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What you should know about online learning

As COVID-19 moves America’s students out of the classroom and into studying at home, a school with 20 years’ experience in online learning can offer some advice.

In the flash of an eye, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of American life. Among the most dramatic upheavals has been in the way students learn in schools and colleges at every level. In higher education, the traditional model of classroom-based, face-to-face instruction has suddenly shifted to online learning, a shift of technology and mindset for which few were prepared.

While many other schools have struggled with this new approach to learning, Western Governors University is taking it all in stride, since we’ve been teaching our students and awarding degrees this way for more than 20 years. As a fully online university since our founding in 1997 by a collaborative of state governors, WGU has learned a few things that can be helpful to others in these fast-changing times.

1. Students thrive when they have help. Learning online doesn’t mean learning alone. Years of experience have taught us how important it is for students to feel connected, even when they’re working on their schedule, in their way. To succeed, a student needs someone to check on their progress, help them with any needs, and keep them connected to the career path. At WGU students are assigned program mentors to meet with them regularly online, helping them from their first day of classes until graduation. This supports the regular guidance each student receives from faculty members assigned to each course, instructors who are always available to talk with students one-on-one.

2. Students want to be in control of their online learning. Many college students have to balance coursework with demands of work or family obligations — often both. To reach that balance, students need to know they’re in control of their education. One big step in that direction comes from WGU’s focus on competency-based education, which allows students to move through their courses on their timeline and to finish a course as quickly as they can master the material. For effective online learning, students need to do their work when it is best for them so they can manage jobs and families alongside their schooling.

3. Students want assurance their online degree has value. When it comes to online schooling, students want to know their degree holds the same value as one earned in a traditional classroom. More than ever, accredited online degree programs are well-received by employers. But many online schooling programs aren’t accredited, which can make their degrees less valuable as career builders. WGU is a nonprofit, fully online, and regionally accredited institution, which is a rarity among online learning options.

4. Students want a cost-effective degree program. Especially in the face of today’s economic turndown, students are looking for a degree program that meets their needs without breaking the bank. With no campus or classrooms, online WGU is able to keep tuition costs low. Tuition is charged per six-month term, not per credit, so students take courses at a pace that works them. And competency-based learning means that graduating faster can save students money.  A school’s accreditation matters here as well, since it opens federal tuition assistance, loans and grants that non-accredited schools cannot offer.

5. Students want transfer options for any earlier college credits. Transfer options for previous college-level work, included advanced highs school courses, are important to help students who want to apply those credits toward their online degree. WGU’s transfer policy allows students to use their past experience to waive courses they may not need. With or without waivers, our competency-based education model can let students use their experience to move more quickly toward a degree.

The technologies, methods, and mindset of higher education have changed overnight in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Techniques of learning that may be new and challenging for others are the ways Western Governors University has been successfully educating students for more than 20 years. We’ve learned a lot about online learning over that time and can share that experience with others now facing a steep learning curve.

K. L. Allen is state director of WGU Ohio, the state affiliate of online, nonprofit Western Governors University.

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