How to Evaluate Online Colleges

Steps for How to Evaluate Online Colleges

Does online learning sound right for you? Ready to dig into the details and choose the online college that best fits your needs and circumstances? Then it is time to start assessing all of your options.

When it come to selecting a school, one of the benefits of online learning is that geographic location is not part of the criteria. You literally have thousands of programs and online colleges to choose from.

However, you cannot depend on name recognition alone. Online degree choices and schools vary in what they offer and how they deliver education, and price is not a reliable indication of an online university’s value. Here is some useful information to assist you in evaluating online colleges and help you choose a school and program that will meet your needs.

Start with Statistics

  • Track Record- Online colleges can have glitzy advertising about how easy it is to earn a degree, but its graduation and drop-out rates tell the true story. If retention rates are low, it is a strong indication that students, for whatever reason, are finding fault with their particular program.
  • Experience- It has taken years for online universities to learn how to best design courses, train faculty, and serve online students. Quality institutions continuously learn about and develop new methodologies. Some major universities have the name recognition, but do their online programs have the recognition, too? Be sure to choose your online college carefully.
  • Number of Students in Classes- In face-to-face classes, you can see how many students the professor has to accommodate. Online colleges which have a low student-to-teacher ratio will proudly publicize it. Check to see what the average class size is for the schools you are interested in.
  • Standards and Practices- When online colleges promote their standards and best practices for quality online education, there should be some accountability. Ask about standards the online university has adopted, and then check out the organization that awarded them to ensure their legitimacy. Caution is necessary within the college selection process.

What Should I Ask an Admissions Advisor?

  • Is the degree program totally online?- Confirm if you are required to be on campus for some periods of time during the course.
  • Is an online degree the same as a campus degree?- Be sure to find out if your diploma will say something different from diplomas for on-campus students. Occasionally, a campus that is part of a consortium might have a different degree plan.
  • Do I have to take entrance exams?- Don’t assume that online education is less challenging than traditional education. Most likely you will need to complete college admissions requirements identical to face-to-face students.
  • What degrees do you offer?- Although you may think that you should be able to get any degree online that is offered for face-to-face students, because of the use of development resources, not all online colleges can offer every campus degree online.
  • How do I register?- Each online program is different. The information for registering should be on the institution’s website.
  • How long will it take to get my degree?- How long it takes to complete the coursework depends on the requirements of the college and whether you attend class full or part-time.
  • How will I be tested?- You may want to know if you will have to take proctored exams and where your grades will come from. Online colleges should provide this information in the course material.

FAQs For Online Colleges

  • Are programs offered which specialize in my area of interest?Some online colleges are strong in business courses, others in engineering. Take the time to research each online degree program thoroughly and make sure it covers all of your areas of interest. Also, be sure to find out if the courses taught focus on what is currently relevant to that technical field.When it comes to licensing or certification, it is especially critical that you graduate with the most up-to-date knowledge. If you take courses toward a license or certificate from an out-of-state online university, make sure the degree, license or certificate is valid in the state in which you will practice.
  • What Is the policy for transferring credits?Although transferring credits between online colleges has gotten gradually easier as online education has become more prevalent, not every institution will accept online credits. In order to find out more about a particular school’s policy on transferring credits, contact their admissions department.
  • What happens if I need to leave a course partway through?For online students with jobs and families, life sometimes unexpectedly gets in the way of studies, and the only way to deal with it is to leave a course. Before enrolling, ask what provisions the online degree program makes if you have to drop a course in the middle. Can you get a refund? What are the policies for readmission?
  • Does the online degree program have services for students with disabilities?Will you be able to take longer to complete tests? Will you be assigned a disability coordinator? The brochures, website, and course catalog for online colleges can give you a lot of information on how the institution handles accessibility issues. Ask about policies and accessibility, as well as the kinds of accommodations students with disabilities can expect.
  • How do teachers respond to students?Every teacher has a different teaching style, but in online classes, how each teacher teaches is crucial. Student success, in part, depends on the instructor. Ask questions, such as, “How long have faculty members taught online?” and “How long does it take to get homework back?” and “Do professors answer email frequently?”If at all possible, view a portion of the online course before deciding to take it. Note the instructor’s writing, teaching style, and expectations. Be sure there is a clear plan for content presentation, interactivity, communication, and assessment.
  • How are the teachers trained to teach online?Find out how much emphasis the online college gives to training, because institutions have very different ways to train. For-profit online colleges usually have control over faculty members and can require their training. However, in institutions with a strong tradition of faculty and/or union control, such training may be suggested but not required.
  • Are teachers certified and experienced in their fields?Some online colleges and universities use adjunct faculty members who are practitioners in their fields. For instance, a marketing class in health administration might have the CEO of a health group or a person running the health-care system of a senior center develop or teach the class. Students would work with the CEO to develop a proactive marketing plan, so that they not only learn information, but also use it in real-life situations.
  • How is the curriculum developed?Just because a history teacher is a terrific professor in a face-to-face environment, does not meant that he or she has any idea how to transfer that same course information to online classes. For online colleges, the design of a course is crucial to student success, because the physical cues and interaction of a face-to-face class must be built into the online environment.Well-designed courses combine the talents of faculty and professors, hands-on teachers, graphic designers, instructional designers, programmers, animators, and experts in web programs. All of these components are extremely important in providing successful online learning.
  • What does a well-designed course look like?Jennifer Freeman, a course development team leader at the University of Texas System TeleCampus, has outlined the features of a well-designed course:
  • Clear organization
  • Clear goals and objectives
  • Thorough instructions for all assignments
  • Instructionally appropriate media (graphics, audio/video, animations, etc.)
  • Opportunities for interaction
  • Activities that encourage students to be active learners
  • Student resources (library, tutoring, technical support, etc.)
  • Clear content that’s easy to read and aesthetically pleasing
  • What does a poorly designed course look like? Freeman has also gone on to explain what might make-up a poorly designed course:
  • Unclear content organization
  • Unclear navigation
  • Incomplete or wrong information in the syllabus
  • Unclear expectations and learning objectives
  • Incomplete or missing instructions for class participation and homework assignments
  • No communication plan
  • Few opportunities for students to interact with other students, instructors or the course material itself
  • Poor content presentation (typos, errors, text-heavy and difficult-to-read materials, technical problems, etc.)
  • Are student services set-up for online students? Since you most likely cannot physically walk into an office to get what you need, services for online students are an essential component to your success and satisfaction. Though you have to be more of a self-advocate than a face-to-face student, the online colleges you are considering should have someone designated who can assist you with whatever questions you might have.Look on the online school’s website to see how clear and accessible college advice information is for prospective and current students. How responsive is the online degree program adviser to your calls or emails? Does the program provide toll-free numbers for assistance? All of these factors could help make your college experience run more smoothly.
  • Will I be able to get tutoring and mentoring online?Students who have been out of school for a long time have a learning curve to climb. Writing papers does not always come easy, and they may get discouraged and feel they cannot keep up with the homework.Foreseeing the problems of many new online students, some online colleges contract out online tutoring services in math or English composition. Others have “dial-a-tutors” available in different languages for students. Check with your school to see what specific tutoring services they have available.
  • Does the library provide services for online students? Students on-campus spend a lot of time in the library. Digital libraries available through online colleges can be confusing for those not accustomed to them, so quality online programs have librarians dedicated to helping their students acclimate.What if I am looking for a specific journal? In an ideal library system, you should be able to get in touch with your institution’s librarian to find it online or have it mailed directly to you or to a nearby library. Faculty members teaching online courses should also work with the librarians to make sure the resources needed for their classes are available online.
  • How helpful is the help desk and tech support?Research the technical and technology requirements for online students at each online university you are considering. Some online colleges send enrolled students a CD or provide all of the materials needed to download from their website.A few require students to buy supplemental software, such as microphones. Your ISP should be able to support being online for long periods of time. You do not want to be halfway through an essay question and get bumped off because you have timed out.Since students tend to do assignments at odd hours, tech support at online colleges should be available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Ask if there is a tech fee. It is usually not much, but you will want to know about any extra fees.