Online learning has seen an explosion in popularity in recent years. According to an annual report published by the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) and Babson Survey Research Group, nearly 7.1 million students were taking at least one online course in 2013. According to the report, the percentage of college students taking at least one online course is currently at an all-time high of 33.5 percent.
To meet the demand, the report says, almost 70 percent of degree-granting institutions in the U.S. offered some type of distance education in 2013. Access to education is the reason most often cited for the increase in interest, especially amongst working adults who are looking for ways to further or change careers. Access is also the primary reason cited by educational institutions for the increase in their online offerings, followed by attracting students from beyond their traditional service area, and growing continuing or professional education.
According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 37 percent of respondents agreed that online colleges and universities offer high quality education in 2013, up from 30 percent in 2011. And in the Sloan-C report, educators that work at institutions of higher education that offer online degree programs or courses reported a positive outlook on the quality of instruction and outcomes of their various programs.
Given the increasing popularity and proliferation of online learning and courses, it is important for individuals to have a framework with which to evaluate online learning offerings. Prospective students need to evaluate programs to maximize their potential for getting a good education that will be looked upon favorably by the academic and hiring communities. This article will highlight the top factors that individuals should take into consideration when evaluating online learning.
Sloan-C defines an online course as one in which at least 80% of course content is delivered online. Courses with less online content are considered blended or hybrid (30-79% online content) or "web facilitated" (< 30% online content).
Evaluating Online Learning Programs
Are online education programs right for you?
When considering online learning programs, the best place to start is with a little introspection and self-examination. Questions to ask yourself include:
- Why do I want to take an online course?
- Is online learning compatible with my needs and the way that I learn?
- How comfortable am I with computers and technology?
Many people look into online learning because they think it will be faster or easier, both are common misconceptions. A quality online course or program should be every bit as demanding as its classroom counterpart. Also, many online courses are self-paced, meaning they may actually take longer for a student to complete, especially for working adults who are juggling other life commitments.
Online learning can be a fairly self-directed undertaking. This can be especially true of online courses that progress at a student's own pace, as opposed to those on a schedule with specific deadlines. Online learning also requires some facility with a computer. If you are an individual who needs structure or direction, or who thinks that the social aspects of an education (live interaction with other students and faculty, campus events, etc.) are appealing or important, than online learning may not be the right vehicle for you.
What is the quality of the institution offering the online course/program?
One of the main indicators of the quality of an educational institution is accreditation. Accreditation is a process of peer-review of educational institutions and programs against established quality criteria by an independent, non-governmental, private educational association known as an accrediting agency. At a minimum, a prospective student should consider programs that are nationally accredited by an agency that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Even better is to consider the programs of an institution that are accredited by one of the 6 regional accrediting agencies, and their 8 commissions. The regional accrediting agencies are generally believed to be the highest form of accreditation in the United States.
Here are some other metrics for assessing an online college or online program:
Prospective students should spend some time trying to ascertain the quality of a particular program of study. They should ask the educational institution to provide statistics on the programs completion rate. A high drop out rate can be an indication of a poorly designed program. Prospective students should ask if they can sample a course so that they may assess for themselves the quality of instruction. They should also ask for the names of graduates of the program so that they may gain additional insight into the program. Any institution not willing to provide vital statistics or graduate "references" should probably be eliminated from consideration.
Quality of Instructors
Similar to assessing the quality of the program, students should spend some time assessing the quality of the instructors. They should ask for the educational credentials of the instructors, whether they are full or part-time, and what levels of industry experience they have. Adult students typically are the happiest with programs that provide a good mix of theoretical foundation and "real world" application.
Financial Aid / Employer Reimbursement
A very important consideration for many students is the availability of financial aid. Here, again, accreditation comes into play. An institution must be accredited by an accrediting agency that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education to be eligible to participate in Federal student financial aid programs. Students should also check with their employer to see if they will provide employer reimbursement for the online program that they are considering. According to a 2005 study by The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), 29% of corporate reimbursement went to blended or online programs. The same study, however, indicates that employers expect that online programs will increase in importance, with 58% of the ASTD survey participants indicating that they expect the role of online higher education to increase in the next 2-3 years.
Online programs can provide a wide range of "credentials" or indications of completion. While some programs may not provide traditional degrees, they may prepare the student to take necessary certification exams for their chosen profession. Many come with some level of guarantee of success and offer additional training to those who do not pass the certification exams.
Not all course credits received at certain educational institution will be accepted by other educational institutions. If a student intends to continue their education at other educational institutions upon completion of their online program of study, they should check to make sure that those institutions will accept the course credits and/or degree earned in the online program.
Perhaps one of the most basic questions that should be asked is whether or not the program is applicable to the profession that the student is in or looking to start. A quick survey of the individual's current or prospective employers should provide them with information about the applicability of the online program to their chosen profession.
Delivery Mechanism(s) Employed
Students should thoroughly understand the delivery mechanism or mechanisms employed by educational institutions they are considering. Is the course fully online or blended (a combination of online and traditional classroom). If fully online, how is the course delivered? In asynchronous courses, students interact with faculty and other students by posting at different times. In synchronous courses, students and faculty interact "live" at a given time.
It is also important to understand if the program is self-paced or scheduled. A self-paced course is one where the student may complete the course at any time (usually within loose parameters). A scheduled course has a specific timeline (usually coinciding with a semester) with scheduled assignments, exams, and completion dates.
It is important for a student to select an online program whose delivery fits best with their learning style, as well as their other work and family commitments.
Interaction with Instructor and Other Students
Prospective students should also understand how they will interact with their professor or teacher. Is there access to the instructor via e-mail, phone, or some other means (such as a chat forum)? Does the instructor have regular virtual office hours when they may be reached by students?
It is also important to understand how a student interacts with other students. One of the most valuable aspects of higher education is interaction, collaboration, and sharing of ideas with other students. For this reason, it is important for a prospective student to understand what mechanisms exist to foster and support such interaction in an online learning environment.
Support, especially technical support, can make or break an online learning experience. It is very important for a prospective student to understand what support services exist should they encounter problems. For example, is phone support available? Is "live" online support available?
In addition to technical support, it is important to understand what other support services are offered to online students. Do online students have library access, access to tutoring, access to financial aid counseling, access to registration services, access to career planning and placement services, and more? The more services available to the online student that approximate those of a campus student, the better the educational experience.
By using the outlined framework, a prospective student should be able to develop a complete and clear picture of the programs they are considering, and be able to select the program that best meets their needs.
"Accreditation in the United States," U.S. Department of Education, http://www2.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/index.html
"Americans' Trust in Online Higher Ed Rising," Gallup Politics, http://www.gallup.com/poll/168416/americans-trust-online-higher-education-rising.aspx?utm_source=alert&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=syndication&utm_content=morelink&utm_term=Economy
"Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States," Babson Survey Research Group, http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/gradechange.pdf
"Overview of Accreditation," Council for Higher Education Accreditation, http://www.chea.org/pdf/fact_sheet_1.pdf
"The Power of the Internet for Learning," Report of the Web-based Education Commission to the President and Congress of the United States, http://www2.ed.gov/offices/AC/WBEC/FinalReport/WBECReport.pdf