Choosing a Distance Learning School
Distance learning has existed for centuries through traditional mail and other creative means, but online education is still a relatively new field. Even though the technology is different, the educational mission and academic standards are the same as in traditional education: providing a quality education. Many online schools do exactly that, while others are merely degree mills or outright frauds. And of course, there's plenty of variety in the middle.
As you search for online schools, it's important to know what you're looking for, and what to look out for. Below are some parameters to help you choose the best online school for you.
AccreditationAccreditation is the first and most important aspect of any school. Make sure a proper association-preferably a regional association-has accredited the school you're investigating. This will ensure that it is meeting academic requirements and that other institutions will accept the credits you earn. Attending a school that isn't properly accredited will not only cause you headaches in college, but with future employers as well.
You also want to check that the accrediting agency is legit. Some of them don't review schools very thoroughly and some will approve almost anyone for a fee. Your best bet is to verify that the accrediting association is endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education.
Quality of Faculty
By its nature, distance education is more independent than attending a physical classroom with other students, but having good teachers is still vital. Go online and research the faculty of any school you're looking at. How much education and experience do the teachers have?
Just because a school delivers classes online doesn't mean the teachers should be any less qualified. Most community college teachers have at least a Masters degree in their field. University professors typically have PhD's. Any good online school should have comparable faculty.
As with any school, you need to research the academic programs at an online school and make sure they line up with your goals for higher education. These days, there are many options to choose from in distance education, so shop around and compare specific programs at different schools.
Does this school offer Associates degrees or professional certification? If so, are they recognized by other institutions of higher education? This is vital, especially if you plan on continuing on to a four-year university.
Look at the specific courses that are required for a degree. Do they look interesting, challenging, or make sense with the field of study? Are these classes that you would be attracted to? How do they compare to the course requirements at other online schools?
Understand the Requirements and Schedule
It is also wise to understand the academic requirements and the class schedule before you commit to an online program. In distance education, these factors can vary widely from program to program. Some courses allow you to work at your own pace while others have deadlines, a schedule of live virtual classes, or in-person testing administered by the instructor or a proctor.
Ask yourself a few questions about you as a student. Are you good at self-motivation and staying on task, or do you need structure and/or deadlines? Are you an auditory learner, meaning you can remember details better if you hear them, or a visual learner who can easily read and absorb information? Some online courses are filled with live or recorded video lectures, podcasts and multimedia lessons, while others rely mainly on written text.
Some online programs are hybrid and require some physical attendance, either for lectures or exams. Understand the schedule so you can be certain you can meet these requirements. Also make sure the school is not too far away from where you live.
How much is tuition and are there any hidden fees or extra costs? Distance education is a dynamic and competitive market, and cost and quality don't always match up. If you've begun your search with one school in particular, expand it by looking at other schools with comparable tuition. Compare the quality and variety of degrees, experience of the teachers and feedback from former and current students.
Online college should typically cost a little less than attending a traditional college or university. If you're looking at a particular online school, do a cost comparison with other colleges in your area.
Student Enrollment, Class Size and Office Hours
How many students does this school enroll? In general, more is better. If an established school isn't attracting that many students, it's probably not a good sign. The same goes for how long the school has been in business. The longer, the better. You still want to investigate the quality of their programs and faculty, but experience is usually a good sign.
Look beyond the enrollment numbers. What is the graduation rate? You want to attend a school that has a good record of students' academic success. What is the student/teacher ratio and average class size? The class is online, but to succeed you will still need some individual attention from the instructor.
That should extend beyond the classroom. It's often overlooked in online education, but students still require extra interaction with instructors, as well as access to tutoring and mentorship opportunities. Many long-distance teachers will keep online “office hours,” allowing students the same access to instructors as in traditional classes.
If possible, talk to some current or former students to get an idea of the availability of these important aspects of school.
Hardware, Software and Textbooks
Most online schools have basic requirements when it comes to computers. You won't need a supercomputer, just something that is relatively up-to-date and able to handle word processing and typical online activity. In the case of some specialized courses, you'll need expensive hardware, but not for most classes.
Software will usually be provided free of charge. In some cases you will need to buy software for the class, which can vary widely in price. The same goes for textbooks. Make sure you know the cost estimate for software and textbooks. They can add up fast.
Remember, distance education has a different delivery method than traditional education, but the goal remains the same. So do the academic standards. Use the same criteria you would for a physical college, just in a different context. If an online school is right for you, it should stand up to the test.