For all of the very real benefits an online degree program gives you, there are still a number of factors to take into consideration before you choose one. This article lays out some of the most pressing factors to consider. Topics covered include cost, class size and tech support, as well as instructor qualifications and residency requirements.
Online education creates the opportunity for people to pursue degrees who might not otherwise be able to attend a traditional college. Online education provides a level of flexibility that isn’t feasible with the standard classroom-and-lecture approach to higher education. There are a number of things that you need to take into consideration before picking an online degree program.
Traditional vs. Online Prestige
It is still a reality that degrees from traditional universities carry more prestige than degrees from online-only universities. The good news is that traditional universities are increasingly offering online degree programs. If you intend to move into a highly competitive profession, pursuing an online degree from a traditional university will still afford you the benefits of online education, but also give you the prestige benefit of a traditional university’s name on your resume.
A Master’s degree is often sufficient for someone to secure a job as an instructor in both traditional and online universities. While a Master’s degree does mean someone is qualified to teach essential theory, it doesn’t equate to practical experience. You should look at the qualifications of the instructors before committing to an online degree program. Instructors with years of practical experience, or ones who teach in addition to holding jobs in their field, will provide a deeper learning experience than the ones who took a job teaching right after receiving their Master’s degree.
While all programs offer certain standard courses, advanced courses, they are often developed around the skills, experience, or specialties, of the department faculty. If you are interested in philosophy, for example, some departments lean heavily toward the Analytic philosophy, which focuses heavily on logic and language analysis, while others lean toward the Continental philosophy, which focuses more on uses of human experience and existential questions. A look at the available courses can help you identify if it has a learning department that does or doesn’t line up with your interests.
Cost and Financial Aid
The total costs of a program can change radically from one online program to the next. An online MBA program from the University of North Carolina runs approximately $97,000. An online MBA from Walden University, by comparison, runs approximately $30,000. If you require financial aid, as most students do, less expensive programs and programs with scholarships, grants and fellowships may be the better choice for you.
Some programs require that students meet a residency requirement. In the case of online programs, this translates to a certain number of days or weeks per semester or per year that student must show up in person for classes and meetings. For students that live at a significant distance from the campus, these requirements often prove unmanageable or very expensive to fulfill. If you do not believe you can manage the residency requirement of a program, you will be better off looking for programs that are closer to home or do not necessitate in-person attendance.
The number of students in a class has a direct relationship to the amount of interaction you can expect from the class instructor. In a class of 18 students, for example, you can anticipate fairly regular interaction and feedback from the instructor. In a class of 75, on the other hand, you can expect extremely limited interaction or the instructor will meet only the minimum feedback requirement as set forth by the university. For students returning to higher education after an extended period away in the workforce, for example, an accessible instructor can play a crucial role in their success. If a program has a large number of students per class, some students may find it difficult to re-acclimatize to academia.
Although information technology plays an increasingly important role at traditional universities, it is possible for students to work around technology failures. They can hand deliver paperwork to offices or turn things in directly to instructors. For online education, a problem with IT infrastructure effectively brings your education to a halt. Be sure to investigate or ask about the level and hours of the universities tech support before you enter a program. If the university only maintains tech support during regular business hours, you may want to move on, as students often access class materials, participate in forums and take exams outside of business hours.
Selecting the right online program is, in many ways, no different than selecting a traditional college to attend. You must balance your wants against your needs and ability to pay. While an online program from a top-tier, brick-and-mortar University might be better for your resume, it also comes with a much higher price tag. You must consider whether a given program aligns with your interests and what technological and financial resources the university makes available to you.