As technologies continue to advance our increasingly interconnected world, the development of a robust online learning platform has emerged as an integral component of the Engineering at Illinois vision for providing access to quality education. Engineering Online has experienced rapid growth in just the last year, with over 60 online courses spanning various disciplines scheduled for the Fall 2014 semester—up from 47 in Fall 2013. With the addition of a new Online Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering, the college now offers four complete master’s degrees online, including degrees in Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering, and Civil & Environmental Engineering. Online students also have the opportunity to pursue one of 15 specialized certificates, or to expand their professional skill set by enrolling in an individual online course. Online learning programs offer flexibility and convenience, while maintaining the integrity and academic rigor of our elite on-campus programs. Online students are challenged to earn the exact same degrees and certificates as awarded on-campus by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Meg C. Griffin, who has a bachelor’s in civil engineering and a master’s in library science, both from Illinois, is the College of Civil and Environmental Engineering’s online and blended program coordinator. She recently shared information about the importance of online education at a national Society of Women Engineers conference.

Here, she provides an overview of the benefits of these programs.

In recent years, the use of online learning has grown exponentially. Technology has improved for both mass dissemination of learning materials and collaboration between individuals separated by geography. Students in online classes are benefitting from increased and easier access to materials, instructors, and classmates, as well as flexible scheduling and convenience.

Engineers choose online learning for many reasons. A primary one is the ability to advance their careers or develop professionally while maintaining their positions. Programs at many colleges and universities have grown from the needs of students who are unable to take time off from their careers but want access to graduate studies and professional development.

Online programs allow you to access classes from work or home, or while commuting or traveling. Taking an online class from a local university will give you the flexibility of learning online but also the option to visit class and interact face-to-face. However, online offerings also allow you to access opportunities that are not available locally, whether they are specialized classes or an entire master’s program.

Degree programs, graduate certificates, and individual classes for academic credit can all be found online at many universities. They usualy operate on a semester or trimester schedule. Some may be self-paced, in which you can access course materials and complete homework at times convenient to you, while still meeting deadlines. Others may require you to join classes online at scheduled times. Usually, for-credit courses are equivalent to and part of an on-campuss program.

The CEE Online program at the University of Illinois, for example, is part of the graduate program in civil and environmental engineering. Students in this program are mainly professionals working full time, and they range from recent graduates to engineers with decades of experience. They are located across the country and around the world. Most are working toward the master of science degree, but others are in the certificate program. Some take just one class as nondegree students, whether for professional development hours, to refresh skills, or to apply toward a degree program later.

Class meetings on campus are recorded for online students and can be viewed as streaming files on computers, tablets, or phones. Homework is submitted via e-mail or uploaded to the course site, and online students use proctors to take exams. In many classes, online students collaborate with on-campus students on reports and projects.

Students have responded enthusiastically to the program and reported that they have been able to immediately apply skills learned in class to their professional positions.

If you’re interested in online learning for credit, investigate accredited and established programs. Ask questions about who teaches the classes (regular factuly, adjunct faculty, someone else) and the demographics of the students, as well as the level of interaction between participants and faculty. Although online learning can be convenient and flexible, also make sure you have time to spend on a rigorous course, as well as the appropriate technology tools and Internet connection.

In addition to classes, many universities offer lecture series or webinars for professional development for free or at a minimal cost. And sites such as Coursera and Udemy provide access to massive open online courses, which are free, not-for-credit courses offered by educational institutions.