5 Myths of Online Professional Development—Busted

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It’s hard to deny the convenience of an online class, especially when time for professional development or advanced coursework is limited. But do you worry about taking a class where you never see classmates or the instructor, and do you wonder whether an online class will really be worth your time and money, or even accepted by your district?

The reality? Online classes are not only as challenging as traditional courses, but if designed the right way, they can boost your collaborative, multitasking and technology skills—more so than their in-person counterparts, says Dr. Mega Subramaniam, assistant professor in the college of information studies at the University of Maryland. Here we deconstruct 5 myths about online classes:

Myth #1: No peer collaboration.

With classmates spread across the country, online courses actually force you out of your comfort zone and encourage you to collaborate and interact with new people, Subramaniam says. In person, people tend to stick with who they already know. Plus, discussion threads in an online class keep on going well after the class session has ended, giving you and your classmates time to share, reflect and expand on the course material. In a traditional classroom, once the class period ends, so does the discussion of that night’s topic. “If (an online) course is designed properly, you’ll actually have the benefit of more collaboration than in the classroom,” Subramaniam says.

What to look for: Active blogs, wikis and online communities specifically geared toward your course of study or specific class.

Myth #2: Limited access to instructors.

Communication capabilities via instant and text messaging and email means you’ll have ample opportunities to interact with instructors. Jo Porter, who worked on her master’s in educational leadership at the entirely online Western Governors University, says that in her online program students are assigned mentor instructors who check in to ensure they stay on task. “You don’t feel like you’re lost out there in the jungle,” Porter says. “It’s almost impossible to go online and not find someone.” Western Governors also has subject specialists who monitor online discussions. 

What to look for: Engaged instructors who respond to and monitor discussion boards.  A good instructor also might create a video podcast to introduce themselves to students and allow them to put a face with a name, Subramanian says. 

Myth # 3: Lack of accreditation.

Online work is becoming the norm for busy professionals. Western Governors strives to make sure its programs are accepted by employers and accredited for what students will need in the workforce. Porter says she checked first with her state education department and looked at online reviews of the program before choosing it over other online institutions.

What to look for: Find out what programs and courses are offered at the online school, research their accreditation, and talk to your school district or state education departments about what they expect and accept.

Myth #4: Courses aren’t challenging.

Competition to attract students means institutions work hard to ensure online courses are reputable. In fact, online courses require students to learn new technology and to multitask, looking at online whiteboards while following the class chat and offering their own input, Subramaniam says. Joan Mitchell, head of public relations for Western Governors, says the school goes after those students who want a challenge. “It’s very rigorous,” Mitchell says of the school. “We’re very focused on making sure our degrees are very challenging.”

What to look for: Online programs that survey employers of its graduates to find out how prepared they were and how they stacked up compared to graduates of other programs.

Myth #5: Classes are too costly.

Costs vary widely from program to program, so don’t assume all online classes are too expensive. Also, some online programs, like Western Governors, allow you to take assessments to skip coursework that repeats what you already know from professional experience. Contrast that with brick-and-mortar institutions, which typically have prerequisites and core course requirements that all students have to take, no matter their experience. From this perspective, you can see the cost saving with online courses. Western Governors also has a set tuition plan rather than a per-course cost. And don’t forget to take advantage of discounts and scholarships!

What to look for: Consider taking a test session or attending a virtual orientation to the program you’re considering, and find out who will be teaching the courses to ensure you get your money’s worth.

The bottom line: Properly designed online programs will be as challenging – or more – than a traditional in-person program. To make sure, do your homework before signing up.

-- Published March 11, 2011

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