The last ten years have brought online education from relative obscurity to some level of legitimacy. Though I am pretty skeptical of online degrees in Neuroscience, I do think learning Mandarin through online methods is very possible. However, a lot of people would rather go the traditional classroom route. If you live in Shanghai, multiple methods are available to you in any combination.
Whether you are serious about college credit or just want to learn Mandarin part-time while living in Shanghai hassle-free with a student visa, studying at a Chinese university might be a good option. Classes usually last 3-4 hours a day and cost 7000-10,000 RMB per semester. Your classmates will come from all over the world and some may not speak much English.
Its possible to keep up with a part-time job or full-time job with a flexible schedule while studying if you are self-disciplined. However, according to Chinese law, if you are on a student visa, you aren’t supposed to be employed. Not sure how enforced this is.
Schools: Jiaotong, Fudan, Tongji, Donghua, East China Normal, Shanghai Foreign Language University
Private Mandarin Schools
A simple Google search for “Shanghai Mandarin Schools” will list dozens of options for studying at a private company. Most of these schools hire professional teachers, some do not. These schools are more expensive but offer smaller classrooms and a variety of schedules for those who are less flexible. Visas can be arranged through these schools if you need one.
Advantage: Free, no contracts or set schedules, might become friends with your partner
Disadvantage: Might spend a disproportionate time teaching/practicing English rather than learning Mandarin.
If you are like me, have a full-time job, and would rather pay someone to have a one-on-one lesson a few times a week, I would suggest finding a private tutor. Be warned that some teachers have no credentials and, since it’s all done “under the table,” no screening process. That doesn’t mean a non-certified teacher can’t be a great teacher, but the quality varies greatly and it might take a few trial lessons to find a tutor that’s right for you. The basic price across the board seems to be about 150RMB for one hour.
For a fee, you can unlock a massive database of online audio lessons and PDF documents designed to improve your spoken Chinese. You can also attend a live Mandarin course online with flexible schedule. Reviews for this kind of learning is mixed, but as interactive technology improves and things like online training become more common, I think this method of learning will becomes more developed and standardized.
A combination of methods keeps the brain fresh and eager to learn even when the material is the same. If you are serious about learning Chinese, use a mixture of methods. As for myself, I found a great private tutor that I employed about twice a week for 8 months. I then studied at a public university but I couldn’t keep a full-time job while keeping up with all the classes. Now, I rely on e-learning against my tight schedule.
Furthermore, here are some online resources that I have found helpful:
http://www.nciku.com/ (Online English Chinese Dictionary)
http://www.chinesepod.com (Audio podcast for Mandarin learning)
http://www.allmandarin.com ( 1 on 1 Live Online Mandarin lessons)
http://www.chinese-tools.com/learn/chinese (online Mandarin audio lessons)
Do a Google Search. There are tons of resources.