One in 10 students today are pursuing higher education degrees wholly on the Web, and even more are making use of hybrid models of classroom and online coursework. Colleges and universities are rushing to meet this growing demand, offering a huge variety of online degree or certificate programs as well as single courses through free platforms such as Coursera or edX.
Because online courses come in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes, choosing one to sign up for can be daunting. Doing your homework before enrolling can pay off, says Mike Lambert of the Distance Education and Training Council. He suggests examining at least eight programs before committing.
"Compare the same things you'd look at in a traditional college: price, content, faculty, reputation," Lambert says. Plus, he adds, it always helps to know what your goal is for the course going in. "Is this truly the best path to your dream job?"
With that in mind, here are several examples of the most popular, award-winning and pioneering courses the Web has to offer.
1. For the Florence Nightingales: Western Governors University's College of Health Professions, B.S. in Nursing
Established by 19 governors, WGU is a virtual university that takes a competency-based approach to learning, meaning that students have to pass a final exam rather than just show they have taken particular classes. Its health management and nursing programs were developed hand-in-hand with future employers for the specific skills they seek. For aspiring RNs in California, Indiana, Utah and Texas, simulations let students learn to collect vital signs, analyze lab results, even take a medical history - in preparation for on-site clinical work. Healthcare giant Hospital Corporation of America recruits heavily among WGU grads.
What you'll learn: How to use cutting-edge medical technology.
Cost: $2,890 per six-week term
2. For the computer geek: Udacity's Artificial Intelligence
Taught by Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford computer science professor and Google fellow, this Artificial Intelligence class is often credited for sparking the worldwide interest in "massive open online courses," or MOOCs, which are free. Hundreds of thousands have enrolled, and students themselves have translated Thrun's teaching into some nearly 50 languages. Former Secretary of Education William Bennett has suggested what Thrun is doing is the "future of higher education."
What you'll learn: How to program a self-driving car.
3. For the aspiring jet-setter: Duke Global Executive MBA
Shanghai, Dubai, Delhi and Moscow. These are the global business hubs where the 55 executives in this EMBA program meet — but only after two months in a virtual classroom. Lessons include corporate finance, operations and strategy. Business education is probably the most popular online degree right now, and grads of this 15-month program work for top employers, including Apple, Capital One, SAP and Sprint.
What you'll learn: How to negotiate the next big deal on any continent.
4. For the manager-in-training: UC-Berkeley Extension School Certificate in Project Management
Online certificate programs can be an expedient way to gain specific new job skills, and this eight-week program, vetted by UC-Berkeley's top-ranked Haas School of Business, is often cited by experts as among the best. Management, of course, is a skill in demand by nearly all employers, and on their way to this certificate students must work in teams — virtually — to develop problem-solving techniques. "This was the best college educational experience I've had," says grad Heather Lozano. "Instructors were top-notch, as are your classmates."
What you'll learn: How to bring a job in on budget.
Cost: $4,200 to $4,700
5. For the Al Gore acolyte: Penn State's Baccalaureate Program in Energy and Sustainability Policy
Penn State's World Campus is among the most-developed online curriculums now available, and e-learning clearinghouse Sloan Consortium recently named this undergraduate degree its 2012 Outstanding Online Program. It's designed for those interested in alternative energy careers who have completed an associate degree or two years of a bachelor's degree.
What you'll learn: How to launch a green energy business.
Cost: approximately $63,000 for 121 required credits
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