The flexibility online degree programs offer make them ideal for busy, working adults. But is online learning right for you?

It sounds ideal.

Working on a research paper in your pajamas. Being home to tuck the kids into bed and then going online to catch up on coursework.


Nearly one-third of all students in higher education are taking at least one online course. That's 6.1 million students during the fall 2010 term – an increase of 560,000 students over the previous year, according to a report conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group.
Given the challenges of balancing family and work responsibilities with educational goals, the flexibility of online degree programs makes them appealing to a growing number of adults.

Including you.

But before you get started, here are five things you must know.

1. Know your goal.

This is your first step, and it's the toughest. Answering this question requires serious soul-searching.

What do you see yourself doing once you have the degree?

The answer is found in both research and reality. Investigate the job market in your area for your dream job. Is it growing? Stagnant? And then factor in reality. Would you have to relocate? Are you even mobile?

Have, at least, an initial goal in mind. Time and financial resources are precious commodities, so you don't want to change direction in midstream.

2. Know what you are going to give up.

Everyone talks about "juggling" work, family, and school. The problem with that is you always worry about dropping something.

Instead, consider creating "balance."

Like anything worthwhile doing, going to school involves sacrifice. The reality is you will have to give something in order to integrate coursework into your schedule. So decide now what it's going to be.

3. Know who you can count on for support.

It may not take a village, but it will take a certain amount of support from others to help you focus on your education. Will it be your spouse? Family member? Friend? Will your aunt pick your daughter up at school and take her to swim practice? Will your husband and children handle the weekend chores?

The point is you will need a concrete plan so you know what time you will have each week to complete assignments.

And to do that, you'll need a "little help from your friends."

4. Know if you are computer-ready.

You have all of the right equipment. A PC or Mac with a reliable Internet connection. An up-to-date web browser. A CD/DVD drive.

But are you comfortable moving around to different Web sites and web pages? Using search engines? Downloading files.

You don't need to be a techno whiz to be successful at online learning, but you need to be comfortable navigating technology. If you're not, consider testing the waters with one class. Build your confidence. And then add more as you move forward.

5. Know if you are disciplined.

Business coach and self-help author Brian Tracy said discipline is doing what you should do, when you should do it, whether you feel like it or not.

With online learning, you determine how much time you will spend studying, and when you will study. Without the structure of a traditional classroom, can you stay on top of reading and assignments? Can you make a schedule and then stick to it?

Good time management skills are just as important as reading and writing for online students.

Advice From Steve Jobs

Without a doubt, when it comes to earning a college degree – be it online or on a traditional college campus – there are time management challenges to face, technology obstacles to overcome, and sacrifices to make.

The key is to stay focused on why you're pursuing a degree in the first place.

As Steve Jobs said:

"Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your inner voice. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

So, what are your heart and intuition telling you? Let us know in the comments.

Image Credit: sootyskye on Flickr/Creative Commons