Commit to College: Beginner’s Guide to Getting Your Online Degree

Army Times May 5, 2008 – Forget the “three Rs.” When it comes to getting an online education,  it’s the “three Cs” – computer, connection and commitment – that make the difference.

Whether you’re planning to start an online degree after giving the  traditional bricks-and-mortar college experience a try, or this is your  first foray into the world of higher education, doing your homework before  you enroll will help ensure your academic journey is not paved with  pain.

Here’s how to start your online degree on the right foot:

Get a computer that works

You don’t have to have the newest and most expensive piece of  equipment, loaded with the latest software. You do need a good, reliable  machine that can support basic functions such as word processing and  Internet access.

Just as important as having a computer? Knowing how to use it, said  Christine Shelly, executive vice president of the online Grantham  University.

Prospective online learners need to evaluate their basic computer  skills, Shelly said. Can you type? Are you proficient with e-mail? Can you  open and download attachments? Do you know how to navigate the Web?

Ensuring you’ll have regular access to your computer also is critical.  Shelly said online learning can be a challenge for those whose work  requires a lot of travel, so make sure you’ll be able to stay connected in  the event of a deployment or a temporary-duty assignment. 

Consider also that sharing a computer can limit the time you’ll have  access to a machine.

“Almost half of our students are on a shared computer,” said Dr. Frank  McCluskey, provost of American Public University System, which includes  the online American Military University and American Public University.

“Sharing” can mean with a roommate or family members – or with six men  or women in a tent in Iraq. Whatever your situation, make sure it allows  for ample time at the keyboard.

Choose high-speed Internet

University of Maryland University College, one of the nation’s largest  providers of online higher education, recommends students allow for three  hours of computer time per credit per week. That equals nine hours of  weekly online time for a three-credit course.

Online learners should have a consistent and preferably high-speed  Internet connection. UMUC academic adviser Kevin Molitor said DSL  technology is usually sufficient – at least for those pursuing  undergraduate degrees.

Only have access to dial-up?

“You could get by,” Molitor said, but a slower connection could make it  frustrating to work on the Internet. Faster connections also make for  smoother viewing of video files and better sound quality.

“Requirements do vary by course,” he said. The school lets students  know what they’re getting into before embarking upon a specific course.

The Web site Online-Education-Resources.com addresses specific computer  hardware, software and Internet-connection recommendations for online  students.

Make the commitment

Your computer and high-speed Internet connection are worthless without  the third “C” – commitment.

“This is going to be a pretty long-term commitment,” Molitor said.

Indeed, in the American Public University System, 98 percent of whose  students are employed – 70 percent of those serve in the military, with  more than 1,000 serving in Iraq – it takes an average of 6∏ years to  complete a bachelor’s degree, McCluskey said.

Molitor said the average at UMUC is four to six years. At Grantham,  where about 80 percent of students are active-duty military or have prior  service, students who enter a field of study with few transfer credits and  who take 16 to 18 credit hours a semester can take up to seven years to  earn a bachelor’s, Shelly said.

Even students at traditional colleges and universities often take five  or more years to complete a bachelor’s, she said.

“The important thing is to stay goal-oriented throughout the entire  degree, and just be hungry and know the satisfaction you are going to get  holding that diploma,” Molitor said.

Make sure you have a plan – and stick to it, McCluskey added.

And you’re not the only one who has to commit to your college education.

“Do you have the support of your … command structure, your family and  your friends?” Shelly asked. “This is often overlooked.”

The typical online student is a working adult with multiple demands on  his time, talents and resources. Before starting a degree, make sure you  have plenty of outside support.

Be realistic – look within

“Online learning is not for everyone,” McCluskey said. “You need  self-discipline and motivation to do it.”
 
Good time-management and communication skills are imperative. Molitor  believes everyone possesses these necessary skills for online learning.

The caveat?
 
“It’s just utilizing them and committing to it,” he said.

Another crucial element to success in online learning is choosing the  right school.
 
McCluskey recommends looking for a college or university that has good  student satisfaction. Check Web sites such as RateMyProfessors.com and  OnlineDegreeReview.com.
 
Find a college that understands

Finding a military-friendly school also helps, the experts said.
 
Schools that deal with high volumes of military students are experts in  helping those students navigate the particular challenges associated with  combining education and service, including taking advantage of military  education benefits, transferring credits, applying credits for military  training and resolving deadline dilemmas when something unexpected happens  – as it often does.
 
Sgt. 1st Class John Rodriguez already has reaped the benefits of  choosing wisely. Six courses away from earning his bachelor’s in business  administration from UMUC, the 37-year-old battalion motor sergeant from  Fort Gordon, Ga., has high praises for the school.
 
He said he’s never had a problem getting a deadline extension because  of a military obligation.

“UMUC understands if I have to go on an exercise where I am not going  to have Net access,” he said. “They understand that we have a job to do in  the military and that job doesn’t have set hours.”