Surest Path to a Good Job’
Having said all that, it is probably no surprise to you that earning a college degree is hard work. You need patience, perseverance and, more than likely, the ability to put in some late nights.
Though the path to a degree can be long, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that college grads fare better overall in the job market than workers with just a high school diploma.
The gap also is significant in financial terms, according to the BLS.
Meanwhile, a 2014 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that American workers with a bachelor’s degree will earn at least $1 million more on average than high school graduates over their working lives.
Overwhelmingly, college graduates believe their education is worth the effort. In a 2014 report titled The Rising Cost of Not Going to College, the Pew Research Center found that 83% of grads said college had paid off for them, with an additional 8% reporting that they expected their degree to pay off in the long run.
Compared with high school grads, college-educated workers were much more likely to report being in a career or career-track job.
“For today’s young workers, the surest path to a good job and satisfying career runs through college,” Pew researchers noted.
So, at those times when an eight-week term feels like a 16-week term and you’re questioning whether your time and effort are going to pay off, be confident in your decision to come back to school. Know that the sacrifices you are making now will have long-term benefits. Delay that instant gratification for one more term and keep pushing through. It’s worth it.
Jarin Eisenberg is executive director of Melbourne Main Street and an instructor at Florida Institute of Technology, where she previously was coordinator of online degree programs at the Bisk College of Business. To learn more about Eisenberg, read our interview here.