Online Learning

How your computer helps you learn

Several different terms have been used to describe online learning. It has been referred to as e-learning, distance learning, tele-learning, virtual learning, web learning, computer-aided learning, networked learning and distributed learning. With all these interchangeable terms, it's difficult to establish a concrete definition of online learning - but here, we'll help you get down to the basics!

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Online Learning: The Basics

In all cases of online learning, the student is in a different location than the educator, and uses a computer (often in the home) and the Internet as the primary medium of interaction with an accredited school. Students access course materials at a designated course website, and submit their coursework (such as essays) via e-mail or online forms. Even tests can be taken online.

Online degree programs typically follow the same structure as campus-based programs in terms of total credits required. Many online Bachelors' programs can be completed entirely online, but some programs (particularly graduate degree programs) do require occasional classroom attendance. This requirement is usually flexible, and can be altered to suit each student's life. Generally, online programs are substantially cheaper than campus programs.

Technological Requirements

There are a few technological requirements that are necessary for success in online learning. Most importantly, you must be comfortable using a computer and the Internet. You'll probably also be required to use a word processing program like Microsoft Word and, depending on the course, other specific applications. Knowledge of e-mail attachments and discussion forums is a definite asset, as many courses use these tools regularly.

Here are a few other necessities:

  • A relatively new personal computer (no more than 5 years old).
  • Regular, unlimited access to the Internet. High speed is a definite asset. You'll need to access course materials frequently, and relying on a work computer or library computer isn't recommended.
  • Multimedia capabilities including a video card, speakers and a microphone. Many online classes now use video and other interactive media as methods of instruction.

Technological Formats

An increasing number of new technologies are being used to facilitate online learning. Here's a brief breakdown of the most common methods used by institutions today:

  • E-mail. Many of the first online courses were conducted using e-mail only. The technology was considered an improvement over previous models of distance education that relied entirely on "snail mail" (as some distance education programs still do). Course materials were e-mailed to students, and each student would e-mail completed assignments and essays back to the instructor. Nowadays, students and instructors also exchange e-mail addresses for supplementary communication, additional instruction, facilitating discussions and to form relationships.
  • Web Services and Secure Logins. This is the dominant model for administering online learning. Students are given a password and can log on to a course website to receive messages and view course materials. To handle written assignments, many online courses still require students to e-mail finished documents to professors. However, in some classes the student may fill in a text input box to submit immediately, and the professor will read the essay online and return a grade quickly. Secure logins can also be used to access an exclusive library of materials, including lecture notes and / or interactive materials, such as web forums or chat rooms where students can interact with each other.
  • Flash and JavaScript. These programs represent just a few of the exciting new developments in online learning that are already changing the way students learn. Flash and JavaScript allow for significant interaction on the part of the student - tests and quizzes are now instantly self-grading, students can get stimulating visual instruction through media such as Flash movies, and they can now view instructional videos as often as they want.
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