How to Evaluate an Online School
By Kelli Smith
Students aren’t the only ones being graded on their performance. Online schools are under the microscope as prospective students learn what features to look for prior to enrolling. Any online school merits exploration and asking the correct questions assists students in selecting a suitable program.
Online education continues to grow as students seek a more convenient means to ear their degrees or to take enrichment classes. In 2004, over 2.3 million post-secondary students took at least one online course. Additionally, the majority of schools offering traditional campus courses are responding to this demand and incorporating online degree and certificate programs. With knowledge, money, and degrees exchanged through the computer, however, prospective students need to be cautious and avoid scams and diploma mills. The best defense is for students to put schools offering online education to the test—a little research can answer a lot of questions. Below are some general fields of inquiry to help establish an online education report card.
Making sure an online school is accredited is probably the most important step in receiving a quality and legitimate education. Accreditation can be from a legitimate national, regional, or specialty association. Organizations which accredit the schools should be recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). Accreditation agencies set standards for distance learning schools by examining the areas of academics, finances, and administration. Schools must continue to renew their accreditation status after a specific term. Also, locating the physical location of the school’s operations and making a call to the appropriate state agency provides the student with additional consumer protection.
Inquiring about the expense of an online individual course program is another major concern. Most online schools can help students acquire financial aid from government sources or scholarships. Often payment plans are available and schools should have a policy for refunds. Obviously costs included tuition and course materials such as textbooks and software. Other expenses might include application and technical fees. Checking into the technology requirements for online courses might also necessitate an upgrade to a student’s computer.
When searching for an online program, students need to see if the program is compatible with their educational and career goals. After settling on a degree program, students need to examine the curriculum closely. Is the information presented continually updated and applicable to the specific career field? For each class, students should receive a course description, the learning objectives, a list of course materials, and how the materials can be obtained. The course requirements need to specify what is expected of the student in terms of papers, projects, and group discussions. Instructors should also make it clear to the students how they will be graded and how they can check on their progress. Regardless of the online degree selected, prospective students should inquire if the degree awarded is the same received by students completing the same program on campus.
Students often choose online educations because their lifestyle includes other activities such as working, caring for children, or serving in the military. Grasping the time commitment necessary for online work before enrollment reduces the potential for undue workload stress. Ask how many classes may be taken simultaneously; estimate the weekly work load, and how long you are allowed to complete the degree. While some online schools allow students to begin their program anytime, other schools have specific start times during the year. Students need to inquire if they can complete assignments at their own pace or if there are deadlines and consequent penalties for late work. Find out if students need to be online at certain times. Also, if the school has a campus facility, inquire if online students need to spend any time on campus.
Knowing who is on the other end of the computer teaching an online course is especially critical. Potential students should explore the educational qualifications of the instructor, looking for advanced degrees or ongoing study in the subject, published research, awards, and practical experience in the field of instruction. Students also need to know what type of contact they will have with the instructor. Is the course taught in a group setting, with other students posting questions or discussion answers, or does the instructor work individually with the students? Most importantly, what protocol do students follow if they have questions? Can they contact the instructor by phone, email, or mail?
A good online school will have an adequate support staff and resources to assist students from enrollment through graduation. First, admissions counselors aid help students navigate the admissions process and make sure all the entrance requirements have been fulfilled. Academic advisors should be available to help with program selection and course planning needed to help students achieve their educational objectives.
With almost all communication between the school and student occurring via computer, online schools often have a technical support department to facilitate this process. Online research is a must, since many students may not have ready access to a traditional campus library. Online schools may provide the research material online or supply online access to the campus library if one is available. Academic services for online programs often include tutors and other helpful study materials. For some schools, students can interact with other students in the same program for support or socialization. Lastly, as the student prepares to graduate, many online programs have a career services department to help with preparing resumes, offer tips for interviews, and assist with job placement. Honor societies, alumni organizations, and opportunities for continuing education are features of several online programs.
Individual students will probably have additional concerns, and a good online school will answer their questions and be forthright with information. For motivated and disciplined students, good online education programs can significantly advance a student’s knowledge and increase career opportunities. Carefully reviewing an online school will assure the students they are selecting a valid and excellent program