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Careers

What You Need to Know About E-Learning

The New Year is a good time to evaluate your career and education goals. Are online courses and degree programs a good fit for you?

Your distance learning programs may not be fully accredited. Anyone with a Web site and a server can whip up an online education program. So you should only consider schools that have been reviewed by the same regional associations that accredit traditional schools. Accreditation is vital if you plan to transfer credits later to another program or university, or if you want your coursework to help you land a better job. Consult Peterson's online guide to distance learning programs, which only lists accredited undergraduate and graduate programs. When you review the Web sites of programs you're interested in, check your instructor's length of experience as a teacher. And if you're considering a degree program, ask the school what percentage of online students graduate.

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You may not save money. If you're a student taking a degree program online to jump ahead in your career -- or to switch careers, you may find that online courses aren't money-savers. The reason: You'll want to earn your degree from a top-tier school, but those schools often charge almost as much for their online programs as for their traditional classes. For example, Duke University charges $93,450 for its online MBA degree. A potential saving grace: If you're attending a full degree program, you may qualify for a federal student grant or loan. Apply by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form. An alternative is to only take the courses you most need. Online instruction is usually cheaper than a traditional on-campus class for students who want to take a course or two to brush up on their technical skills or industry knowledge. (Learn more about student loans.)

Technical support may not be a click away. A recent computer and high-speed Internet access are essential for most e-learning programs. But be sure to visit the school's Web site to learn about any additional equipment and software you might need. For instance, you may need to download some multimedia plug-ins to your computer's Internet browser. Note that if there's a quirk in your computer -- such as a conflict between your laptop's anti-virus software and the online learning software -- you may need to call someone for a fix. To avoid problems, contact your potential school before you pay the registrar to ask about any technical support they provide. If your school does not provide I.T. help over the phone, make sure the school allows you to receive a full refund if technical problems prompt you to drop out after the first weeks of a class.

The best programs mix online coursework with in-person classroom or field time. Students often find that they gain the most benefit from a class if it includes group projects or fieldwork. For example, traditional MBA programs simulate real-world problem solving with team projects. Recognizing this, the best Web MBA programs mix online instruction with face-to-face classroom meetings. For Duke University's Executive MBA Cross Continent program, the entire class meets at the start of each term for a thorough weeklong session. Then the class is divided into groups that work together online for six more weeks. If you're seeking a degree, ask people who have received the degree in a traditional or online format which face-to-face parts of their education were invaluable. Then look for an online program that simulates that face-to-face interaction.

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Cramming may not be an option. Don't assume that your study schedule will necessarily be more flexible if you're studying online instead of attending classes at a campus at a fixed time. Online classes may require you to log in and comment or chat about assignments every other day throughout the term. That frequent pace may require more daily discipline than attending a traditional class in which the workload is often bunched around one or two tests and writing assignments. Be sure your friends or family understand that you'll need to set aside hours each day to study uninterrupted.

Go ahead. Pass notes while the teacher's talking. The best e-learning programs provide online interaction through chat rooms or instant message centers. Educators have found that students retain a better understanding of the material if they discuss it among their fellow students -- even in the middle of a video lecture. If your program doesn't offer high-tech means for group communication, form a virtual study group by trading emails with other students. Educators say you're more likely to finish a distance learning program if you have the shared support of others going through the classes at the same time.