THE BLOG
09/30/2014 10:39 am ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Are You Ready for Online Learning?

A question that prospective online students often ask us is "how do I know if I'm ready for an online course?" For adult students who may be juggling full-time jobs, families or other obligations the answer almost always involves time commitment. Online classes offer more flexibility, but flexibility does not mean less rigor. In fact, an online degree program can sometimes be more challenging than the traditional classroom.

So, how do you know if you are a good candidate for an online class? Consider these 10 tips before enrolling.

Consider the online learning environment
The online classroom is much different than the physical classroom. Sitting in the back row and not making eye contact to avoid being called upon is not an option. Online learning is engaging, participatory and challenging. Successful online courses require frequent and productive interaction between you and the content, instructor, and other students. Be prepared to work, as students generally spend 9-12 hours per week on each course.

Find a regionally accredited program
Regional (not "national") accreditation is the gold standard.

Now more than ever, students are focused on employment after graduation, and for good reason. It's important to recognize that not all programs are created equal in the eyes of employers. Try to stick with regionally accredited colleges and avoid the many online programs on the market that are unaccredited. If you're not sure about accreditation status, do your homework through the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the U.S. Department of Education.

Understand how you will be learning
As with any tech-oriented field, online learning is an ever-changing environment. Tools that are used this semester might not be used a year from now, or even a month from now. Email, discussion boards, links to course materials, web conferencing are all integrated into several online learning programs. While most allow for flexible schedules, there may be discussions or special events that require class participation at a set time to integrate personal interaction.

Talk with an admissions counselor
Admissions counselors are treasure troves of information. They'll be able to provide details on academic support services, specific degree programs, faculty members, other students, student services, financial aid, technical support and career services. These should all be considerations when choosing which services will best support you.

Explore academic support services
Very few traditional freshmen determine which college they will attend without first spending some time on campus. They want to see what services and facilities are available to students.

Do the same thing when considering an online program by exploring the institution's website to see what support services are provided and try to speak with an academic advisor. While access to databases and writing centers is important, an academic advisor can be a personal, ongoing resource throughout your college career and even after graduation.

Be computer ready
You don't need to be a technology guru to be successful in an online program but you do need to possess some basic technical skills and have a center level of comfort when navigating online. If you don't have that yet, consider enrolling in some sort of basic computer skills course prior to matriculating into a formal degree program.

Most courses don't require extravagant devices. A reliable computer and Internet connection should suffice, but check with your university beforehand to make sure. Most schools begin with an orientation that will help you acclimate to whichever software programs they use specifically.

Evaluate your reading and writing skills
Online programs demand tremendous reading and writing skills. Traditional lectures rarely happen so most of the content of the courses is gathered through videos and reading material online. Keep in mind that online reading is also very different from textbook reading. Many people find staring at a computer screen for long periods of time challenging.

Nearly all communication in online courses occurs through writing. Being able to convey what you know through your writing takes practice, but your grade, your professor's perception of your knowledge, and your success in higher level jobs depends upon it.

Get organized
You'll need to organize yourself not only in your course work, but on your computer in general. Folders are your friends. Create one for your entire online program and create sub-folders for each course. This will save you from "I know it's here somewhere" moments.

Organizing the rest of your life outside of your coursework will benefit both areas. Keeping your textbook and materials easily accessible also allows you to effectively use downtime productively. Instead of reading the latest celebrity gossip in the doctor's office, finishing assignments can create more free-time at home. Do some work on your course every day--even if it's only 15 or 20 minutes.

Plan how you will manage your time
Successful time-management will require sacrifice, support and discipline. Try as we might, no one has found a way to extend a day beyond 24 hours. Simply squeezing an online program into free time won't suffice. Some things will need to go in order to make it a priority.

Don't be ashamed to ask for support from family and friends to pick up some slack left elsewhere. Many hands make light work.

Online learning requires immense discipline. There is no professor stopping you in the hallway after class to remind you about an assignment. It is on you to stay on top of requirements and abide by deadlines.

Pursue your passion
You're considering online learning because you have a vision for your professional life beyond what your current education can accommodate. Now that you've identified the goal, make it a reality.

Online education is not a cakewalk. It requires grit, tenacity and perseverance. It's much easier to exercise these traits if you have that defined purpose in the front of your mind as a constant reminder.