Research is a valuable way to figure out whether a particular online degree program suits your educational needs. Some programs have demo courses so you can explore the look and feel of the virtual classroom. But you can also check the school’s website or call to ask questions about a program to find the right fit. Ask about content, course delivery, faculty, student interaction and costs.
Below is a checklist of six specific questions to focus on when choosing an online program.
1. Is the course asynchronous or synchronous? Course material may be delivered asynchronously, meaning everyone completes work on their own time, or synchronously, meaning all students log on to a live chat or video lecture at the same time. Do you want the flexibility of working around your own schedule? Or will you benefit from regularly interacting with classmates online and with your professor via videoconferencing?
2. Is content delivered via text or video? Course content may include readings, multimedia or a combination. Ask yourself: Do you prefer to read? What is your reading speed? Or, do you pay better attention by watching videos? Which format will interest you most?
3. What kind of coursework does the professor assign? Weekly assignments enable the instructor to check whether students are learning the material and help them pace themselves so they learn in manageable chunks. Some professors get creative with nontraditional assignments, such as submitting infographics or music videos. When researching, ask: Does the professor make learning exciting? Do the assignments offer opportunities to learn new skills or make the material come alive?
4. Are the professors experts in the field? Most schools have websites that list faculty members along with their academic credentials, research and publications. Has a business professor worked on Wall Street? Does a psychology professor have a private practice? Professors with real-world experience can help you understand career opportunities and the type of workplace you may encounter.
5. How does the instructor guide my online learning experience? Great professors make students care about learning through their expertise and enthusiasm.
Professors can also do that online, whether by providing exciting reading material and videos, responding to discussion board posts, publishing video introductions of material or being available to answer student questions and respond to concerns through email and online chats. In the best online learning courses, faculty also help build a learning community through collaborative assignments that promote student interaction.
6. Can you receive credit for previous courses or life experience? You may be able to finish your coursework in less than four years and drive down the total cost of your education. Many programs provide credit for previously completed courses, on-the-job training or even life or military experience. At some online colleges, credit could save you a year or more and translate to one-quarter of the cost of your education.
The takeaway: Doing your homework when choosing an online program can save you money, improve your educational experience and may even help you complete your program faster.