How to Maximize an Online Education Program

How to choose a program wisely and succeed at earning a degree in cyberspace

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With a slowly recovering economy and high unemployment, more people are using online educational programs to learn new skills in order to transfer into new careers or advance in their current fields. Approximately one fourth of the 19 million students enrolled in higher education were enrolled in at least one online course during the fall of 2008. This was a 17 percent increase from the previous year, according to a 2009 report by Sloan Consortium and Babson Survey Research Group. Today, online education programs have become commonplace, with more than 3,300 of the roughly 4,500 U.S. colleges and universities offering at least one online course. More than 1,700 of these schools offer completely online degree programs, according to a 2009 survey by Babson Survey Research Group. 

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Interested in learning about how to select an online program, how to successfully complete an online degree or certificate program, and how to effectively sell the online degree to a future employer?

How to Choose an Online Program

First and foremost, make sure the program is either regionally or nationally accredited by an established accrediting agency. The online degree and certificate programs should meet the same standards as traditional brick-and-mortar higher education institutions. The standards are determined by six regional accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Most online universities list their accreditations visibly on their websites. If it's not listed on the site, find the school's physical headquarters and contact the accreditation association for that region. Another consideration is the reputation and experience a school has within your specific career field of study. In addition to overall academic accreditation for the school, you should make sure that the department and degree programs have specialized accreditation by reputable professional associations, such as the American Bar Association and the American Dental Association. You can also search for the regional, national, and programmatic accrediting agencies in the Department of Education's database or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's list.

Accreditation affects a student's ability to transfer credits to another institution. If a student attends a nationally accredited school and wants to transfer to a regionally accredited school, it may be difficult to transfer credits, says Scott Traylor, the director of admissions for online education at Bryant and Stratton College, which offers online courses and has 17 campuses across four states.

Access to a physical campus is another factor to consider when choosing an online program. Some universities, such as Walden University and Capella University, offer online instruction only, with no physical campuses, while other schools offer "blended" instruction that includes both online courses and classes at campus locations across the country, such as the University of Phoenix and DeVry University. "Some people are more comfortable taking online courses when there is an on-site location, knowing there is a physical location they can go to," says Steve Riehs, the president of online services at DeVry University, which also has more than 100 campuses nationwide. In fact, the Department of Education released a study in June 2009 that found that blended instruction was more effective at improving student achievement across a variety of subject matters than purely online or face-to-face instruction.

The quality of the faculty is also a key consideration in selecting a program, says Kenneth Hartman, the academic director for Drexel University Online. He recommends that prospective students research the background of the school's faculty, the number of full-time and adjunct professors, their accessibility, and their experience teaching in specific subject areas. He says you also want to have an instructor who has received training in how to teach online. "The quality of the faculty is ultimately what you're paying for," Hartman says. "You're paying for a knowledgeable person who's able to take the available technology and help you learn."