The online learner population continues to grow in size and complexity. But while more options can mean greater access to education for nontraditional learners, it can also be overwhelming for those seeking an education online. The process of choosing an online degree program can end up being a daunting task.
The phrase “online degree programs” alone has over one million search results on Google. So, if you’re thinking about pursuing your degree online, you may want to find an effective way to determine which programs will meet your needs and long-term goals.
Here are some questions that can help you navigate your options:
- Is the University Accredited?
Accreditation is one of the most critical facets of your search. It means that the school you’re interested in has earned the approval of independent organizations that perform comprehensive examinations of the school’s standards, curriculum and faculty services.
According to U.S. News & World Report, regional accreditations are generally favored in the marketplace because they have comprehensive reviews. Institutions that accreditors approve of are academically oriented (e.g., University of Georgia) and prove that its programs meet or exceed the standard of quality. On the other hand, national accreditations are usually given to institutions that are for-profit and have less traditional coursework structures (e.g., trade schools like therapy schools and technical centers).
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Are your top choices regionally accredited? Consider how that factor can impact your chance of landing a competitive job, since employers generally require evidence that, as an applicant, you received a degree from an accredited school.
- Is Flexibility Important to You?
Flexibility can be assessed in several ways. If you prefer to control your schedule, choosing an option that provides non-chronological learning opportunities may be important to you. Asynchronous learning is a teaching method that allows students to complete their lessons without the constraints of being in a specific place at a certain time.
“The biggest thing I appreciated about the online degree was the flexibility. You knew what you had to do that week, but you could do it however you wanted, whenever you wanted throughout that whole week. You could do it at midnight if you had to or you could wake up early at six in the morning – you got to make your schedule.”
Online programs that follow a traditional school calendar require students to log on during certain times of the day and may subtract points if they do not complete assignments by a specific time. When doing your research, be sure to find out what the school’s flexible online learning opportunities are and what will best meet your work-life needs. Some schools are more rigorous about deadlines, while others may provide students with more flexibility and ways to personalize their schedule. You also want to compare the course offerings per program.
- Will the Program Match Your Learning Style?
Everyone learns in their own way and has their own style of getting things done, so it’s important to find a university that offers options that will suit your specific needs. To determine this, reach out to the school or visit its website to found out which learning structures they offer. You’d be surprised to find that some institutions offer various instruction methods, including videos, podcasts, and interactive learning quizzes. Also, ask if discussion boards and other course interaction is a required feature in most courses if that matters to you.
- What Type of Learning Platforms Do They Offer?
Although you won’t be able to immerse yourself in the virtual classroom before enrolling, make sure you talk to someone from the admission staff or a student services associate about the experience you should expect. Some universities may offer a video tour of the online classroom or a demo so you can experience it yourself before signing up. You can also take the extra time to ask whether the platforms are constantly updated to meet current technological demands and if you can access the online learning system via an app on your phone or tablet.
Florida Tech’s online learning system is student-friendly, even for people who haven’t been in a learning environment in a while, according to Sheila Shutzehnofer:
“I was a little bit uneasy in the beginning since it had been so many years since I had attended school, but it was remarkably easy to navigate the website and class platform, and the instructors have been wonderful.”
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- Will the Core Objectives Be Clear?
Learning deliverables are crucial within an online course, but nothing can be quite as clear if the platform doesn’t answer some of the most crucial course objectives questions: What will you learn and how will you learn it? Understanding what you’re getting out of a course is a large factor in determining your enrollment.
- What is Their Transfer Credit Policy?
Most online programs let you transfer your credits, but it’s essential to speak with an admissions officer or an enrollment representative about the transfer credit policy of the university. According to Judith Gassman, former Credential Evaluator Supervisor at Florida Tech’s Office of Online Learning, “Each institution has its own policy based on programs offered and accreditation guidelines.
For example, a regionally accredited school like Florida Tech accepts transfer credits depending on the degree program. Gassman says that Florida Tech’s policy makes sure that “students are academically prepared to succeed in current programs.”
In most cases, enrollment representatives can help you determine what steps to take to begin a program with the right prerequisites and credits.
- Will the School Help Me if I Need Technical Support?
Most online programs offer resources to help you stay connected to the technologies they use. As technology continues to evolve, make sure that you and the university offering the online program have the technical support needed to complete the work. Tools can include online tutoring programs and digital libraries. Have more questions? Enrollment representatives can inform you of all the available technical support and whether you have the right devices to access the tools.
- Will I Have to Meet Faculty or Students in Person?
Some universities consider the ability to interact with others as an essential part of the online experience. Many online classes offer people the choice to communicate with students and instructors via video conferences, discussion forums or social media. Dr. Lisa Steelman, Associate Professor at Florida Tech, says, “There are a number of ways that students can connect with their instructors in an online environment. There’s discussion boards, there’s email and chat rooms as well as office hours. So, we strongly encourage students to reach out to their instructors. And instructors also definitely reach out to students on an on-going basis.”
You can also ask the school whether meeting the instructor on campus is allowed. While some might prioritize the option of one-on-one’s, most online programs don’t require in-person meetings due to geographical limits or busy work-life schedules.
- Will You Have a Financial Plan for Paying for Your Tuition?
As you begin to envision your learning plan, you should consider exploring your tuition options. If you’re certain about the program that’s right for you, contact the school’s financial aid specialist. They’ll be able to clear out questions regarding books and supply costs, tuition rate changes and withdrawal and refund policies. Luckily, online programs may also offer financial aid in the form of grants, loans, scholarships and employer tuition assistance. Setting your options on the table might help you estimate costs.
- What Degree Should You Pursue?
Finally, we’ve reached one of the most important considerations when choosing an online program. What type of credential do you want to receive? Are you interested in a degree or certificate program? What degree is right for you?