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Evaluating Online Programs: How to Choose the Right College

Mar 30, 2009 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Education.org Columnist | 0 Comments

Choosing the right online college is no easier than choosing a traditional college. There are thousands of schools out there, and some are bound to be a better fit for you than others. And with online schools, your choices are not limited by geography—and this can make finding the right one even more difficult.

Still, it’s not impossible to find a school that’s an ideal fit for your goals. Here are a few questions to ask while choosing a school that ensure you get the most for your tuition money.

Do they have the right programs?

The first thing you should look at with an online college is whether they carry the degree program you’re looking for. Check out their programs and course listings, and see whether they offer the right mix of classes for a thorough education in your area of interest. Some colleges have stronger offerings in some degree programs than others.

What are current students and alumni saying?

Your best source for unbiased opinions is current and former students. You won’t meet them on a campus tour, but there are plenty of forums and review sites online where students discuss their online schools candidly. Check out the college reviews page for daily student reviews and rankings of a wide range of online schools, or do a Google search for the school you’re interested in and the word “review.”

Are they accredited?

Your school should be accredited by a legitimate accrediting agency. Many online schools have regional accreditation with one of several agencies that also accredit all traditional colleges; a few schools may have only national accreditation, which is not as widely recognized but is sometimes more appropriate for very specialized degree programs. Some universities have an overall regional accreditation as well as national accreditation for specific degree programs and subsidiary schools. For a more thorough explanation of accreditation, check out this Distance Education.org article on online college accreditation.

What’s your employer’s position?

If you’re working and plan to continue working while you get your degree, you should check with your employer to see if there’s any possibility they could sponsor your degree. If your employer agrees to pay for your degree, it may want a say in which school you choose. Still, many employers prefer online education because of the flexibility it allows their workers.

What are the professors’ backgrounds?

It may be possible to find out before you sign up who will be teaching your classes. If you can get names, plug them into a search engine. Do the professors have hands-on experience in your industry? Do they have current contacts? Are they recognized as industry experts? Depending on your degree program, it can be a huge advantage to learn from someone who has experience in the field in addition to academic knowledge—and some schools require their professors to have a hands-on background.

What’s their delivery method?

People learn in a variety of different ways. All online programs rely heavily on writing and reading as a delivery method for educational material as well as assignments, but you should hopefully have some variety. Look for schools that incorporate multimedia into their learning through podcasts, videocasts, live video lectures, real-time online chat, and so on as well as written assignments. If you learn particularly well a certain way, check to see that the school serves that style of learning.

What’s the schedule?

Flexibility comes in degrees. Some programs stick to a rather rigid schedule by incorporating lots of in-person chat, lecture and conference time as well as set deadlines for assignments. Others are less structured, rely less on real-time communication, and expect assignment returns on a rolling basis. You’ll need to know whether you thrive in a more or less structured environment, as well as what your schedule can accommodate.

Choosing an online college doesn’t have to be difficult. Do some research to find out which ones have the best programs in your area of study. Check online forums and review sites to find out what people are saying about your possible schools. Check with your employer about the possibility of tuition reimbursement, and ask a lot of questions about the school’s accreditation, professors, delivery methods and class schedules, and you should be able to find a school that’s a good fit for you.

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