Online education, commonly referred to as distance learning, has become a popular option for busy professionals looking to upgrade their personal marketability through supplementary coursework. It's also become widely used by those looking to make a career change while continuing to work.
According to the Sloan Consortium, an organization that monitors and reports on online education, online enrollments grew by 12.9 percent in 2008 over the previous year. These findings were even more significant due to the fact that the enrollment in higher education overall only experienced a 1.2 percent rate of growth in the same time period. It seems people have discovered the convenience of online learning and are flocking to it in ever-greater numbers.

Catering to the Busy Lifestyle

Designed to accommodate a wide range of individuals from all walks of life, continuing education through online coursework is ideal for the busy entrepreneur. There are an increasing number of online degrees offered through some of the most prestigious institutions in the country, making it easier to select the one that fits your specific needs.

And as a professional, your primary need typically centers around time. If you need to make your own schedule, many online programs are completely asynchronous, meaning you're allowed to complete the coursework at your own pace, as long as the requirements are met according to the established milestones. For example, distance learning courses will often provide e-textbooks and other reading material online and then require the student to write a term paper that will be emailed to the instructor by a set date.

But online courses are much more than just reading and emails. The best courses take full advantage of the advancements of technology, incorporating a combination of lectures delivered through both video and audio that are streamed via the web. These lectures often contain unique material that can't be obtained through reading assignments as well as exercises and quizzes to ensure that students are engaging with the material. This time requirement is often part of the accreditation process, requiring students to spend a minimum number of hours on a particular course of study.
Plus, many online courses require an interactivity component, typically consisting of a "discussion" via message board in asynchronous classes and a designated chat room or system of instant messaging in a synchronous format, promoting real-time discussion among all participants.

The Online University... Version 2.0

Distance learning used to have a somewhat seedy reputation, often unrecognized by standard brick-and-mortar universities and prospective employers. And this wasn't without reason. Many online course offerings in the early days weren't much more than a boiled-down version of a full course whose sole purpose was to bring in a little extra revenue to the respective collegiate department.

But times have changed...

Many of today's online universities offer coursework that is fully accredited - essential for transferring credits to another college or working toward a degree. So when you're exploring online degree programs, make sure the university and the specific program of study is accredited.

In addition, check to see whether the university makes traditional student resources available to distance learners, such as student advising and career counseling, and how you can access them to make the most of your time and tuition. These resources make a huge difference when it comes time to put your degree to work, with alumni at major corporations often recruiting directly out of student career counseling offices for a wide range of positions.