Go Back to School Online
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Go Back to School Online

Whether you want to earn a degree, acquire new job skills, or just broaden your mind, turn on your computer and you'll find a worldwide web of information at your fingertips.

Explore Your Interests

Let's face it: Spending hours in crowded lecture halls and commuting to a college campus just aren't options for most working women. But that doesn't mean you have to abandon your dream of getting a degree. Sign up for online classes and you can complete your course work at your convenience and at your own pace -- all while keeping your day job.

Demand for this appealing alternative has exploded: Of the more than 3 million Americans over 35 who are enrolled in degree-granting schools, nearly a third do some of the work off campus. In response, colleges and universities have begun offering an ever-wider array of online curricula and courses. You can earn degrees as diverse as an associate's in healthcare administration, a bachelor's in medieval philosophy, or a master's in public policy, largely from the comfort of your living room. Increasingly, even fields that require on-site training -- such as nursing, physical therapy, and teaching -- allow you to do most of the work online.

Genevieve Howard, 39, received her master's in education from the University of Missouri last May. Her focus on educational technology led to her current job of managing some 22 Web sites for the university. "I liked my old job as an event planner, but I was in my mid-30s and thought, Do I really want to do this another 30 years?" she says. Howard had always been interested in technology, and two friends who'd completed online master's degrees recommended that she look into it. A working mom, she took all but one of her courses online, which allowed her to do the bulk of her studying at night and on weekends. "My son was 8 when I started the program, and I was already apart from him all day long," Howard recalls. "This way, we could be together in the evenings and I could pick my own time to do schoolwork. It would've been much harder on my family if I'd had to attend classes." Howard earned her master's degree in just over two years.

Among online education's biggest boosters is Robert Franek, vice president of publishing for the Princeton Review college and grad school guides. "It's no longer a class of 15 students sitting around one faculty member," he says. "Think of the diversity of ideas, backgrounds, and ages you get. That really adds to the depth of learning!"

What You're Getting Out of It

Howard is just as enthusiastic. "There were students in my classes who were in Saudi Arabia and Japan," she says. "It was incredible just to hear their perspectives." She credits the program with her career reinvention but values nearly as much the sense of community that arose in her virtual classroom. "I made friends with a woman from Nevada who was in 11 of the 12 classes I took," she recalls. "She came to Missouri for graduation, and I thought, 'Wow, she's been my friend for two years and this is the first time we've met!'"

With all of the online options out there, how do you know which ones are good? Fortunately, most of the major guides to U.S. colleges and universities now evaluate online programs along with brick-and-mortar institutions. Indeed, notes Franek, the 2009 edition of The Princeton Review Complete Book of Colleges features 149 online degree programs, both public and private. Some of these programs, like the University of Phoenix, exist almost solely online, but many institutions, such as the University of North Carolina and Florida State University, offer online degrees in addition to those available on campus.

Vicky Phillips, the founder of the online education Web site geteducated.com, says that her company's research has consistently shown that online degrees tied to a large public university hold more weight with employers. Degrees from institutions that operate only online or by correspondence earn the lowest approval ratings. Phillips also recommends choosing a school within the commuting area where you hope to launch your career. (To read student reviews of various programs, go to guidetoonlineschools.com.)

Above all, make absolutely sure that your program is accredited by an agency recognized by the Department of Education (ope.ed.gov/accreditation). Make no mistake -- not all accreditation is created equal. Some programs that bill themselves as accredited may in fact be what Phillips calls "diploma mills," questionable institutions that will award a paper credential in exchange for a fee, with little regard for the quality of the course work. Geteducated.com offers a free service, Diploma Mill Police, which has exposed more than 300 of them. The site also rates online degree programs, explains their accreditation, and offers admissions tips and financial aid info. For information about getting a license or certification in a nonacademic field such as real estate or fitness instruction, go to online-education.net.

So, where to start?
Check out these sites to get started on your cyber quest:

Audit That Class...

These free and fabulous Web sites let you skip the course work and just listen to the lectures -- all by top professors in the field.

iTunes U
With more than 75,000 free lectures and videos, spanning topics from Photoshop to philosophy, iTtunes U has something for everyone. Download audio and video files from some of the country's most prestigious universities -- who better to talk about cutting-edge science and research than MIT or Yale professors? -- to iTunes (a free application you can download to your Mac or PC). Then watch or listen on your computer or personal MP3 player.

TED Online
Ted.com is chockablock with speeches by such high-profile movers and shakers as Jane Goodall, Al Gore, and Bono, all of whom were challenged to give the speech of their life -- in 18 minutes or less! -- at the annual TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference.

Become a Computer Whiz

The technology used in today's workplace changes constantly. Anyone who's not up to speed on the latest computer programs is at a major disadvantage. Fortunately, if you're savvy enough to find your way to one of the many Web sites offering online tutorials, you can master the tech skills that will keep you competitive -- without shelling out a fortune.

Present like a pro.
The Microsoft presentation program PowerPoint is used to create slide shows using text, graphics, and sound -- even animation. For free instruction on this essential business tool, as well as other software and skills for today's workplace (including how to link a video on YouTube), go to presentationsoft.about.com. Lessons can be accessed on the Web site or sent to you via e-mails.

Be a Web master.
There are tons of in-depth courses on Web site creation on the Internet, but for beginners, the free tutorial site webdevelopersnotes.com/tutorials is a great place to find out how to create a Web site and learn the basics of HTML (short for Hypertext Markup Language, the programming language used to format text and images for Web sites).

Top the charts.
For reasonably priced computer-training courses, go to illinoiscomputertraining.com. Offerings include instruction in QuickBooks accounting software ($70) and Microsoft Excel ($60), the widely used spreadsheet application.

Extra Credit

Sure, most women go back to school to get some sort of career retraining, but there are also plenty of online classes that are fun and often carry college credit. If you've always wanted to cook Chinese food, become fluent in French, or learn the difference between Manet and Monet, you're in luck. Those courses -- and many, many more -- are available with the click of a mouse.

online.academyart.edu -- You can earn an art degree or take classes purely for your own enrichment at the well-established online division of Academy of Art University, a San Francisco art school. Tuition is around $670 per course.

bbc.co.uk/languages -- This offshoot of the BBC site offers free audio and video tutorials and activities for several romance languages, including French, Spanish, and Italian.

loquella.com -- Based on the Foreign Service Institute's language classes, Loquella offers monthly online lessons, as well as audio files to download to your iPod.

rosettastone.com -- The more than 30 languages taught in these online classes include Chinese, Welsh, and Swahili. A six-month online subscription costs $200 and gives students unlimited access to the site.

hearandplay.com -- Learn to play guitar, piano, keyboard, and more by ear via Hear and Play's free video lessons, newsletter, and podcasts.

berkleemusic.com -- Almost 80 music classes are available through the online extension of the renowned Berklee College of Music. Starting at $895, a typical course includes weekly lessons and round-the-clock chatroom access.

fridaycenter.unc.edu -- The William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers a host of online classes that can be taken for college credit, including English and comparative literature. Courses start at $849 for nonresidents of North Carolina.

lhj.com/cookingschool -- You'll find free cooking demos on everything from grilling with marinade to making freezer jam on Ladies' Home Journal's very own Web site.

911cheferic.com -- For $12 per month, you can access cooking slide shows and videos with master French Chef Eric.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2009.