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A Guide to Online Learning

Chapter I: Introduction

For sheer drama and life-changing potential, one could hardly have asked for a more extraordinary moment. When information technology was introduced into the halls of higher education – when higher education went online – the power and promise of the internet was realized in ways unimagined only a few decades ago.

As a result, millions of people – nurses and accountants, social workers and information technologists, retirees and business consultants, people from every culture and corner of the globe – can sit down at their computers at all hours of the day and night to log onto virtual classrooms. In the process, they are changing themselves and the world.

As more and more people look to online education to fulfill long-held dreams or to meet workplace demands, questions arise. Is online education the right path forward? What questions should be asked before making a commitment? How does online learning differ from face-to-face learning? What kinds of courses are available online? Which schools enjoy the best reputation? What is accreditation and how important is it? Are the degrees earned through online courses well respected and recognized?

Informed Decision Makers

The goal of this guide is twofold. First, this guide presents a comprehensive and detailed picture of what online learning is and what to expect in an online learning environment. Second, by answering some common questions and by debunking some prevailing myths about online learning, this guide enables adult learners to become truly informed decision makers, fully prepared to transform their lives and their communities.

Designed for Adult Learners

Adult Online LearnerDesigned for undergraduates, this guide speaks to a wide range of motivated adult learners with the kind of day-to-day responsibilities that put face-to-face learning out of reach. A world of information exists online for post-graduate studies, but the focus here is on the adult learner who is considering a certificate program or wants to earn a bachelor’s degree.

A Revolution, Online

Online education is a revolution in the making. As access to higher education grows exponentially, online learning has the potential to affect millions of lives and to profoundly change attitudes and behaviors around lifelong learning and professional development.

Online learning delivers new ideas and leading-edge information to people faster and in different ways. At the same time, online learning is creating a shift. A longstanding tradition that places the teacher at the front of a classroom, the sage on the stage, who dispenses knowledge to a mostly passive audience, is being replaced by an entirely new approach, a guide at the side, who facilitates a journey of self-discovery and learning.

As new technologies merge with new teaching styles and new ways of delivering knowledge and information, a global community – connected via professional, personal, and educational networks – is logging onto the Web to satisfy a universal human desire to learn more.

So onto a central question: Is this brave new world for you?


Chapter II: Face-to-Face or Virtual? Is Online Learning for You?

At Linfield College and at other leading institutions, online learning offers committed adult learners an education that is equal to and, in some instances, more rigorous than one might acquire in a face-to-face learning environment. But there is an even greater promise to this revolution. Online learning is about access, flexibility, and community. It’s about personal transformation. Online learning delivers access and flexibility – the central promises of this entirely new and multifaceted approach to higher education – in ways not possible in face-to-face learning. On another level, online learning is about different methods of delivery.

This new way of learning allows a myriad of possibilities. You can continue to live, work, and manage your life while you “attend” classes and complete assignments. The old obstacles to completing your degree or seeking the personal and/or professional development you have longed for have disappeared. If you cannot find the time to go to the Linfield College campus or any other campus, or you face other kinds of impediments to physically attending classes, there is good news. You still have access to knowledge. You still have access to some of the best minds and educational institutions available, anywhere, anytime. By any measure, this is truly revolutionary.

As people from different walks of life and different religious, cultural, or work backgrounds converge in an online classroom, the whole idea of how people learn and how we define a learning community changes. New possibilities and opportunities emerge. Doors open. The world changes for the better. Life is good.

And yet it is an indisputable fact that the online environment asks something different of you. It asks more of you in terms of self-direction, self-discipline, and participation. Face-to-face learning has a defined structure that is rooted in schedules, time, and, place. You physically attend classes, labs, seminars, lectures, or workshops. You take notes and participate in discussions, and you may be called on to make presentations. That is a world most of us know very well.

As we’ll find out soon, online learning is distinctly different.

The Sage and the Guide

The notion of structure – the impulse to organize information, people, and ideas – is central to the concept of progress and modernity. But in higher education, some educators are now taking a different view of structure, especially traditional, face-to-face learning structures. Traditional approaches are passive, they say. Students are “spoon-fed” information and material by a person who stands at the front of a classroom, the “sage on a stage” mentioned in the introduction. While online learning is a growing phenomenon, there is, coincidentally, a renewed interest in a different model: the “guide at the side” who facilitates a self-directed approach to learning, inquiry, and discovery. The individual is an active participant in his or her learning process. Online learning is tailor-made for this, and it should be noted, self-directed learning harkens back to a much earlier time when the individual was in charge of his or her own education.

Course Design

As is the case in face-to-face learning, educators who teach online courses have great latitude in designing courses that are uniquely their own, customizing the approach to fit the material and employing new technologies – such as blogs, chat rooms, discussion boards, Websites, streaming video, or podcasts – to engage and inspire their adult learners. Much of online learning is currently text based, but around the corner is a wide, multimedia world waiting to be explored.

Online learning is more than a little different. You must organize and structure your time. You are the seeker of information. Participation is not optional.

For many reasons, for many disciplines and for many people, traditional, campus-based learning environments will always play a significant role in higher education. For younger adult learners especially, that kind of structure is both necessary and appealing.

A Smaller Carbon Footprint

Online LearnerThe delivery of education via the internet has an additional benefit, not often discussed. In an age of global warming and volatile gas prices, online learning has something to offer the world: the delivery of knowledge with a much smaller carbon footprint. As we become ever more conscious and deliberate about living and working sustainably, online learning stands as a powerful, conscientious alternative to conventional brick-and-mortar classrooms.

Lynn Travis – Artist, Business Partner, Wife, Accounting Student

Lynn Travis is 54 years old. She lives with her husband in the MidCoast region of Maine, and together they own a design-build contracting business. Besides being her husband’s business partner, Lynn is a painter with gallery representation in some of Maine’s most prestigious art galleries. She volunteers in the community and is an avid gardener. She’s busy, creative, and focused. She is determined, motivated, self-disciplined, and active. And she has a bad back.

To gain some needed insights into the family business, Lynn did something a little uncharacteristic for her. She took an accounting class. As an artist, accounting is truly foreign territory, but she was determined to acquire some accounting skills to support the business. Even more unusual, she took the class online. “Because of a long history of back problems, I can’t sit in a classroom for three hours,” she said. “There is no way I can do that.” So she took the class online through her local university. “I’m not that savvy about computers, and I have to say that I have struggled a little bit. I have asked for and received technical help as I’ve needed it. But I absolutely love the flexibility that this approach gives me and I’m doing better every week.” She said that she is gaining some needed insight into the business and already has plans to take additional online classes after she completes this one. “I’m pretty confident that the technical issues are going to fade into the background very soon.” Her next class will likely be in art history, a longtime passion.

In a lot of ways, Lynn is typical of a new breed of adult learner. She is a seeker of information and knowledge. She is fearless and determined, motivated and self-directed. Throughout this e-book, we’ll meet other individuals much like Lynn who are going online to change and improve their lives.

Do You Have the Profile of an Online Learner?

Each person is different. But briefly, below is a rough sketch of what types of skills, habits, and attributes make for a successful online learner. To discover if your temperament is conducive to online learning, take Linfield's online learning survey.

Work and Study Habits

Learning Styles


What About the Technology?

Over time, the online environment has evolved. Cara Nicole Bruner, a current Linfield Business Management major who lives in Spain, was an online student at Linfield three years ago. “The online classroom was a bit tricky when it first appeared. Now it’s a completely different world. It’s very easy to use.”

For most people, the online classroom is quite simple to navigate. Anyone with basic computer skills, such as browsing the Web and using email, will have few problems. Here’s a small excerpt from a recent article in U.S. News & World Report.

How Much PC Skill Do I Need?

Universities (and the companies they hire to help them develop their e-learning networks) take great efforts to make the technical aspects of going to class online easy enough that anyone who has browsed the Web can do it. And any Internet-ready laptop or PC should be enough to tackle the class. That said, check your potential school's site for its equipment recommendations, along with the hours of its technical support teams (and whether it offers tech support online only or also allows you to talk to someone on the phone). If you haven't already upgraded to a broadband Internet connection, you'll definitely want to do that before starting a class.

In Chapter III, we’ll get into the specifics of technical assistance, how we help our adult learners at Linfield College, and what you should expect from any online-learning program in terms of technical assistance.

To Manage Your Time, Manage Your Life

"The bad news is time flies. The good news is you're the pilot." - Michael Altshuler

Depending on your circumstances, an online-learning experience has the potential to test you in multiple ways. Your ability to effectively navigate all that you have before you will be a major key to your success. Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People has tremendous value for anyone at any stage of life, but the book seems especially useful for someone seeking to build a new life and learning path. Covey’s advice goes well beyond time management to touch on life management. We offer this to you as both guidance and inspiration.

1. Be Proactive.

Change starts from within, and highly effective people make the decision to improve their lives through the things that they can influence rather than by simply reacting to external forces.

2. Begin With the End in Mind.

Develop a principle-centered personal mission statement. Extend the mission statement into long-term goals based on personal principles.

3. Put First Things First.

Spend time doing what fits into your personal mission, observing the proper balance between production and building production capacity. Identify the key roles that you take on in life, and make time for each of them

4. Think Win/Win.

Seek agreements and relationships that are mutually beneficial.

5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.

First seek to understand the other person, and only then try to be understood.

6. Synergy

Through trustful communication, find ways to leverage individual differences to create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

7. Sharpen the Saw.

Take time out from production to build production capacity through personal renewal of the physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual dimensions.

A Different Point of View on Win/Win

What makes the online community so fascinating is the presence of rich and diverse points of view. Here is a completely different take on Steven Covey’s win/win proposition:

“We've all heard the advice to ‘think win-win.’ Forget that advice. If you follow that advice, you will always be looking at things and saying, ‘What's in it for me?’ That's exactly the wrong attitude to have in a connected world.”

- From “The Seven Habits of Highly Connected People” by Stephen Downes

To read “The Seven Habits of Highly Connected People,” visit Stephen Downes’s blog. He works at the National Research Council of New Brunswick, Canada, and specializes in online learning, content syndication, and new media.

Chapter III: What Are Your Goals?

Begin With the End in Mind and Choose Carefully

As you begin the process of choosing a school or a program, consider Steven Covey’s second habit: Begin with the end in mind. This principle could hardly be more relevant. Here’s why. As you plan your future, ask yourself where you’d like to be after you complete your coursework. Is it enough to say “in business management” or “in nursing or the health care field”? Perhaps, but given how wide each of those fields is, perhaps not.

You should do everything possible to narrow your focus. Business management has many specializations, as do the nursing and, health care fields.

When you finally do narrow things down, here are some ways to make sure that the school and the program you choose offer the focused coursework that you’ll want and need.

First and foremost, if you are working toward a degree, the school you choose must be accredited by a respected regional accrediting body.

More information on accreditation is in Chapter VI.

Online LearnerRegardless of the path you take, your classes will not be inexpensive. Especially for those in pursuit of a degree, the costs can be significant, which means making the right decision is critical. You can reap a lifetime of benefits by taking the time for due diligence and research. After choosing a life partner, or a close friend, there is probably no bigger decision you can make. Choose carefully.

Three Steps – Review, Research, Ask Questions

Carefully review the schools online catalog and any printed materials you can acquire. It may sound obvious to say so, but be sure to look not only for courses and programs that match up with your interests, but look beyond those concerns. Many people assume that from an academic standpoint, one college may be roughly equal to another and that one academic department is like another. They are not.

In some ways, colleges can be compared to hospitals. One hospital may have an excellent reputation for managing heart attacks, but is less proficient in neonatal care. Conversely, one college may own a sterling reputation for nursing education, but is working hard to strengthen its information technology program. It’s your job to learn as much as you can about the school of your choice. Ask, and ask again.

Aaron Minnick: Online Learner

Aaron lives in Sacramento, California. In addition to holding down a full-time job as an account representative at a medical billing firm, he’s a husband and the father of two small children. His goal is to teach high-school history and he plans to become certified after he completes his degree in Social and Behavioral Sciences at Linfield College. “When I decided to go back to school to finish my degree, I’d never heard of Linfield College before. I found it on the Web. I looked at what accreditation meant and I did my research. Linfield was one of the few colleges that had what I was looking for. The professors have been great and it’s been a good experience.”

A person seeking a certificate in graphic design might look for a school or program that is focused on fine and applied arts. Faculty members should be known in their field and have significant experience and accomplishments. Likewise, if you are seeking a BSN, you want faculty members who have relevant nursing and teaching experience. Find out as much as you can about who teaches the courses you are interested in taking. An easy first step is Google. It’s an amazing research tool, and it’s free. Use it.

Guadalupe Gabba: Online Learner

Like many adult learners, Lupe always seems to have her sights set on a goal and for her, the goal was to get her BSN. Lupe is an ER/ICU nurse at Kaiser Permanente, and three years ago she began work in an outpatient pain management clinic. She discovered that she loved the work and with the help of Linfield’s nursing faculty, eventually completed her clinical rotation there. Lupe is currently enrolled in Linfield College’s BSN program – she graduates in May of 2009 – and her new goal is to stay on as a clinical nurse specialist in pain management.

“I do miss the back and forth personal interaction of a traditional classroom,” she said, “but the flexibility of being able to work while going to school overrides that concern.”

Not only has her level of patient care improved, but Lupe said she has grown as a person. The process of becoming a better educated person has opened her mind to global perspectives and she relishes being connected to new ideas in literature, in science, and the arts.

The U.S. News & World Report Website is a great resource. It’s where Sue Ingersoll, a Fed Ex station manager in Seattle and a recent Linfield College graduate in Business Management, got the information she needed to make her decision. It’s a treasure trove and an excellent place to begin your research.

The Sloan Consortium has an enormous library of relevant articles about online education. While much of the material is geared to administrators and policy makers, much of it is fascinating, informative, and best of all, free. Take advantage of this site.

Academic Advising

The most important thing you can do is to ask good questions of an advisor. Ask your undergraduate advisor about admission and technology requirements, and if you can contact members of the faculty directly to ask them about their approach and experience. Find out how previous adult learners have fared in their chosen professions. Keep asking questions. A good academic advisor is worth his or her weight in gold and can mean the difference between a great experience and a poor one.

Keep in mind that the competition for adult learners is very robust and that every school wants you as a student. Every effort should be made to answer your questions. If you have trouble getting clear, quick responses to your questions, that might be an indication that student support may not be what it should be.

The Importance of Setting Goals

As an online student, your life is distinctly different from a student who attends a classroom. In a physical (but not virtual) sense, you are somewhat alone. You don’t have the normal structures of traditional learning environments that can be helpful in keeping you on track. You have to do that for yourself. That’s where the importance of setting goals comes in.

Here’s an idea that you may find useful, and it doesn’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes. Each and every day, take a blank piece of paper and write down what your goals are for that day. You might also think about developing longer-term goals and writing those down as well.


What distinguishes a goal setter?

Goal setters have a purpose.

Goal setters are planners.

Goal setters have clarity.

Goal setters take responsibility.

Goal setters are problem solvers.

A Harvard Business School Study on Goal Setting: Why Write Your Goals Down?

A ten-year Harvard Business School Study showed that people who wrote out their goals earned ten times as much as people who didn’t.

Next: Learn How to Assess an Accredited Online School >>