Tips to make the most of your online education experience

When it comes to technology, the world certainly has changed in the last few years. These days, more people, especially older adults, are interested in earning their college degree online.

Enrollments in online education have grown exponentially over the past decade. In fact, during the fall 2009 semester, approximately 5.6 million students in the U.S. were enrolled in at least one online course, an increase of nearly 1 million students over the previous year, according to the 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning. The survey also finds that almost 30 percent of students take at least one college or university course online.

“Most of today’s online students are mid-level workers looking to change or further their careers, single parents wanting better lives for their children, and former members of the military looking to enter the civilian work force,” says April Morris, director of student services with Everest University Online, a division of Everest University. “Because students often work and raise families while attending classes, the flexibility of the online model works well. Students can create their own schedules that fit with their busy lives.”

However, the journey back to the classroom can be daunting, particularly for adults trying to balance work and family. Angela Walters, online community specialist with Everest University Online, explains that in some ways, online learning requires more self-motivation and dedication than learning in a traditional classroom. “In online learning, students must find ways to carve out the time for reading material, participating in online discussions, and completing assignments in the context of their busy schedules, which requires a lot of self-discipline,” says Walters.

To ease the back-to-school transition, Morris and Walters offer the following tips for nontraditional students.

Find the right program for you

“College is not one-size-fits-all, so it is important that you find the program that works best for you,” says Morris. For many students, the most important factor is often the enhanced job security that a college degree offers. Morris explains that students interested in job security should look for a degree in career fields with high job growth. Everest University Online, for example, offers online degree programs in career-oriented fields such as accounting, paralegal, criminal justice, homeland security and information technology.

In addition, there are a number of important factors you should consider when finding an online degree program, such as how many courses are required, how often the courses are offered and what the typical workload is.

Learn how to manage your time

If you’re balancing a full-time job with a relationship or children, adding school, even an online school, to your already busy schedule will require careful time management. In fact, the convenience of studying online at home can actually become a liability, if you cannot create an environment that is conducive to getting work done.

Before the start of the week, sit down and plan out your schedule, blocking off specific time dedicated to homework and study. “If something comes up during those hours, stay strong, politely decline and keep your date to study,” advises Walters. Walters also suggests that you set aside a specific area in your home that serves as a desk or office.

“You may also want to look for schools that offer flexible and part-time scheduling,” says Walters. Many online learning environments, for instance, permit students set their own pace to progress through a series of modules, while other programs follow a more traditional semester system. Depending on your schedule and study habits, one type of program may make more sense for you.

Create a support network

Fellow classmates can create wonderful support networks for each other – from arranging study groups to providing encouragement – through the stresses of college life. This is also true for online students. One technique for online students is to create an online discussion board, or group email list to share ideas and tips to the whole class.

“I have to admit, the thought of taking classes online intimidated me,” says Jacqui Finley, an Everest University Online graduate who earned her associate degree in medical insurance billing and coding. “It was the support from the Everest team that made the biggest difference for me. From the instructors and the student support team to my classmates – I felt supported at every level, every step of the way.”