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.
"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."