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10 Things You Should Know Before Entering an Online College Program
(I Wish Someone Had Told Me)

By Sophie Walton

I decided to return to college after being in the work force for several years. I had my two-year degree; however, I wanted to complete a bachelor's degree in Political Science. Unfortunately, with a full-time job, a husband and a daughter, I did not have the luxury of attending traditional college class on a campus. Online college classes were the perfect answer to my problem—I could obtain my college degree by fitting classes into my schedule rather than arranging my life around a class schedule. But there are several things I wish I had known before embarking on my online college degree. Knowing these 10 online college tips would have saved me money, time and frustration.

TOP ONLINE COLLEGE CLASS TIP: Above all other tips about online college comes one that every student can agree on Do not wait until the last minute to submit an assignment or take a test. The reason for this is that online college classes make a point of stating they are not responsible for Internet and computer malfunctions. If you wait until the last minute and lose your Internet connection or your computer blows up, it is your problem, and most professors will not allow you to submit the assignment late.

1. The time involved in each class online is equal to attending regular classes—at a minimum

I thought I would cut my time in half by taking online courses. I figured I'd cut out time spent driving and sitting in classes. I was wrong! Depending on the online course, you may spend more time on your online course than you would in a traditional college class. My degree required a fine arts class, so I chose "Introduction to Theater" because someone said it was an easy class. After reviewing the syllabus, I realized this online class would require a lot of time. We had to submit a discussion topic each week and respond to at least five of our classmates' topics, which meant reading them all (he took test questions from them). I also had to attend at minimum of three plays—the traditional class did this during class time.

2. Do not assume that tests are always given online.

Read the syllabus and requirements very carefully for your online courses. Using your book to take exams and quizzes could backfire on you if the mid-term and final are given at a testing center.

3. I had to be computer literate.

When I decided to add online classes to my degree for convenience, I rushed out to the nearest computer store and purchased my first laptop. The sales associate assured me I had the latest version of "this and that" so I would be ready for my first online class. At the appointed time, I signed into WebCT (our online website for class) but I could not access the discussion board because I did not have the correct multimedia software. During another online class, the instructor used a version of Word that was much newer than my software version; therefore, I spent precious time locating and downloading a patch to read his notes. The lesson learned—read the requirements for equipment, hardware and software in addition to the required books and prerequisites for online classes.

4. Schedule regular class times for yourself each week according to your schedule.

If I would have scheduled my "class" time for online courses and told everyone I was physically in class I would have done better. I learned this after a couple of semesters of online classes—family and friends do not respect "class" time if they know you are sitting at home in your pajamas in front of the computer snacking on popcorn while you are "in class." I began setting a specific time for my online course and for each "class" I would turn off the phone, lock the doors and go to "class." I found this was much more productive. I even used earplugs when I had to schedule a time when my husband and daughter were at home so I could completely block them out during "class."

5. Research the reputation of the college and check to see if the college is accredited.

Many colleges offer online courses or online degrees; however, they are not all accredited. Many employers want to know where you received your degree so make sure that the college you choose is a reputable institution. My college is a traditional college that offers online courses as well as evening courses. I get the same degree as other graduates attending traditional college classes.

6. Research the professors, not just the classes.

Take time to read the biographies of each professor to find out what experience and education each of them bring to the classroom. The education you get depends on you; however, a qualified professor is essential to a successful online college course. Furthermore, find out before you have a problem how to handle complaints with the professor and with the college. During one of my online classes, the professor routinely did not respond to emails, failed to appear for online discussion groups and did not provide grades or feedback until two weeks prior to the final exam. In hindsight, I should have complained to my advisor and, if necessary, to the head of the department. The professor gave everyone who even submitted assignments an "A" for the course so some felt they were not cheated. However, this course was a prerequisite for another class I took, and I ended up struggling in the more advanced course because I was not prepared. Do not be afraid to complain when your professor is not treating your online college course with the same respect he or she does a traditional class. You are paying the same tuition those traditional students are and should receive the same level of expertise.

7. Research not only the tuition but all fees and costs for your degree from start to finish.

Before you commit to obtaining an online degree, request a detailed breakdown of all costs, fees and tuition from the very first course through the day you receive your degree. Check for hidden fees. Do not be timid about asking specifically if they have any fees that are not disclosed on your list. The last thing you want to have happen is to be one or two classes from graduating to find out you owe more money before you can obtain your online degree.

8. How many students will be in my online college class?

Even though you do not see the other students, you should inquire with your college what the limit is for class size. While college professors rarely spend an abundance of one-on-one instruction time with students, even the best professors struggle with large classes. It is especially important for online classes to be small enough for professors to read and respond to emails and posts by each student because this is your main opportunity to ask the professor questions and receive clarification.

9. Are there online resources for research? Does the library offer online resources for students?

Even though the Internet has a wealth of information for research, there will be times when you need to access books, magazines and other research material that you can only get through your college library. My college's library had an online database for students. However, you should inquire before committing to an online college. If they do not have these resources available, you will need to budget time on trips to the library.

10. Is there financial aid available for the online degree?

Student loans typically are available for online degrees and courses. However, some grants and scholarships may not be used for online classes. If you have your eye on specific grants or scholarships and intend to obtain your college degree online, read the fine print to make sure you do not lose your funding.

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