WHEN asking yourself whether online learning is for you, break the question in two parts: First: "Is learning for you?" and second: "Is online learning a good way for you to learn?"

The answer to the first question is increasingly obvious. No matter what your education level or work experience is, the need to learn and to be committed to learning is essential in today's knowledge economy if you and your organisation are to remain competitive.

The answer to the second question involves other questions: Can I study full-time or do I need to continue to work? Can I juggle my family and work commitments with the academic schedule?

If you are in search of high-quality learning, but cannot return to school full-time or attend classes regularly because of work, travel and family commitments, online learning might just be the thing for you.

Pros

The major benefit of online learning is the flexibility which allows people with busy schedules to return to school. Course scheduling allows you to study anywhere and fit your studies into a travel and work schedule.

Such flexibility is difficult to find in traditional brick and mortar institutions, yet it is one of the foundations on which online universities build their programmes.

Hence, being able to "earn and learn" at the same time, study anywhere in the world, and set study schedules to meet unique time constraints are clear advantages of online learning.

Good online learning programmes also provide greater scope to learn according to one's own preferred learning styles and needs.

This makes the programme suitable for both students who like to study at their own pace, and those who want to study with a more defined schedule.

Cons

Several weaknesses are usually cited, but it varies in different online institutions. Here are some of the areas that you should look out for while evaluating your options:

One of the so-called weaknesses of online learning programmes is that students are disadvantaged in terms of networking opportunities due to the lack of face-to-face interaction.

In reality, global networks are built through students' interactions via the online discussion boards and team projects. The students then take advantage of their business travels to meet each other.

In addition, many studies have shown that discussion board postings and team projects provide interaction between students that is often more intense than that which takes place in a brick and mortar classroom.

Therefore, in your evaluation process, ensure that the online institution you choose is equipped with advanced digital facilities for active online interaction.

As further proof of the power of online communications in helping people to keep in touch, just look around you. You will see a large number of people keeping their own personal networks alive and their relationships strong through various online tools such as instant messenger, SMS text messaging and blogs, just to name a few.

Another common misconception about online learning is that students do not have the chance to develop soft people skills. The truth is that team projects provide opportunities for small-group interaction on a global scale monitored by the professor.

These help students to develop essential virtual team skills and multi-cultural understanding, both of which are the basis for most of the work done in global firms today.

Also, business communication is increasingly moving online and is conducted via e-mails, webcasts and instant messaging. Good online learning programmes provide students with a marked advantage in this area.

Online pedagogy also exposes students to different forms of IT communication and information sources, all of which serve to enhance their competitiveness and value.

Does it suit you?

In today's knowledge-driven economy, you need to keep current and have good analytical and thinking skills. For most people, this entails returning to study at the graduate level and usually in management courses such as a Master of Business Administration.

However, this might prove to be an insurmountable problem because of work, family and travel commitments. With powerful and friendly technological innovation, online learning can provide access to high-quality learning for millions of people who did not previously have it.

Global market research firm International Data Corp (IDC) estimates that the online learning market will more than double, rising to US$13.5 billion (S$20.8 billion) in the United States and US$21 billion globally by 2015.

Online learning is also the fastest growing element of the US$2.3 trillion global education market.

Therefore, you do have a choice to return to your studies and remain competitive. Weigh your options carefully - you may find that furthering your education online may just be the right fit for you.