Online Learning Options: Can I Get a Good Education? (2024)

What to Look for In a Distance Education Program

The best students—you may be one—seem to always be looking for ways to expand their knowledge with new, more enriching learning experiences. In the past, this meant asking your teachers for extra help and attention. But today, online learning and distance education are opening new worlds of educational opportunity.

In this article, we'll review the growing list of online learning options available today—you can take entire courses online or just get help with specific topics. [We'll briefly discuss the benefits of online learning, too—from more personalized learning paths to potential savings on travel and tuition.]

Internet-based instruction offers great flexibility, with a wealth of educational resources available using a laptop, desktop PC, or smartphone. Let's look at what's available.

Online Learning Overview

Online learning is an educational model that utilizes digital technology and the internet to deliver instruction. At the core, it operates on the principle of "anywhere, anytime" learning, offering you a flexible, self-paced, and often interactive educational experience.

There are numerous types of online courses to match your academic interests and career goals. You can explore Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on platforms like edX and Coursera, or sign up for a full-fledged degree program from an online institution such as the University of Phoenix or Western Governors University. If you want to obtain specific skills through shorter, certificate-style programs, look into websites like Udemy or LinkedIn Learning. You may even be able to supplement or substitute courses in your existing educational program with alternative credit providers such as StraighterLine or Sophia, potentially saving time and money.

When it comes to costs, there is considerable variation depending on the type of course and the provider. Some MOOCs are free, though receiving the optional certification might incur charges. Full online degree programs, on the other hand, can cost as much as traditional in-person degrees. [Still, advocates say that even when tuition is comparable, online education can help you save in other areas, such as commuting and housing.]

The benefits of online learning are substantial. The flexible nature of distance education makes it an excellent option for students who need to balance their studies with other commitments. It also opens doors to a wide range of courses and programs that might not be available locally. Plus, online learning is said to promote self-motivated, independent learning—a skill that's highly valued in the modern workforce.

However, online learning isn't without challenges. It requires good self-discipline and effective time management skills to keep up with coursework without the classroom's structured schedule. Online learners also need reliable internet access and sufficient digital literacy to navigate the learning platforms. And some students might miss the social interactions that come with joining other learners in a classroom.

Distance Education Options

Your distance education options are rich and diverse, but in this article we'll focus on these categories: accredited online schools, online programs at traditional schools, MOOCs, and alternative credit providers.

Accredited online schools provide online degree programs and are recognized by relevant accreditation bodies like traditional schools, but the entire program can be completed online from one institution. Schools like Southern New Hampshire University and Capella University offer a variety of programs ranging from business and management to healthcare and information technology (though they may not offer as wide a range as a traditional institution). Such schools have robust online platforms specifically designed to facilitate effective distance learning, with all resources in digital formats.

Then there are online programs at traditional schools. These courses and programs are offered by long-standing, brick-and-mortar institutions but are delivered online, so you can join from anywhere. Examples include programs at schools like the University of Florida and Penn State World Campus—combining flexible online study with the reputation of respected universities. Note that these programs may not have all of their schools' courses available online and there may be prerequisites to sign up for specific programs.

One new and popular option is what are called Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs). These courses and programs are less selective and have lower barriers to entry, such as simpler admissions processes or more frequent program start dates. MOOCs are offered by a variety of institutions (including some US Ivy League schools) through platforms like Coursera, edX, and Khan Academy. Subjects can range from humanities to STEM topics, and many MOOCs offer course-completion certification (sometimes for a fee). MOOCs may offer fewer supporting resources than full online and traditional programs, making them a better fit for students who can self- manage their academic progress without lots of interaction with instructors and others.

Not to be overlooked are online alternative credit course providers, one of the latest innovations in higher education. These providers feature catalogs of courses specifically designed to help students complete prerequisites to be admitted into traditional programs, or lower the total price of their degree by substituting courses in their traditional or online program with transferable, lower-cost options.

Choosing an Online Education Program

Choosing an online education program requires careful thought and research to find the option that best fits your learning needs and learning style. Here are some key factors you should consider:

  • Accreditation: Accreditation by recognized outside groups called Quality Assurance Entities (QAEs) helps ensure that educational institutions meet accepted quality standards and practices. When a school is accredited, it means that the curriculum, faculty, and student services have been evaluated and deemed satisfactory by an independent accrediting agency's standards. Understanding your institution's accreditation is important in knowing how your degree is recognized and viewed by employers and other educational institutions.
  • Reputation: The reputation and performance of the online program or school can impact your future career opportunities. Consider your target program or institution's performance factors like graduation rates, job placement rates, median annual salaries for graduates in your desired field of study, and alumni reviews.
  • Format: Online courses can be synchronous (live sessions where you log in at set times) or asynchronous (pre-recorded or written material you can access any time). Some are self-paced and some have defined schedules. Make sure you choose a format that fits your learning style and schedule.
  • Cost: While online education can be more affordable than traditional education, costs can still be a significant factor. Remember to consider all expenses, including tuition, course materials, online fees, labs, textbooks, and any required in-person activities (such as clinical hours for nursing programs)
  • Credit Transfer: If you intend to continue your education or transfer to a different school in the future, understanding the online school's credit transfer policy is crucial. Ask around to ensure your course credits will be honored at other institutions. Many schools post articulation agreements online, explaining how courses from other institutions are received and transferred into their programs.
  • Support Services: Online learning doesn't have to mean you're on your own. Many schools offer various support services for online students, including academic advising, library resources, career services, and technical support.

Online Learning: Tips for Success

Being successful in online learning requires self-motivation, organization, and a handful of specific skills.

First off, ensure you have the necessary tools: a reliable computer, stable internet connection, necessary software, and a dedicated space for studying.

Time management is crucial, too. Create a realistic study schedule and stick to it, using tools and apps to help you stay organized. Online learning can sometimes feel isolated, so try to stay connected and communicate effectively. Regularly check your school email and learning management system for updates, and don't hesitate to reach out to your instructors if you have questions or need help.

Actively engaging in your courses can also enhance your learning experience. Don't just read course materials and listen to lectures. Participate in course discussion boards, join virtual study groups, and—again—don't shy away from asking questions. The more you put into the course, the more you'll get out of it.

Resources for Online Learners

You may be studying solo, but you're not alone. Depending on the course provider, there are plenty of resources available to aid your online learning journey.

Many distance education programs provide online libraries, giving you access to a vast array of books, journals, and other resources. Tutoring services may be available to help you understand challenging course material. Some online schools also offer comprehensive academic support services, including writing centers and study skill resources. If you're not sure what's available through your online program, ask around.

And don't forget about technology support. Some online schools offer tech support to assist you with any technical difficulties that might arise, ensuring that you can navigate the online learning environment effectively.

Future of Online Learning & Distance Education

The landscape of online learning and distance education is constantly evolving. Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality are starting to make their way into online education, offering exciting new ways to deliver content and engage students.

But the future also presents challenges. Addressing issues like internet access and technology affordability is crucial to making online learning accessible to all. And the sponsoring institutions will need to continually adapt to keep the content and delivery of online education relevant and engaging, Take the time to compare a few options—for the extra effort, you could save money, time, and find a better fit. Institutions want to win you as a student, use that leverage to get "a better deal" for you.

Nonetheless, the future is bright. As online learning technologies continue to improve, and as more institutions recognize the value of online education, we can expect to see a continual growth and diversification in online learning opportunities.


Online learning and distance education are revolutionizing the way students acquire knowledge and skills. With the multitude of options available, you can likely find a path that suits your individual educational goals and lifestyle.

While online learning comes with challenges, it's increasingly attractive to today's students thanks to its flexibility, convenience, and wide diversity of courses. So why wait? Look into what online learning can offer to meet your educational goals today.

Online Learning Options: Can I Get a Good Education? (2024)
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