While serving in the Army, Travis Patterson clicked onto online courses to finish his degree in psychology from Upper Iowa University.

Syracuse University sophomore, Emily Campeas, was able to take a writing course online over the summer to get ahead in credits.

Cortney Landrum’s family moves frequently — just in the past few years she has lived in Hawaii, Georgia and now Kansas — prohibiting her from attending a bricks-and-mortar school, so she’s completing her studies online. Having flexibility in her schedule also helps her manage her family of four kids.

These are just three examples of how diverse online students are and how they achieve different goals. For some, online is a necessity because of travel. Others appreciate the convenience of completing degrees on their own time frame. MOOCs (massive open online courses) offer avenues to take courses for free.

“Online programs offer students practical, real world education delivered in a flexible format, so that they don’t have to put their careers on hold while they pursue their education.”

A glance back at e-learning

Hard to believe, but online courses date back to the 1960s when the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign initiated distance learning. Advancements were made over the ensuing decades and major forces in online education emerged such as the University of Phoenix and DeVry University.

Today, most major colleges and learning institutions, from Ivy Leagues to community colleges, offer options to complete bachelor's or associate's degrees — or just to learn about a topic that interests them.

“When you ask people why they take a course, more than 90 percent says because they want to learn something new,” explains Zuzana Bic, a lecturer in public health practice at the University of California, Irvine of the growing popularity of online choices.

Here and now

Distance learning has come a long way in the past few years, adds Patterson, who says improved technology makes it easy to sign on and complete the courses. There’s plenty of support even without visiting a classroom. “Everyone is there to help you — from professors to advisors — to guarantee your success,” he says.

Certain careers lend themselves to online instruction. Healthcare, for example, is a good fit for online. “As the country moves to implement healthcare reform, the opportunities for careers in healthcare will continue to expand and diversify,” explains Beth Patton, associate dean at the University of Phoenix College of Natural Sciences. “Online programs, such as University of Phoenix’s Master of Health Administration, offer students practical, real world education delivered in a flexible format so that they don’t have to put their careers on hold while they pursue their education.”  Experts also cite continuing teaching certification and business degrees as popular distance learning options.

Online students give high marks to online courses. “You have everything you need,” says Patterson, who adds that the only challenge for pupils is to make sure they stay on track. Says Landrum, the busy mom, “I do try to set goals and juggle my day, but since I don’t have to get into a car and travel to school, it is much easier. And although you don’t have traditional lectures with teachers, all of the instructors encourage you to send questions.”