3 Lessons About Online Learning

My online class was not what I expected in terms of cost and technology.

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This online learning experience was about more than budgets and investments.

After five months of studying, my tenure as an online student is officially over.

I took my final tests last week and did well enough to earn a B in my personal finance class. My final project – a 10-year financial plan – helped me get a better sense of what I should be saving and spending. But looking back, I think I may have learned more about online learning than about taxes, investments and my 401(k).

[Explore whether online learning is right for you.]

I had plenty of assumptions about online learning before I signed up for a course. Here are some of the surprising observations I made along the way.

1. Online education isn't as cheap as you think it is. According to conventional wisdom, online learning provides a cheaper alternative to pursuing education in a face-to-face program. But that's not exactly the case.

I – or my company, rather – ended up paying more than $1,300 for my three-credit hour class. In my program, online students were charged $25 more per credit hour than their on-campus counterparts, according to the registrar.

When online students talk about how online education is more affordable, they are probably talking about the money they saved in transportation costs or through working while in school.

[Learn why online education isn't always cheap.]

2. It takes time to find the perfect online course. Enrollment in online programs is skyrocketing. Hardly a week goes by when I don't get a press release from a new school announcing the start of an online program. That said, I thought it would be relatively easy to find an online personal finance course. But it turned out to be a fairly challenging process.

Course catalogs were hard to find. When I did find a course that fit my schedule, oftentimes it was at full capacity. Course descriptions didn't explain whether the course was high-tech or low-tech, and very few mentioned if there was any group projects involved in the class – an aspect I thought could make class more engaging.

If I had to go through the process again, I would budget much more time to search for the right class. I'd also call up the relevant academic department and ask specific questions about the course. I also think it would be well worth it to see if I could track down any student reviews of the class or the professor.

3. You don't need to be a tech genius to succeed in an online course. I'm embarrassed to admit it around my fellow millennials, but I'm not exactly an early adapter of technology. I got a smartphone just a few months ago and found out the other night that I could play music on it for free!

But in my experience, at least, I didn't need to be a computer whiz to figure out how to log in and participate in my online course. Any of my classmates who could surf the Internet and attach a file were in good shape. Otherwise, it required typical college skills: the ability to use Microsoft Word, use proper citations and skim the Web for legitimate sources to reference in our work.

Other online courses involve tools such as Skype, live chat and webinars. While I would have liked to have had exposure to those technologies in class, they don't necessarily enrich the education experience, says Peter Shea, associate professor of education theory and practice and informatics at University of Albany—SUNY.

"Technology for technology's sake is not the answer," Shea says. Even in courses with the most basic technology, like mine, instructors can still offer an effective learning experience.

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