You may have been contemplating heading back to school for a while now but could never figure out the logistics. You might have a job and personal responsibilities that keep you busy already, so how are you ever fit in going to classes and doing homework? Not to mention, the closest school that has the MBA program you’re looking for is 30 minutes away. It just doesn’t seem possible.
But then you read about this school that is offering an online MBA program. You never have to set foot on campus, and classes can be taken from the comfort of your own home. Then you discover that other schools also offer similar programs. Suddenly you’ve gone from zero options to many. So, how do you choose the right program, and what’s the deal with online learning anyway?
Keep an Eye Out for Quality
Once you’ve decided that online education is the best path for you, finding the right school is the next step. You need to consider many things, such as programs, tuition costs, and the required time commitment, but one of, if not the most, important things you must consider is accreditation. In case you aren’t familiar with the concept, accreditation means that a school is recognized as a legitimate institution of higher learning. This is important because taking classes or getting a degree from an unaccredited school basically renders those classes and degrees useless, since employers want to hire people from schools that have proven they know what they’re doing. Also, if you need to apply for financial aid or student loans, the US Department of Education only grants financial aid and loans to students attending accredited schools.
But not all accreditation is equal. The two main types of accreditation are national and regional. If at all possible, look into schools with regional accreditation over those with national. It might seem like national would be more prestigious than regional, but it’s the other way around.
There are seven regional accreditation boards for four-year colleges and universities:
- Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC)
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges
- Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
- New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
- WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
The online education world has not only heralded in a new way of learning, but new terminology has been created to explain it all. We have provided brief explanations into some of the more common terms you’ll encounter as you learn more about online learning and programs.
The use of message boards, email, and the web for classroom education. Learning can occur both online and offline and allows students to learn at their own pace.
Online studies can occur through chat or live video streams of lectures. Students have instant access to their instructor and fellow students, which leads to a collaborative, fast-paced learning environment.
Blended learning is the incorporation of technology into the learning environment, which can occur both online and offline. Hybrid learning is using the tools from all learning styles to create the best learning environment for students. The main difference is that blended learning combines online and offline learning, while hybrid chooses the best option based on the specific situation.
Course Management System
This is the suite of tools used by schools to manage and implement their online education programs. The tools typically include a website, message board, chat feature, and an electronic blackboard for posting assignments and student grades.
Discussion boards and forums are used to conduct online classes and convey information to students. Students also use boards and forums to communicate with each other, whether just to chat or to organize the next group project.
Most online schools have virtual libraries. This is a database of books, magazines, and websites that can be used for papers and other school assignments. Many of the listings in a virtual library are peer-reviewed, which makes them ideal for use in papers that require strong references. Virtual libraries also offer books from all over the world.
MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses
These are online courses that allow for unlimited participation. Schools such as Harvard and MIT, as well as corporations such as Microsoft offer courses for students who want to learn a new skill or hone skills they already have.
As your contemplating going back to school, there are a few things you should expect and a few things you probably think are true which aren’t.
Don’t Expect Online Courses to be Significantly Easier Than Campus Courses
People tend to think that an online class is a piece of cake. However, the opposite is often the case. First of all, you don’t meet with an instructor in a face-to-face setting, so you have to have the self-discipline to be successful. Second, online courses often cram a semester’s length class into six weeks, which can be a demanding course load.
Know What’s Expected BEFORE You Start Your Online Degree
Online courses often condense a semester’s class into six to eight weeks, and that makes for a fast-paced course. When you have to keep up this pace for 18 to 24 months, you’ll want to find out how many papers, exams, and discussion questions you’ll need to complete the program successfully.
Decide If it’s Really for You
Online courses aren’t for everyone. Some people thrive in a more traditional setting but find online courses isolating. They can also be more demanding than traditional classes and require more self-discipline.
Know if You Can Meet the System/Browser/Software/Internet Access Requirements
Most schools will walk you through the system requirement steps to make sure your computer is capable of running the programs and loading the websites required to take courses with them. The system requirements are also often listed on the school’s website in their FAQs.
Ask the School About Internship Possibilities (If this is pertinent for you)
If an internship is a requirement for your program of study, ask if the school sets up the internships or if you are responsible for finding your own. If you have to set up your own, ask the school if they have contact information for companies that are known for utilizing interns.
Ask About IT Support for the Online Platform
It’s a good idea to find out who you can turn to if you have problems with the online platform. It’s best to find ut before you have any issues
When you’re going to school, working, and taking care of a family, time management isn’t a suggestion; it’s a requirement. Here are some suggestions about how to better manage your time.
Make a Learning/Study Plan
Before you start your first class, take a look at your requirements, and make a learning and study plan. You’ll want to set aside at least an hour a day for discussion questions, reading the material, preparing for exams, and writing papers. By creating a plan, you’ll know you’ve set aside enough time to take care of your schoolwork amidst your other responsibilities.
Plan for Child/Eldercare
Even if you’re taking classes online, you’ll still need uninterrupted quiet time to complete your assignment. One way to make this happen is to arrange for childcare or eldercare if you have kids or are taking care of elderly family members.
Create a Routine and Stay Organized
Online courses required a lot of self-discipline, and one way to stay on track is to create a routine and stick with it. The steady routine will also help keep you organized. If you always work on discussion questions at your desk at 6:30 Wednesday evening using the study materials in your blue binder, when Wednesday rolls around, you can grab your binder and get to work.
Work Ahead/Pace Yourself
Where online courses are concerned, it’s better to work ahead where possible. Falling behind in an online course can be a disaster. At the very least you should pace yourself, so you’re keeping pace with the course, but if you can get a little ahead in certain areas, that’s not a bad idea.
Quiz yourself on the material to make sure you understand it. If you aren’t doing well on the quizzes, you can ask your instructor for extra clarification.
Do Your Most Difficult Work First
If you have discussion questions to answer, three chapters to read, and a paper to complete, choose the most difficult work and knock it out first. Which one is more difficult is entirely up to you.
Make the Most of Your Downtime
When you have some downtime, enjoy it. Don’t fill it with other things, just enjoy the moments when you don’t have anything to do. Catch up on sleep. Read a book. Hang out with the kids. Grab a beer with friends. Do something you enjoy and recharge while you have the chance.
Location, Location, Location
This isn’t just true about real estate. Finding a good place to study and get work done can really help keep you motivated.
Find A Place Without Distractions
When it’s time to buckle down and write that paper or study for the exam, you’ll need to find a place where you can work distraction-free. This could be a local coffee shop or library, or it could be your kitchen table at 3 am.
Gather All Your Resources
When you’re ready to start working on assignments, you don’t want to have to get up every few minutes to find materials you need to work. Gather all your materials together before you start working, so everything you need is within arm’s reach instead of on the other side of the house.
Work When/Where You’re at Your Best
If you do your best work in the early mornings, then get up early and get your classwork done before the family wakes up. On the other hand, if you thrive between the hours of midnight and 3 am, then arrange for the family to be settled in so you can be your best night owl self. Even if you only have a few precious hours between when you get home from work and the kids come home from school, if those are your golden hours, take advantage of them.
Turn Off Phones or Devices While in Your Study Space
You’ll want to create a study space that is as free from distractions as possible. If you need to keep your cell phone on for emergencies, put the ringer on vibrate. Other distractions such as television should also be muted or turned off. If you must have some sort of background noise, instrumental music from a streaming service is a good option.
Take Your Schoolwork Everywhere
One of the perks of taking online classes is that you can study anywhere. Your courses literally go with you wherever you go because you can access them from a laptop, tablet, or other mobile devices. So, while you’re sitting at dance class, you can answer discussion questions, do research for a paper, or ask your instructor questions.
Although attaining your goals is possible without help, it’s easier when you’ve got other people in your corner.
From Your Employer
Asking for support from your employer might seem like a daunting task, but in many ways, they’ll also benefit from your success. If you need to scale back your work hours so you can complete a course, explain that it’s a temporary request so you can be a better-educated employee. Some employers even offer tuition reimbursement, so that’s another inquiry you might want to make.
Make the Most of Academic/Student Resources
Most online schools offer resources for their students such as access to tutors, study labs, and health and wellness programs. If you need extra help academically or otherwise, tap into these resources.
Make Connections – Communicate with Faculty and Other Students
All students and faculty have email addresses, and many schools offer instant messaging between students and instructors. Taking classes online can feel like a solitary endeavor, but in reality, a classmate is only an email or instant message away. Make sure you exchange this information with your classmates and reach out when you need to. And if someone reaches out to you, help them out.
From Your Family (Spouse, Children, Friends, etc.)
Having the support of your family and friends can be the difference between success and failure. It’s not necessary to have that support, but it definitely makes things easier. It’s much easier to get assignments done if your spouse is willing to cook a couple of nights a week or keep the kids at bay for a few hours. If your kids are old enough to understand, they may even be willing to help out for the time necessary for you to finish a class.
Participate as Much as You Can
When it comes to online classes, you’ll get out what you put in. Participating in class discussions not only helps you learn, but it also helps you get to know your classmates better while they get to know you. Some weeks you might participate more or less than others but try to spend as much time chiming in with responses as you possibly can. It will help you be a presence in the class, learn more in the process, and eventually get a better grade.
The chance for burnout is real. Here are some things to consider that will help you keep yourself in a good place and on track.
Know Your Motivation and Keep it in Mind
Why did you decide to return to school? Are you starting a new career or honing skills you already have? Are you going for your MBA so you can move into management? Remember why you started the journey so that on days when the road is tough, you’ll remember why you’re on it and it will keep you pushing forward.
Take Breaks (If you burn out that could be it for your school year)
Most online programs allow you to take breaks between quarters. The number you are allowed depends on the school and the program, so check with your advisor for your options. If you start to feel like it’s all too much, taking a couple of weeks to step back and recharge won’t hurt.
Don’t Overcommit in Your Personal Life
Although you might be tempted to coach the little league team, run for PTA president, or be the troop’s cookie mom, these might be activities that you’ll have to put on hold while you’re in school. Taking on additional time-consuming activities while taking care of your normal responsibilities and going to school can quickly lead to burnout. Unless it’s an activity you thoroughly enjoy, you’ll want to keep the personal commitments to a minimum.
Keeping a positive attitude is a must. There will be times when juggling everything is going to be hard, and you won’t want to do it. When your friends are going on vacation or enjoying some down time, FOMO might kick in. When this happens, remember why you’re in school in the first place, and think back on what you’ve already accomplished. This is often motivation enough for you to keep moving forward toward your goals.
When you achieve something, reward yourself. If a class is giving you problems, make a deal with yourself that you’ll go on a shopping trip or go someplace fun. If you get a good grade on an exam, take the family out to dinner to celebrate. If you earn a reward, then collect the reward. You deserve it.
One last thing.
If you’re nervous that a full-time class schedule might be too much for you to handle, look into starting out as a part-time student. This way, you can ease your way into the online class world and up the number of credit hours you take a bit at a time.