In the initial stages of online higher education, many online colleges required students to “attend” online courses — a process that somewhat defeated the purpose of receiving an online degree, since many online higher education students work full-time jobs and look to an online degree as a more flexible option.

Consequently, online degrees sometimes have a stigma of lacking the community that traditional colleges might offer.

But new online colleges are rising above the stigma, creating environments specifically tailored to overcome the negative points of an online education.

Western Governors University (WGU Indiana) a non-profit, competency-based online university created to widen access to higher education for Indiana residents, is making great strides in their online college a community of learning, narrowing the seemingly distant (cyber) space between students and staff.

With a goal of keeping both students and staff engaged with one another, WGU Indiana offers various forms of communities. Program communities provide industry research students and current events in students’ field of study, as well as offer networking opportunities similar to traditional colleges.

The university also offers learning programs: small, online study groups that create a tight-knit online community.

Students, staff and alumni are able to connect on an even closer basis by embracing social media. Facebook and Twitter are used by the university as tools to inform students about WGU Indiana current events, students’ achievements and news — but WGU Indiana further innovates by encouraging students, staff, alumni and prospective students to create dialogue online and express thoughts, retell personal experiences and keep the community updated on their lives.

WGU Indiana also has its own YouTube Channel. Videos vary from commercials for the university to recorded university commencement speeches and related forums.

Established by the state of Indiana in partnership with Western Governors University, WGU Indiana pushes the envelope on the typical definition of an online unversity.

WGU Indiana allows students to earn their degree by demonstrating skill in a specific subject matter rather than requiring students to earn credit hours by listening to online lectures. This process is executed by giving students constant access to education resources that measure knowledge of particular subjects. Students can then complete tasks according to the needs of their personal schedule.

WGU also differs from other online colleges in that the faculty members do not serve as teaching professors, but rather work as mentors who offer one-on-one assistants to students in need. The university recommends an online check-in with a faculty member once every other week, but the faculty can be reached via instant messaging, email, and even text messaging and telephone on a daily basis, including most weekends.

Currently, WGU Indiana enlists more than 1,110 students across the state of Indiana who are enrolled in one of 50 degree programs, from information technology to nursing. Students can also receive their teaching credential, which is validated by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).

Degrees are accredited by partner Western Governors University, and WGU Indiana students are eligible for Indiana state grants and scholarships offered by the State Student Assistance Commission of Indiana (SSACI).

For more information about WGU Indiana, visit www.indiana.wgu.edu.

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