Ensure courses allow element of interaction
Many of the benefits of online learning are obvious.
To start with, it is convenient. You can study when and where you want. You do not have to waste time and money going to and from class. You can study after the children have gone to bed, or on your way to work in the morning.
You can keep up with lectures while on business trips. And if you suddenly learn that your company is transferring you to another city (or another country) you can continue your studies uninterrupted.
But there are other advantages, as well. One of the less obvious is that online learning provides a level playing field, giving shy students more of a chance to participate than they would in a classroom setting.
Another is that resourceful students can develop a global network of contacts in an increasingly interdependent world.
The skills developed while studying online, meanwhile, can pay big dividends in the workplace where cyber-literacy is becoming increasingly valued.
But despite the advantages, it is still an issue of buyer beware.
Before you sign up for the first online course you see advertised, you should map out your needs. Not all online courses are equally good and meet universal needs.
Lynne McNamara, programme development for Asia, University of Maryland University College (UMUC), the world's largest pro vider of online education, said students should do their homework before signing up for an online course.
The first thing to consider is your learning style. Are you a self- starter who does not need much motivation, or do you prefer to interact with other people?
Some online learning is similar to old-style correspondence courses. The only difference is that you download lecture notes from the Interent instead of receiving them in the mail.
'There's nothing wrong with that, if a student can survive in that mode,' Dr McNamara said.
'But if you want to get involved with other people, you need something more interactive,' she said.
Second, consider what kinds of services are offered online. Can you apply, register and get advice electronically? Can you pay tuition fees electronically? Can you purchase your textbooks online?
What about library services? What kinds of resources are available to you online? If you are doing research, can you get your hands on any books you might need from a university library?
'If a student is doing serious research, we will FedEx him a book from one of our campus libraries in Maryland, and then provide him a way to get it back to us,' Dr McNamara said.
Next, you should consider the user-friendliness of the programme's Web-site.
Is it easy to negotiate, or does it take ages to access the sites you need?
Where do you expect the course to take you? Is it credit or non- credit? Can the course lead to a degree? Can credits be accumulated or transferred to other learning institutions?
How often are follow-up courses offered? How many intakes are offered per year? Is the institution offering the course accredited? If so, by what body?
'It really depends on where you are going,' Dr McNamara said.
'If you only want to take a short course to learn a specific skill, that's fine. But students should understand that non-credit courses don't lead to anything,' she said.
Another important issue is how the course compares to those that are offered on site.
Are the assignments the same? Is there a final assessment, or does everyone just pass? Do students interact with a professor or with a tutor? Do you work independently, or with other students? Can you ask questions? Are there live chat rooms?
And what about fees?
'If tuition is considerably higher than on-site courses, I would certainly question that,' Dr McNamara said.
A final but important consideration is class size.
Dr McNamara believes classes with more than 25 to 30 students do not allow professors to get to know their students well enough - and this is every bit as important online as it is on site.
'It is very important that there is interaction between students and the professor and among students,' she said.
'From a consumer's standpoint, if you never get to talk to your professor online, and he never gets to know you, you are not getting your money's worth.'