When it comes to earning a certificate or degree through online learning, it’s essential that students ensure they are receiving the same quality of education as they would in person, experts say.
Still, a number of elements distinguish online education from face-to-face learning, and experts say that particularly holds true for the ways in which course content is delivered and presented to learners.
When students are researching potential online programs, they should understand how the course instructor will use learning management systems and other technologies to enhance the overall educational experience, says George Kroner, an enterprise solutions architect at University of Maryland University College, which offers online degrees and certificates.
“A learning management system is really just an empty shell,” says Kroner. “What really matters most is how the institution is taking advantage of the technology they have to provide the ideal experience and optimal outcome for students.”
Experts say prospective students assessing the quality of an online program should consider course delivery and structure as major factors in their decision. They can find this information by looking at school websites, speaking with faculty or alumni, and if the option is available, demoing or previewing the platform. In the process of doing their research, they should ask these questions .
1. How often and how much will students interact with the instructor and other students? Whether it’s through video conferences, discussion forums, email or social media, the ability to interact with others is crucial in an online program, experts say.
“Universities, programs and courses should make sure that online learning is not the proverbial ‘lonely experience,’ that the course is designed and taught in such a way that students are really connected to content, to the instructor and to each other,” said Mary Burns, a senior learning technologist at the Education Development Center, a nonprofit organization, via email.
For Natasha Patterson, who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in higher education leadership through Capella University, an online, for-profit school, communicating with other students through Blackboard’s discussion board feature was an integral part of her experience.
“Because everybody had a different background and came from different places all over the country, it helped us to kind of see different ways to do different things and learn from them at the same time,” Patterson says.