Which Online Learning Program is Right for You?
If you want to fit your university program around the other aspects of your life - e.g., job or family commitment - you may be considering an online program where you can arrange your own times and locations for study.
With a traditional university program you would want to visit the campus to determine if it ‘feels right’ for you. This involves more thaIf you want to fit your university program around the other aspects of your life - e.g., job or family commitment - you may be considering an online program where you can arrange your own times and locations for study.n just the resources in the Library or the size of the buildings, you’d want to find out about the values which lie behind the program you’re considering, how you will relate to faculty, staff and other students, and some of the other intangibles which will determine how good the fit will be between you and the program you are considering.
For an online program, you’ll want to consider similar issues that go beyond the topics of a course and the logistics of the institution. Here are some tips on what to look for in an online learning program, and how to visit a ‘virtual’ campus to learn about them [illustrated with examples from online programs in Canada].
What to look for in an online learning program
In selecting the right program of study for you, one key question to ask is whether the program’s focus is on the content to be covered, or on the learning activities in which you will engage. You can often tell this from sample course descriptions. They may be primarily lists of topics, or they may describe the things you will do during the course, or the things you will be able to do after completion. These differences are often captured in the distinction between a ‘teaching-centred’ course and a ‘learning-centred’ course.
There is one further category that you might want to seek out - a ‘learner-centred’ course. This focuses on learning, but is equally concerned with how you know as it is with what you know. That is, one goal of a learner-centred program is to develop the way you think and to nurture your overall intellectual skills.
Which of these orientations is best for you depends on the benefits you want to achieve from your program of study. You have to ask yourself what is right for you, both in the short term and over the long term as well.
There are two other key distinctions amongst online programs: how are research and inquiry integrated into the program, and what kind of relationships will you form with others involved with the program. Some of the programs that may interest you will intentionally include topics at the leading edge of knowledge in your field, to challenge your thinking and help you see how understanding in the field develops. Other programs will focus more on an established body of knowledge where you will only be asked to develop a single conception of the subject matter.
Relationships with other students are one of the benefits of university programs most often cited as important by graduates of on-campus programs. You may have been thinking of an online program as composed mostly of independent study, but don’t overlook what you could learn from other students in discussion and collaborative projects - and what you can contribute from your own experiences and insights. Some online programs have developed resources for online communities to form in support of learning, either within a specific class session or more generally as a virtual ‘campus centre’ online.
How to visit a virtual campus
To assess how well the program’s orientation matches your own, you can look for a statement of the university’s vision for learning. For example, the University of Guelph has listed online its core learning objectives for all programs, including development of global and historical perspectives and an understanding of various forms of inquiry (point your Web browser to http://www.uoguelph.ca/undergrad_calendar/sec 4.htm to read these online). Royal Roads University has also listed the overall learning objectives of its online programs http://www.royalroads.ca/becomem/.
Some programs also outline the teaching approaches they employ to help you reach those learning objectives. For example, the University of Guelph has posted its criteria for best practice in open learning courses http://www.open.uoguelph.ca/about/bestprac.html and Simon Fraser University has links to the research base for its online teaching approaches http://www.sfu.ca/lohnlab/research.htm. Both of these institutions include learning communities and collaborative learning in their programs.
A number of online programs provide sample material to further illustrate how they approach learning, including how they link to current research. Athabasca University has made available online samples for review by prospective students http://server.bmod.athabascau.ca/html/prtut/reinpair.htm.Other Canadian universities with sampler sites include the Open University of British Columbia http://www.ola.bc.ca/ou/online/welcome.html, the University of New Brunswick http://www.unb.ca/jhsc/courswre/web_demo/jhsc_web/modules.htm and the University of Guelph http://www.open.uoguelph.ca/courses/samples/sample.html.
You can also tell a lot about how easy it will be to use the program’s online resources by the ease with which you can find what you want on their WWW site. Some universities make an explicit effort to guide students around their online resources, much as they would provide guides for a campus tour. For example, the Open University of British Columbia has an introduction to Prior Learning Assessment which contains its own orientation facilities for new students http://www.ola.bc.ca/pla.
Finding the program that fits your learning style and your objectives takes a little work, but your investment in learning will be more rewarding when you feel you ‘belong’ in the online learning program.
Author: Tom Carey, University of Guelph, Canada
This article first appeared in TransWorld Education
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