Assessing the Flexibility of Online Learning

I put off my final project for weeks, but got feedback on it in days.

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The best online programs offer quick feedback to students.

My professor was clear from day one that we would need weeks – not days – to complete the final for our online personal finance class.

It's not hard to see why, as the capstone project was a hefty one: a 10-year financial plan outlining our career outlook, retirement goals and investment objectives, among other targets.

I promised myself I would heed the message and actually start the project ahead of time. But then came a work conference at Disney World. Then, Thanksgiving. More days slipped away and I woke up Sunday with only one day to finish the entire project.

Many cite flexibility as the number one factor that draws students to online learning. In my course, for example, students had the freedom to turn most work in at the end of the semester.

While the flexible schedule helps students juggling work, school and family commitments, I found it to be both a curse and a blessing. The unconventional schedule helped me enjoy turkey, family and "Pirates of the Caribbean" without the threat of immediate deadlines, for example. But it also enabled my procrastination and led to some really long days toward the end of the course.

[Discover time management tips for online students.]

All I wanted to do that Sunday morning was sleep in. Instead, I got up, tossed my laptop into my bag and headed to the nearest coffee shop, where I launched the research that forced me to confront my own financial realities.

Apparently, I spend more than twice the average for a woman my age on food a month, must save close to $2 million for retirement and would need to accumulate a down payment of at least $90,000 to buy a place I'd actually want in Washington, D.C. The equation changes slightly if I land myself a husband, an option that may or may not have been referenced in the 10-year plan.

I worked on my project at a leisurely pace Sunday, feeling fortunate I'd become a much faster writer over the years. The plan was due at 11:59 that night – a deadline I was sure I could meet. I hit my stride after dinner, and didn't bother to look up at the clock again until 11:40 p.m. – at which point I realized I had only 20 minutes to proofread my paper, format it and complete the bibliography.

So many things could have derailed me at that moment: my Internet connection could have stopped or slowed, or my computer could have frozen. But the technology gods were kind, and I was able to get the assignment turned in by 11:55 p.m.

I'm not lying when I say that later that night I had anxiety dreams about budgets and life insurance.

One of the great things about online learning is that I didn't have to wait long for my feedback. Of the 216 schools that reported the data to U.S. News, the average expected response time from instructors in 2013 was 32 hours, for example. About 66 percent of the schools expected their instructors to give feedback in 24 hours.

[Learn whether online education is right for you.]

My instructor got back to me within two days with good news: I got a 100 percent. She complimented me on my research, gave me kudos for getting a handle on my debt and diplomatically added that I was correct – in my situation, buying a property in this city was not wise.

Despite overcoming that hurdle, I'm still a decent distance from the finish line. I have to take two tests before the last day of the semester, which is less than a week away.

So far, the exams haven't been too challenging. If all goes as planned, I'm well on my way to earning that B-plus.

Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.