How Do I Choose a Program?
Three quick questions you should always ask
Sure, E-learning could be a great way to further your education while keeping your day job. But how do you separate the reputable programs from the digital diploma mills that profit from giving you a worthless degree? By finding out the answers to three quick questions before you enroll, you could spare yourself some hassles down the road.
Is the Program Legitimate?
If you're considering taking an E-learning course, the most important point to research is what is the school's reputation? The first thing to look into with any online education program is its accreditation: If the school has not been properly reviewed, your diploma could be meaningless in the eyes of potential employers.
Online colleges and graduate programs are expected to meet the same standards as traditional institutions and thus should be reviewed by one of the same six regional associations recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Many schools will flaunt this accreditation somewhere readily visible on their home page. If you can't find it, locate the school's physical headquarters through its website, and then check with the accreditation association that covers that region. You also can search the Department of Education's list (http://ope.ed.gov/accreditation/Search.asp).
The next thing you should investigate with any prospective school is how long the institution has offered E-learning courses. Even established traditional colleges and grad schools can stumble with their first ventures into online education. And their technical difficulties could affect your learning process.
How Much PC Skill Do I Need?
Universities (and the companies they hire to help them develop their E-learning networks) take great efforts to make the technical aspects of going to class online easy enough that anyone who has browsed the Web can do it. And any Internet-ready laptop or PC should be enough to tackle the class. That said, check your potential school's site for its equipment recommendations, along with the hours of its technical support teams (and whether it offers tech support online only or also allows you to talk to someone on the phone). If you haven't already upgraded to a broadband Internet connection, you'll definitely want to do that before starting a class.
What's It Like Taking a Class?
There are basically two types of E-learning classes. In the first kind-dubbed asynchronous by the techies-there aren't really scheduled classes. Instead, the professor sets particular deadlines for assignments and tests, but you work your own way through them-anytime of day or night, so long as you get them in when they are due. In the other type of course, called synchronous, students and the professor log in to websites at regular, preset times for online chats about the subject matter.
Of course, both styles still differ noticeably from going to an actual classroom: no creaking desks, raised hands, or heavy book bags. But thanks to the advances in technology-instant messaging, online video lectures, wiki websites-online education can be every bit as engaging. And, in many cases, if you enroll in an online education course offered by a school near where you live, you can opt to attend some of the classroom lectures.
Many students have said that taking a course online actually is more challenging than a traditional method. Logging in regularly to complete your assignments can require more daily discipline than the traditional class in which the workload is often bunched around tests and writing assignments. And you can't quietly hide in the back of the room when you haven't done the assigned reading: Comments in the chats and posts on the website show how actively engaged you are in the assignments. But feel free to speak (or type) your mind: At least you know you never have to meet your "classmates."
Of course, there are many places you can go on the Web to find out more about online education programs. In addition to www.usnews.com/elearning, some helpful sites are:
U.S. Department of Education: Though it does not directly accredit schools, the department does offer a searchable database that you can find at www.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/index.html?src=qc.
About.com: Tucked in among the pages explaining everything from automobiles to video games is a helpful primer on the E-learning process (http://distancelearn.about.com).
Online Degree Search: This site is one of several that specialize in helping prospective students find their best online education match. The place to start is the tips page (www.online-degree-search.net/tips.html). A similar site is www.guidetoonlineschools.com.
This story appears in the October 16, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.