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Back to School For Moms Too

By Meagan Francis

A degree, certification or courses in a chosen field can boost employability, lead to pay raises and provide personal satisfaction. But between juggling kids, a house and maybe a job, the idea of pursuing higher education might seem like no more than a pipe dream for many busy parents.

What if you could reach your educational goals without the hassle of commuting, the restrictions of a set class schedule and the costs of child care? Thanks to the Internet, remote schooling is more than a dream — it’s a reality for many people, whether they want to take a class or two off-campus, need some job training or want to complete an entire program,all from the comfort of their own home, working a schedule that is convenient for them and their family.

Many community colleges and some universities are now offering Internet-based courses as a part of their curriculum. The credit counts the same way as a traditional, on-campus class would, and you still can still qualify for financial aid (including living costs).

The difference is that the lectures happen via e-mail and bulletin board conversations, and coursework is, for the most part, done from home. Although an occasional on-campus exam or meeting may be required, these are infrequent and can usually be scheduled around other responsibilities.

Exams can often be proctored for students living a considerable distance from campus, and meetings can usually take place via chat rooms or on the phone.

A perfect fit
Sarah, a single mom of two children under the age of six, found the virtual college experience to be just what she needed. “I divorced when my children were really small, and I really wanted to stay with them as much as possible,” says Sarah. “I was so excited when I found that my local college had a virtual campus! I was able to work part-time and get financial aid to take classes from home.”

Another mother, Amy, found that the flexible nature of Internet classes fit in perfectly with her busy life. “I did most of my coursework while the kids were asleep or entertained with something else. I completed my entire associate’s degree online,” says Amy, who is now working toward a bachelor’s degree in business management online.

Finding an exclusively virtual program in your chosen field may require some research. Although more and more colleges are offering entire programs online, the degree you want might not be an option locally, meaning you may have to find an out-of-state school.

Beware! Many non-accredited universities lurk on the web. A good rule of thumb: if your potential school’s web address ends in .edu, it is most likely an accredited college or university. If it ends in .org or .com, watch out — the degree you earn may be virtually useless in your chosen field or for transfer to another school. Check out the school’s accreditation status before you enroll.

Is virtual learning for you?
Remember, while online learning is a flexible method of earning college credit, most courses are not self-paced. Although you can do the work at a time that is convenient for you, there are due dates to be met and sometimes group projects to coordinate.

Organization, independence and a high level of motivation are necessary characteristics of a distance learner, who must be responsible for keeping track of his or her own assignment due dates and test dates. Also, since there are limited opportunities for face-to-face meetings with instructors and classmates in a virtual setting, the ability to communicate clearly via e-mail and message board discussions is crucial.

And last, a distance learner must be familiar enough with using the Internet to get around the course website, find the assignments and conduct research. Most virtual programs offer a tutorial to help get you started; take advantage of this and ask your instructor any questions that come up in those first few weeks.

You will also need to meet certain technology requirements. First, you must own a reasonably new computer that is hooked up to the Internet or have regular access to one. Also, certain courses may require that you own or purchase specific computer software. Check the technology and software requirements for your intended classes before the semester starts to avoid unwelcome surprises. And remember, financial aid may cover the costs of computer software and Internet access, as these are school-related expenses.

Getting started
To get started, check with your local community college or university and see what programs and classes are offered locally. If the selection isn’t what you were hoping for, try a collaborative service such as the Michigan Community College Virtual Learning Collaborative for a wide selection of classes. Apply to the college of your choice, apply for financial aid and once accepted, register for classes.

Almost there — now just stay organized, keep on top of your course schedule, and have fun. You are on your way to meeting your educational goals!

© Meagan Francis

Meagan Francis is the mother of three wonderful sons. While she's not tracking down Bionicle pieces, she works as the office manager/ communications director for a freestanding birth center. She's also a freelance writer and has been published in magazines like Brain,Child, Skirt! and ePregnancy.


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