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Guide to Online Learning

Chapter I: Introduction

For sheer drama and life‐changing potential, one could hardly have asked for a more extraordinary moment. When information technology was introduced into the halls of higher education – when higher education went online – the power and promise of the internet were realized in ways unimagined only a few decades ago.

As a result, millions of people – nurses and accountants, managers and information technologists, retirees and business consultants, people from every culture and corner of the globe can log onto virtual classrooms at all hours of the day and night. In the process, they are changing themselves and the world.

As more and more people look to online education to fulfill long‐held dreams or to meet workplace demands, questions arise. Is online education the right path forward? What questions should be asked before making a commitment? How does online learning differ from face‐to‐face learning? What kinds of courses are available online? Which schools enjoy the best reputation? What is accreditation and how important is it? Are the degrees earned through online courses well respected and recognized?

Informed Decision Makers

Jennifer RhafirThe goal of this guide is twofold. First, this guide presents a comprehensive and detailed picture of what online learning is and what to expect in a college or university online learning environment. Second, by answering some common questions and by debunking some prevailing myths about online learning, this guide enables adult learners to become truly informed decision makers, fully prepared to transform their lives and their communities.

Designed for Adult Learners

This guide speaks to a wide range of motivated adult learners with the kind of day‐to‐day responsibilities that put face‐to‐face learning out of reach. A world of information exists online for post‐graduate studies, but the focus here is on the adult learner who is considering a certificate program or wants to earn a bachelor’s degree.

A Revolution, Online

Online education is a revolution in the making. As access to higher education grows exponentially, online learning has the potential to affect millions of lives and to profoundly change attitudes and behaviors around lifelong learning and professional development.

Online learning delivers new ideas and leading‐edge information to people faster and in different ways. At the same time, online learning is creating a shift. A longstanding tradition that places the teacher at the front of a classroom, the sage on the stage, who dispenses knowledge to a mostly passive audience, is being replaced by an entirely new approach, a guide at the side, who facilitates a journey of self‐discovery and learning.

As new technologies merge with new teaching styles and new ways of delivering knowledge and information, a global community – connected via professional, personal, and educational networks – is logging onto the Web to satisfy a universal human desire to learn more.

So onto a central question: Is this brave new world for you?

Chapter II: Face-to-Face or Virtual? Is Online Learning for You?

At Linfield College and at other leading institutions, online learning offers committed adult learners an education that is equal to and, in some instances, more rigorous than one might acquire in a face‐to‐ face learning environment. But there is an even greater promise to this revolution. Online learning is about access, flexibility, and community. It’s about personal transformation. Online learning delivers access and flexibility – the central promises of this entirely new and multifaceted approach to higher education – in ways not possible in face‐to‐face learning. On another level, online learning is about different methods of delivery. 

This new way of learning allows a myriad of possibilities. You can continue to live, work, and manage your life while you “attend” classes and complete assignments. The old obstacles to completing your degree or seeking the personal and/or professional development you have longed for have disappeared. If you cannot find the time to attend classes on a Linfield College campus or any other campus, or you face other kinds of impediments to physically attending classes, there is good news. You still have access to knowledge. You still have access to some of the best minds and educational institutions available, anywhere, anytime. By any measure, this is truly revolutionary.

As people from different walks of life and different religious, cultural, or work backgrounds converge in an online classroom, the whole idea of how people learn and how we define a learning community changes. New possibilities and opportunities emerge. Doors open. The world changes for the better. Life is good.

And yet it is an indisputable fact that the online environment asks something different of you. It asks more of you in terms of self‐direction, self‐discipline, and participation. Face‐to‐face learning has adefined structure that is rooted in schedules, time, and, place. You physically attend classes, labs,

seminars, lectures, or workshops. You take notes and participate in discussions, and you may be called on to make presentations. That is a world most of us know very well.

As we’ll find out soon, online learning is distinctly different.

The Sage and the Guide 

The notion of structure – the impulse to organize information, people, and ideas – is central to the concept of progress and modernity. But in higher education, many educators are now taking a different view of structure, especially traditional, face‐to‐face learning structures. Traditional approaches where students are presented with information and material by a person who stands at the front of a classroom, the “sage on a stage” are expanding to include blended classes that make use of various educational technologies. While online learning is a growing phenomenon, there is, coincidentally, a renewed interest in a different model: the “guide at the side” who facilitates a self‐directed approach to learning, inquiry, and discovery. The individual is an active participant in his or her learning process. Online learning is tailor‐made for this, and it should be noted, self‐directed learning harkens back to a much earlier time when the individual was in charge of his or her own education.

Course Design

As is the case in face‐to‐face learning, educators who teach online courses have great latitude in designing courses that are uniquely their own, customizing the approach to fit the material and employing technologies that enhance learning – such as blogs, chat rooms, discussion boards, websites, simulations, streaming video, or podcasts – to engage and inspire their adult learners. Much of online learning is currently text based, but many schools have turned a corner and a wide, multimedia world is being explored. 

Online learning is more than a little different. You must organize and structure your time. You are the seeker of information. Participation is not optional.

For many reasons, for many disciplines and for many people, traditional, campus‐based learning environments will always play a significant role in higher education. For some adult learners, that kind of structure is both necessary and appealing.

A Smaller Carbon Footprint

Jordan and ClaudiaThe delivery of education via the internet has an additional benefit, not often discussed. In an age of global warming and volatile gas prices, online learning has something to offer the world: the creation of knowledge with a much smaller carbon footprint. As we become ever more conscious and deliberate about living and working sustainably online learning stands as a powerful, conscientious alternative to  conventional brick‐and‐mortar classrooms.

Jennifer, Kathy, and Fred – Adult Online Learners 

Jennifer Rhafir, Kathy Attaway, and Fred Van Drimmelen are experienced online learners.  They chose to complete their bachelor’s degrees through online education for important personal reasons.  Before they enrolled, they sought answers to their questions, “How will I interact with my classmates and professors?  How difficult and time consuming is the process?”

In a lot of ways, Jennifer, Kathy, and Fred are typical of a new breed of adult learners. They are seekers of information and knowledge.  They are fearless and determined, motivated and self-directed.  Throughout this guide, we’ll meet other individuals much like Jennifer, Kathy, and Fred, who are going online to change and to improve their lives.

We recently sat down with these three adult learners to discuss how they approached their online coursework.  In this short video, you’ll learn what they discovered about The Online Learning Environment.

 Do You Have the Profile of an Online Learner?

Each person is different. But briefly, below is a rough sketch of what types of skills, habits, and attributes make for a successful online learner. To discover if your temperament is conducive to online learning, take Linfield’s  online learning survey.

Work and Study Habits

  • You have the ability to log on regularly
  • You have the time to study and complete assignments
  • You are comfortable communicating primarily via electronic means
  • You initiate communication with instructors and classmates as needed

Learning Styles

  •  You take responsibility for your own learning
  • You are able to learn effectively from reading and writing
  • You enjoy peer review, giving and receiving feedback from other students


  • You know how to use technology properly
  • You can address problems at a distance
  • You have good time‐management skills
  • You have solid research skills
  • You have the ability to work cooperatively online 
  • What About the Technology?

Over time, the online environment has evolved. Cara Nicole Bruner, a Linfield Business Management graduate who lives in Spain, was an online student over several years and noticed the evolving of the technology in her classes. “The online classroom was a bit tricky when it first appeared. Now it’s a completely different world. It’s very easy to use.”

For most people, the online classroom is quite simple to navigate. Anyone with current computer skills, such as browsing the Web and using email, will have few problems. Here’s a small excerpt from a recent article in U.S. News & World Report.

How Much PC Skill Do I Need?

Universities (and the developers of the learning management systems that they utilize) take great efforts to make the technical aspects of going to class online easy enough that anyone who has browsed the Web can do it. And any Internet‐ready laptop or PC should be enough to tackle the class. That said, check your potential school's site for its equipment recommendations, along with the hours of its technical support teams (and whether it offers tech support online only or also allows you to talk to someone on the phone). If you haven't already upgraded to a broadband internet connection, you'll definitely want to do that before starting a class.

In Chapter VIII, we’ll get into the specifics of technical assistance, how we help our adult learners at Linfield College, and what you should expect from any online learning program in terms of technical assistance.

To Manage Your Time, Manage Your Life

"The bad news is time flies. The good news is you're the pilot."
‐ Michael Altshuler

Depending on your circumstances, an online learning experience has the potential to test you in multiple ways. Your ability to effectively navigate all that you have before you will be a major key to your success. Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People has tremendous value for anyone at any stage of life, but the book seems especially useful for someone seeking to build a new life and learning path. Covey’s advice goes well beyond time management to touch on life management. We offer this to you as both guidance and inspiration.

1. Be Proactive. 

Change starts from within, and highly effective people make the decision to improve their lives through the things that they can influence rather than by simply reacting to external forces. 

2. Begin With the End in Mind. 

Develop a principle‐centered personal mission statement. Extend the mission statement into long‐term goals based on personal principles.

3. Put First Things First.

Spend time doing what fits into your personal mission, observing the proper balance between production and building production capacity. Identify the key roles that you take on in life, and make time for each of them.

4. Think Win/Win. 

Seek agreements and relationships that are mutually beneficial.

5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.

First seek to understand the other person, and only then try to be understood. 

6. Synergy

Through trustful communication, find ways to leverage individual differences to create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. 

7. Sharpen the Saw.

Take time out from production to build production capacity through personal renewal of the physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual dimensions.

Chapter III: What Are Your Goals?

Begin With the End in Mind and Choose Carefully

As you begin the process of choosing a school or a program, consider Steven Covey’s second habit: Begin with the end in mind. This principle could hardly be more relevant. Here’s why. As you plan your future, ask yourself where you’d like to be after you complete your coursework. Is it enough to say “in business management” or “in nursing or the health care field”? Perhaps, but given how wide each of those fields is, perhaps not.

You should do everything possible to narrow your focus. Business management has many specializations, as do the nursing and health care fields.

When you finally do narrow things down, here are some ways to make sure that the school and the program you choose offer the focused coursework that you’ll want and need.

First and foremost, if you are working toward a degree, the school you choose must be accredited by a respected regional accrediting body. More information on accreditation is in Chapter VI.

Regardless of the path you take, your classes will not be inexpensive. Especially for those in pursuit of a degree, the costs can be significant, which means making the right decision is critical. You can reap a lifetime of benefits by taking the time for due diligence and research. After choosing a life partner, or a close friend, there is probably no bigger decision you can make. Choose carefully.

Three Steps – Review, Research, Ask Questions

studyingCarefully review the school’s website and any web-based or printed materials that you can acquire. It may sound obvious to say so, but be sure to look not only for courses and programs

that match up with your interests, but look beyond those concerns.

Look for student feedback about their experience and faculty profiles if available.  Many people assume that from an academic standpoint, one college may be roughly equal to another and that one academic department is like another. They are not.

In some ways, colleges can be compared to hospitals. One hospital may have an excellent reputation for managing cardiac care, but is less proficient in neonatal care. Conversely, one college may own a sterling reputation for nursing education, but is working hard to strengthen its information technology program. It’s your job to learn as much as you can about the school of your choice. Ask, and ask again.

Jeremy Gingerich: Online Learner

Jeremy is a Certified Public Accountant who practices in a busy CPA firm in Canby, Oregon. He spent over ten years in the same industry and gradually realized that it was not the industry where he wanted to spend the rest of his professional life. With the support of his wife and two children he decided to seek an opportunity to make a change in careers. He chose the accounting profession and that meant that he would have to return to college to gain new knowledge and credits toward becoming a CPA.  He enrolled in the online Post Baccalaureate Accounting Certificate program at Linfield. 

“Reputation was one of my biggest factors for selecting Linfield over another program,” Jeremy said.  “Linfield was recommended to me at the time by my boss so that carried quite a bit of weight with it. And Linfield has a very good reputation.  I know other people who have gone to Linfield and have been satisfied with their experience.”

A person seeking a Post Baccalaureate Accounting Certificate would look for a school or program that is well respected in accounting. Faculty members should be known in their field and have significant experience and accomplishments.

Likewise, if you are seeking a BSN, you want faculty members who have relevant nursing and teaching experience. Find out as much as you can about who teaches the courses you are interested in taking. An easy first step is  Google. It’s an amazing research tool, and it’s free. Use it.

Guadalupe Gabba: Online Learner

Guadalupe GabbaLike many adult learners, Lupe always seems to have her sights set on a goal and for her, the goal when she enrolled at Linfield was to earn her BSN. While working as an ER/ICU nurse at Kaiser Permanente, she moved into practicing nursing with clients in an outpatient pain management clinic. and discovered that she loved the work. Lupe graduated from Linfield College’s RN to BSN program and continued soon thereafter to earn her master’s degree in nursing.   

Speaking candidly about online learning, she said, “I do miss the back and forth personal interaction of a traditional classroom,” she said, “but the flexibility of being able to work while going to school overrides that concern.”

Not only has her level of patient care and nursing leadership increased, but Lupe said she has grown as a person. The process of becoming a better educated person has opened her mind to global perspectives and she relishes being connected to new ideas in literature, in science, and the arts.

The U.S. News & World Report Education website is a great resource. It’s where Sue Ingersoll, a Fed Ex station manager in Seattle and Linfield College graduate in Business Management, got the information she needed to make her decision. It’s a treasure trove and an excellent place to begin your research.

The Online Learning Consortium has an enormous library of relevant articles about online education. While much of the material is geared to administrators and policy makers, much of it is fascinating, informative, and best of all, free. Take advantage of this site.

Admission Advising 

The most important thing you can do is to ask good questions of an admission advisor. Ask about admission and technology requirements, and ask for an introduction so that you may contact members of the faculty directly to ask them about their approach and experience. Find out how previous adult learners have fared in their chosen professions. Keep asking questions. A good admission advisor is worth his or her weight in gold and can mean the difference between a great experience and a poor one.

Keep in mind that the competition for adult learners is very robust and that every school wants you as a student. Every effort should be made to answer your questions. If you have trouble getting clear, quick responses to your questions, that might be an indication that student support may not be what it should be.

The Importance of Setting Goals

As an online student, your life is distinctly different from a student who attends a classroom. In a physical (but not virtual) sense, you are somewhat alone. You don’t have the normal structures of traditional learning environments that can be helpful in keeping you on track. You have to do that for yourself. That’s where the importance of setting goals comes in.

Here’s an idea that you may find useful, and it doesn’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes. Each and every day, take a blank piece of paper and write down what your goals are for that day. You might also think about developing longer‐term goals and writing those down as well.

What Distinguishes a Goal Setter? 

Goal setters have a purpose.
Goal setters are planners.
Goal setters have clarity.
Goal setters take responsibility. 
Goal setters are problem solvers. 

 A Harvard Business School Study on Goal Setting

Why Write Your Goals Down?

A ten‐year Harvard Business School Study showed that people who wrote out their goals earned ten times as much as people who didn’t.