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GETTING STARTED WITH AN ONLINE DEGREE
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Distance education basics

Not all distance education is done through online degree programs. Distance Education (DE), also known as Distance Learning (DL), is simply learning from a distance, usually from home, or from a conveniently located off-campus site. DL allows adults to earn college credits, even entire degrees, without ever leaving home. DL makes use of the Internet, software, modems, TV stations, 2-way television using fiber optics, microwave, digital phone lines, satellites, radio, ham radio, video cassette and audio tape, and normal mail to deliver instruction. Online degrees are one particular type of DL.

DL also refers to on-campus classes where the professor is not physically present, but communicating with students at several sites simultaneously via television, modem, or some other electronic means. DL is part of all degree types, from the A.A. to the Ph.D., and is an option in most majors, and at hundreds of universities worldwide. Online degrees have fast become one of the favorite learning ways for huge amounts of students.

A broader definition of DL includes non-credit courses, workshops, seminars, and career credits like CEUs (continuing education credits). DL is for people who want to learn a new skill, or just pick up a few new ideas for the fun of learning. Additionally, DL is an exciting and growing part of public and private schools from elementary level through high school in many areas such as math, science, and languages. Shared courses offered via satellite, fiber optic cable and videocassette connect schools in the same town, or great distances apart, whether they belong to an online degree program or not.

Courses can be one-way or two-way. Finally, pre-university distance education, commonly known as home-schooling, is a type of DL. Typically, a home-schooled child is taught by his or her parents, however, sometimes, the child is tutored at home in part or completely via modem or TV course.

The definitions of terms like college credit and degree vary around the world. In the US, college credits are proportional to semester hours, and how quickly they are earned is usually determined by the number of hours spent in class, i.e., three hours spent in a course each week for one semester equals 3 college credits. Online degree programs have needed to find their own credit allocation systems.

Some courses will be worth 1 credit hour, and some, 6, 9, or even 12 credit hours. Three credit hours per course is most common. Even though online degrees do not follow a traditional course of study in classrooms, they are awarded based on the DL equivalent of college credits earned.

There are four degree levels in the USA and in some other parts of the World:

   The Associate of Arts (AA) degree is a two year degree, traditionally, requiring 60 semester hours of undergraduate study.

   The Bachelor of Arts (BA), or Science (BS) degree is traditionally a 4 year degree of 120 semester hours of credit.

   The Master of Arts (MA), or Science (MS) degree is the first level of graduate study beyond a bachelor degree. It requires 30 semester hours of credit beyond the bachelors. It is more focused in a subject area than the bachelors and may require original research in the form of a thesis.

   The Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree is a post-graduate degree encompassing 90 semester hours beyond the bachelors program. The doctorate goes by other names, too, such as Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) or Doctor of Business Administration (DBA). The Ph.D. and its equivalents are the highest academic degree that can be earned.

Other structures found around the world encompass a 3-year bachelor degree program, with direct entry into a 3-year doctoral research program, sometimes by means of a Master of Philosophy research scheme that is later converted into a PhD. Where credits can be earned from prior learning or experience, the times can be proportionately shorter. Master's and doctoral degrees can also be earned by a combination of coursework, testing and dissertation. Online degree programs just integrate these structures into the web-based system.

For most students, DL remains primarily a books and paper proposition, as well as an independent study effort, but is made more convenient with the delivery of information via the Internet, the web, online services, telephone, TV, satellite courses, VHS tapes, cassette tapes, records, radio, ham radio, and CD-ROM. In fact, online degrees have reshaped the way distance learning was usually looked at. Many DL programs are correspondence courses where books, materials, and coursework are exchanged through the mail.

However, there are online degree courses which are completely electronic, such as interactive multimedia courses, and group learning in virtual classrooms. These options are growing in number and scope. Some online degree programs have residency requirements ranging from a single week-end to short campus periods.

DL also involves finding alternative ways to earn college credits or a full online degree, such as through challenge examinations. Mature students are particularly adept at testing out of courses by demonstrating subject mastery through a single online degree examination. Earning college credit for life and work experience through the creation of a student portfolio is another option common to some DL and online degree programs. Many people complete long unfinished Bachelor's degrees through the use of such portfolios.

The people who need DL are usually adults, for whom the convenience and appeal of earning college credits on all degree levels with minimal domestic disturbance is a great attraction. Parents, caregivers, working adults, and all busy people find DL to be an excellent way to combine studies and living. They find that an online degree program just allows them to go about their business as usual and their family lives.

Most DL students are mature adults over the age of 25. Some DL programs cater exclusively to people over the age of 30. Others online degree studies have no age limits, and will admit otherwise qualified teens and gifted children.

People who prefer to study solo can do so with DL, whilst those who enjoy group learning can find DL classes online. People who live in remote areas or where weather can be extreme, those who have disabilities that make commuting difficult and many others just for the fun of it turn to DL as the only practical way to earn college credits or an online degree. There is scheduling flexibility in DL. Many courses start when the student is ready, not just in September and January. Online degree students can learn at any time of the day or night and there is no waiting for when a certain course will be offered at the traditional school. DL and online degree students can take any course anytime, and, sometimes, even help design the course they want to take.

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