A checklist for online education

And remember that call centres are staffed by single-minded salespeople, so speak to someone who isn’t hawking courses, like a programme director.

Course quality

An instructor’s relevant work experience may be of more value than scholarship. Check bios online for content-area expertise, and ask about how faculty is trained in online instruction (a 40-hour course is typical).

Instructor involvement is the heart of online learning because coursework often entails posting to discussion boards and receiving feedback. Some programmes require a minimum number of postings each week from faculty members and have rules about how long they have before they must respond to student queries (say, 24 hours). Check, too, on class sizes; more than 25-15 for a writing course – is a lot. The course may be unmanageable. Are there teaching assistants?

Some online courses require hardly any effort, some require a lot. Will you be writing papers? Are there webcam tutorials and podcasts?

Educational support

You’ll want an adviser who can walk you through your degree programme, planning coursework and helping when problems arise. Say the computer course you registered for is far too advanced, but you didn’t realise it until the textbook came in the mail.

That happened to Tamika Ahlfeld, who is studying online for her BS in computer information systems at Florida Institute of Technology. She called her adviser and dropped the course. “Next term I was in another programming course that was more for me,” she says. Her adviser calls every Thursday to check in.

Tech support

Do you have to navigate online tutorials to get started or does a live person guide you through registration and courseware?

“Just because you can Google and game doesn’t mean you have the skills” to unpack a college’s online setup, says Kenneth C Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project, which studies e-learning. Ask about a 24-hour help desk, library hours and writing and math tutors.

Credit transfer

Online learners tend to skip around to finish degrees (plus take years to do it), making credit transfer crucial. Some colleges are generous about accepting coursework or competency exams; others will make you retake core requirements. Excelsior College, for example, has no minimum number of courses a student must take, while Kaplan requires that 25 per cent of a degree be earned at Kaplan. John B Bear, author of a series of guides on distance learning, says it pays to be specific and find out in advance what transfers: “I took the Xerox sales training course, what is that worth? I got my pilot’s license – in Mexico. Does that count?”

Accreditation

This matters – a lot. The essential seal of approval comes from one of six regional accrediting authorities. But that may not be enough. In certain fields, including nursing and engineering, the particular programme must be approved by an industry accrediting body. (U.S. News’ new ranking will consider only programmes at regionally accredited online institutions that have programme-level accreditation.)

Cost, jobs and other indicators

New US Federal regulations require that institutions post consumer facts about any programme that prepares students for work, including completion rate, total cost, median loan debt and job placement.

Of those, cost and debt may be the most meaningful for comparison. For-profits tend to
charge twice as much as nonprofits for degree programmes. But nonprofits may pile on charges like library fees ($425 to $1,260 at Norwich University); graduation fees ($495 at Excelsior); online fees ($45 a credit hour at the University of Minnesota); and “prior learning assessment” fees ($800 at UMassOnline).

Don’t be distracted by Bureau of Labor Statistics projections that populate web pages; they are hardly indicators of how graduates fare in the marketplace. But job placement rates are also imperfect, often counting work in unrelated fields or jobs students had all along. “It is one measure of many measures we are trying to put out there, but we recognise it is a fudgeable number,” said Sara Gast an Education Department spokeswoman. Instead, ask for names of companies hiring graduates and what post-graduation services they offer.


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