Computer science is an exciting and enjoyable major. Many people decide to go back to college (or start college) to get trained in this ever-changing field. However, it is difficult or impossible to give up one's day job to go back to school; bills continue to need to be paid, and other "grown-up" responsibilities don't just vanish when you go back to school. For this reason, computer science distance learning programs are very popular among adult learners and others (stay at home mothers, those housebound) who cannot engage in a typical college degree program. In the end, a distance learner will have the same expertise as the traditional student. However, to make the most of your educational time, it is important to find the program that is tailored to your needs and circumstances. Follow these steps and you will find a computer science distance learning program perfect for you!
- Consider the area of computing you wish you learn. Many distance learning programs are very specialized; if you know what area of computing you would like to go into, then you can directly enroll in that program. However, if you are unsure, look for a school where you can take a few classes before you enroll in a program. You will get a general sense of what part of computing you like, and can then apply those classes towards the requirements of your program. The area you choose may also affect what school you choose, since many schools specialize in one area of computing (especially if they are just getting started with their distance program).
- Calculate how much you want to spend on tuition. Some distance learning programs charge a premium for the convenience factor of distance education; others offer it at a discount. When you are evaluating programs, see if the school charges per credit, per course, per semester, per year, or for the whole program. Once you have a general sense of cost, see if you are eligible for financial aid. You may able to receive Federal aid by applying with a FAFSA form. Also check to see if your school has a scholarship or financing program available.
- Decide what method of instruction is best for you. Computer science distance learning programs vary greatly in the method of instruction they offer. Some programs are mail-based, where they send you a packet of information and you send your work back. Others are video-based, where you are sent a video of a professor speaking and then you send in your assignment either by mail, e-mail, or fax. Some schools even offer TV-based education. These programs are either closed-circuit (you receive a box which you attach to your television) or on public access channels. You then submit your work like the programs mentioned above.
However, most predominant these days is online distance education. These are classes and programs where instruction is offered over the Internet, and you likely submit your work and correspond with your instructor and fellow "classmates" over the Internet via e-mail, IM, or bulletin boards. These computer science distance learning classes usually take one of two forms: text-based and online video.
- Text-based classes offer instruction in the form of textual presentation, much like reading through an instruction manual. It may be presented like a PowerPoint presentation, in which case either you can work through each module at your own pace, or there will be certain modules available to you at designated times.
- Classes that use video are either available real-time via Internet streaming, or recorded and available over the Internet in a day or two. Video classes are great - they provide flexibility in scheduling and, at the same time, give you more of an in-person sense of community with your class.
Whatever method of instruction, be sure that you are motivated to keep up with the instruction and the assignments - it's easy to procrastinate on schoolwork if you don't have to see your professor face to face. In computer science, you simply cannot slack off and try to do everything at the last minute, you definitely need to stay on top of (if not ahead of) the instruction. This is especially true in computer science distance learning, when you can't immediately raise your hand and ask a teacher a question. So be sure to keep pace with your workload, and take advantage of the method of corresponding with your professor and fellow classmates - whether it is e-mail, bulletin board, or IM. You will get far more out of the program.
- Decide if you can attend any in-person instruction. Some schools, like University of Phoenix, require that you attend some in-person instruction. It will likely be minimal, but make sure that the location is feasible, that the dates of meeting do not conflict with your schedule, and the time allocation is acceptable. Additionally, some schools require that you take exams in-person; the same considerations apply. Others want you to have an approved proctor for exams. Usually, this can be the local librarian, but be sure to check that this is acceptable. If you are housebound or you have a consideration that would affect your ability to meet any of these requirements, then try to find a program that does not require any in-person participation.
- Decide how much time you wish to allocate. Some schools offer accelerated programs; you may be able to get a Bachelor's degree in computer science in two or three years, or an Associate's degree in twelve to eighteen months. Other schools will offer flexible programs for those who cannot take a full schedule of classes each semester.
Take into consideration if you will need to take a semester (or a full year) off at some point. Especially with computer science, which has a rapidly changing curriculum, you may be required to take classes each semester, or else risk losing the credits you took previously. Take a look at each school's policy on time allocation and commitment to the program once you are admitted.
- Check your local schools. Many state schools offer computer science distance learning programs. If you qualify for free or reduced tuition because of age, disability, or having served in the Military, you may want to consider a Distance program at a school close to you. WIth computer science distance learning, it doesn't matter if you are next door or across an ocean - you will receive the same instruction either way!
- Consider accreditation. Not every distance learning program is accredited. An accredited computer science degree is required by many IT employers. If you are seeking an education in order to start or promote your career, make sure your program is accredited.
- Look through listings for computer science distance learning programs. Check online portals such as Yahoo! for listings of computer science distance learning programs to get a sense of the schools open to you. Also check your local library - it's likely there will be paperwork for local distance learning programs, as well as reference books that list schools who offer distance learning.
If you have circumstances that do not allow you to attend a traditional computer science program, or are looking to have flexibility in your schedule, computer science distance learning programs may be ideal for you. There is sometimes a misconception that distance learning classes are easier or less stringent than in-person classes, but this is simply not true. Not only are these are rigorous (and rewarding) as in-person classes, but they often require a higher level of self-motivation and study than traditional classes. The relative flexibility it allows, coupled with the ability to perhaps attend a school that would not otherwise be feasible, makes pursuing a computer science distance learning program highly worthwhile! Enjoy your education!