Expert Advice: How to Find, Succeed in Online Degree Programs

Public awareness of online education grew substantially over the last decade. According to the Babson Survey Research Group (BSRG), online enrollments far outpace those of traditional campus-based programs. Most U.S. colleges and universities now offer online learning, and more students than ever take advantage of it. Despite this mainstream shift, the majority of new students have never evaluated, selected, or enrolled in an online course. Online degree programs are far less novel for experts who design and support them, making them a valuable resource for students considering the format. Many of these online learning experts shared wisdom and information with OnlineEducation.com during interviews. Their advice, compiled below, offers guidance through all stages of the online learning process, from program selection to post-graduate success.

Is Online Education Right for You?

Online degree programs typically provide students with more flexibility compared to campus-based programs, but that does not mean they are easy. Online courses tend to be just as rigorous, if not more rigorous, as those taught in classrooms. They also require more self-motivation, organization, and learner independence. Evaluating one’s readiness for online learning is just as important as choosing a school or degree program. According to Online Learning Consortium’s Chief Knowledge Officer Dr. Karen Pedersen, the process begins with the right questions.

“I always start with knowing yourself—do you like learning with others and find that being in a classroom is important? … Are you self-motivated with the determination and “grit” to succeed in all learning environments, or is one a better match?” said Dr. Pedersen. “A simple Google search for ‘is online learning right for me’ will yield a number of readiness assessments that can help you consider your readiness.”

One sometimes overlooked factor that impacts online learning readiness is personal learning style. While some students thrive in online programs that offer more independence and control over learning, others need more structure. Online degree programs that use live, synchronous instruction can narrow the divide, but may not be feasible for prospective students unable to commit to regular class meetings.

“[Students should] think about how they learn best—online learning may not be for them,” Dr. Patrick Shannon, associate professor of Social Work at the University of New Hampshire, told OnlineEducation.com. “Avoid choosing a program based on convenience only.”

Students who take the time to consider these questions will have the perspective they need to not only decide if online learning is right for them but also identify the type of online degree program that suits them best.

How to Choose Online Degree Programs

Continued growth in online education brings new learning options. However, it also complicates the process of narrowing one’s options. Students evaluating online programs must consider numerous factors including, but not limited to, program availability, accreditation, cost, quality, and support programs. Students then need to rank the importance of these factors: Is program reputation more important than delivery format? What about cost? Below, experts share tips for navigating the field successfully.

Assess Learning Needs and Goals

Online learning options change over time, and according to an annual survey conducted by the BSRG, college executives will continue to invest heavily in new programs and technologies. Many schools experiment with new program structures, delivery methods, and other qualities that impact learning. These advancements may improve outcomes when matched to students’ individual needs. Matthew Rascoff, Vice President of Technology-Based Learning and Innovation at the University of North Carolina, told OnlineEducation.com it is important that students evaluating online programs determine how they learn and what they hope to achieve.

“Students should assess the full range of the experience when determining which program meets their needs best,” said Mr. Rascoff. “For a working mom, a program that offers self-paced assignments and a flexible testing schedule might work best. For someone who’s re-entering higher education to finish a degree full-time, a program with an emphasis on group discussions and assignments, and that provides a single academic advisor, might deliver the important social experience he or she needs to be successful.”

The factors Mr. Rascoff addressed may define how manageable online degree programs are for certain learners. Content delivery is perhaps one of the most important considerations in this regard.

Consider When and How Online Programs Deliver Coursework

No two online students are the same, and neither are their motivations for pursuing online courses and degrees. Students who work, travel, or have family obligations may want the flexibility of asynchronous or self-directed programs. Less restricted learners might seek the spontaneity and familiarity of live courses minus a commute. Experts can shed light on some of the advantages and disadvantages of both delivery methods.

Synchronous Instruction

Online degree programs that use synchronous instruction recreate the interactivity and engagement one would expect in a traditional on-campus classroom. Instructors live-stream lectures and discussion through video, audio, live chats, or a combination of media. Dr. James Groves, associate professor of Engineering and founder of a unique online engineering program at the University of Virginia (U.Va.), discussed some benefits of synchronous courses with OnlineEducation.com.

“We believe that a key element of education is intellectual engagement by students with others – faculty instructors, teaching assistants, and fellow students. Education is not simply access to a textbook with content,” said Dr. Groves. He said live sessions also “offer the opportunity for student mixing, and we believe that the additional perspectives of the larger, more diverse student body benefit all of our students.”

Synchronous online courses are not without their limitations, however. Students balancing school with other obligations may not be able to attend sessions regularly while those living in remote areas may not have access to the high-speed internet connection streaming technologies so often require. Military service members and their families are particularly susceptible to such challenges. Dr. Groves discussed logistical barriers and how U.Va. addresses them.

“Certainly one of the challenges of our live format is scheduling. Because our program is live online, we provide great global location flexibility, but we do not provide complete time flexibility,” said Dr. Groves. “For students trying to squeeze studies, work, and ‘life’ into 24 hours a day, we offer a pretty efficient solution. Indeed, on those occasions when a student must miss class, because of work or life obligations, all of our live sessions are recorded, and so they can go back and catch up.”

Recorded lectures reduce students’ chances of falling behind following occasional absences, though for learners consistently unable to engage in live instruction, this alternative may not be sufficient. In such cases, a program that offers more scheduling flexibility might be more suitable.

Asynchronous Instruction

Online programs with asynchronous instruction epitomize the convenience for which online education is known. Unlike synchronous courses, students attending asynchronous courses have the flexibility to log into class when they can. Students may view pre-recorded lectures, discuss topics on discussion boards, and download assignments and materials as necessary, though they may still be required to meet regular and/or periodic course deadlines. According to Jared Stein, Vice President of Research and Education at Canvas by Instructure, this format improves global accessibility to higher education and gives students more control over the rate at which they learn.

“Online learning increases access to education for more people in more places,” said Mr. Stein. “This is due primarily to the asynchronous nature of online environments and the flexibility that it provides. The ‘always-on’ nature of the web allows for learners to move at different paces, and to review and practice learning experiences as much as needed.”

Program Structure

Program structure is another factor that impacts online course flexibility and accessibility. Students attending programs using a cohort model, for example, typically complete coursework as a group, which means they must also follow a specific course sequence. Cohort programs with one start date per year may only offer courses on an annual basis. This may be problematic for students who must take time off from their studies as they may not be able to resume their degree program for a full year. Students who need to start and stop their program should consult with an admissions advisor about policies related to leaves of absence to determine if a program allows this type of behavior.

Prospective students who consider program structure and content delivery method alongside desired majors and credentials maybe be able to narrow their online learning options considerably.

Research Cost and Financial Aid

Cost is an important consideration for students assessing higher education regardless of how they will attend. While college is an investment in one’s future, too much debt can offset some of its advantages. Many online colleges publish a schedule of their tuition and fees on their websites. These figures provide some sense of a program’s basic costs, but they are only one of the variables that determine affordability. For example, some colleges consider all online students in-state residents. In most public and some private universities, this label reduces tuition costs. Students should also be aware that online programs that require campus visits may not include the costs of these visits (travel and lodging) in their tuition and fees. These costs are typically paid by the student as well.

Prospective students might want to review projected earnings and employment rates, which can vary by institution. Graduates of a highly affordable online degree program may earn less on average than peers attending more expensive programs, and vice-versa. Dr. Rascoff discussed this with OnlineEducation.com.

“Online programs offer flexibility, but students need to be well-prepared and equipped to take on the time management challenge and the financial investment,” said Dr. Rascoff. “Good programs more than pay back the investment that students make. The new College Scorecard from the U.S. Education Department is a good place to look for job outcomes.”

Students should also consider financial aid availability. Some colleges may have additional cost-saving measures in place for certain student populations, especially active and veteran military personnel and their families. Prospective students can speak with a financial aid advisor to clarify what types of support are available to online students, how they apply for them, and how the institution manages any awarded funds. Note: Financial aid is never guaranteed, even among students who meet its basic requirements. Assistance may also be contingent on factors like one’s course load and program accreditation status.

Review Student Support Services

Colleges and universities have long offered support services—including academic, financial aid, and career advising—to help their students succeed. Online schools deliver many of those same programs. Students can usually contact support staff by phone or email. Synchronous services that use live chats, instant messaging, and voice or video conferencing are increasingly popular. Dr. Stacey Ludwig-Johnson, Associate Provost of Academic Services at Western Governors University, provided some guidance as to which support programs students should look for when evaluating online programs.

“I would recommend that students look for a dedicated advising or mentoring program so they know where to turn when they need help. I would also suggest that students ask if the other support services, including the IT service desk, are available extended hours and weekends when most online students are studying and might need help navigating the system or dealing with access issues,” Dr. Ludwig-Johnson told OnlineEducation.com. “Finally, I would recommend that students ensure that the Career and Professional Development Services meet their career advancement needs, including support to research potential employers, resume or portfolio review, and guidance on building a professional network.”

Students who assess online programs using the criteria the above experts recommend will likely have a much shorter list of prospective schools. Now they can assess quality and credibility.

Look for Accredited Programs

Accreditation certifies that an online school or program complies with certain quality guidelines and best practices, as determined by a third-party agency. These agencies conduct a thorough review of schools’ finances, teaching methods, and other criteria that signify credibility. Dr. Rascoff suggests name recognition may correlate with accreditation status.

“Large, public universities – like the institutions within the University of North Carolina – maintain rigorous regional accreditation standards; actually a higher level than national accreditation,” said Dr. Rascoff. “That ensures students know they’ll have earned a quality, and permanent, degree.”

Some accreditors’ evaluations are considered more credible than others. The U.S. Department of Education advises students to confirm schools and programs are accredited by agencies recognized by it or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

How to Succeed in Online Programs

Finding and enrolling in online degree programs that match their needs can improve students’ chances of succeeding in them, but there are other habits and characteristics one should consider. In this section, online learning experts discuss factors that drive student success.

Take Advantage of the Benefits of Online Education

Students who understand online programs’ benefits and options can put them to use. For example. College for America (CfA) Chief Learning Architect Yvonne Simon told OnlineEducation.com that the value of the medium’s flexibility—that students can study anywhere and anytime—cannot be overstated. Neither can many other characteristics of online learning.

“Once students begin their degree program, especially if they have never participated in an online program before, they can find the experience liberating,” said Ms. Simon. “Students who may not have been active in the classroom often become much more engaged since participating in online discussions or forums does not involve raising your hand and being noticed by a teacher, but simply posting your question or response.”

Support services are another perhaps under-emphasized benefit of online learning often linked to student success. There are several ways online colleges support their students, but most programs offer career and academic advising, one-on-one tutoring, library services, assessment support, and virtual math and writing centers. These services help online learners overcome challenges encountered over the course of their studies. Instructors and mentors can also provide students personalized support. While college campuses give traditional students many of these services in a face-to-face environment, Dr. Patrick Shannon told OnlineEducation.com online students tend to receive more targeted help.

“We discovered pretty quickly that online students probably receive more personalized attention than students in our Executive Model and traditional face-to-face programs do,” Dr. Patrick said of his institution’s online social work program. “Students have access to a Student Support specialist, a traditional advisor, field supervisor, and a field liaison who all support each student.”

Learn and Leverage Learning Technology

Technology drives online learning: without it, online degree programs would not exist. Online students must learn how to use and navigate the virtual learning environment in order to attend class, access materials, and submit work. Online learning management systems (LMSes) occasionally add new and advanced features, personalize individual instruction or make it more accessible to students with disabilities or language barriers. While knowing how to use these features effectively might improve one’s chance of online learning success, Kenneth Chapman, Vice President of Market Strategy at Distance2Learn, emphasized the value of some of an LMS’s most basic features during an interview with OnlineEducation.com.

“If I had to give advice to students, it would be to take advantage of personal management tools (task lists, calendars, group spaces, integration with Google, Dropbox, etc.) to make sure they are getting the most out of their environment,” said Mr. Chapman. “Online learning enables there to be clarity on dates and expectations. Students have clearly laid out calendars of activities, and can receive notifications of changes to a course, helping to ensure that students know what is happening in their coursework, what is due, and what is expected of them.”

Work with Other Students

Peer communication and collaboration are important in higher education; knowing how to work with others is an essential workplace skill. Colleges and LMS providers ensure online students can engage in rich social experiences despite their distance. Online students connect through virtual meeting rooms, instant chats, and collaborative document programs like Google Drive. Out-of-class discussion boards and social media groups are useful as well. Yvonne Simon suggests peer communities provide valuable support.

“Connect with other students. Getting to know even a few students who know what it’s like to be a college student at [your school] can really enrich your experience,” said Ms. Simon. “We all stumble—that’s part of the learning process. Having someone who understands your struggles and celebrate your successes can make it seem much more do-able and fun.”

Ms. Simon told OnlineEducation.com that College for America appoints designated student ambassadors who encourage learners to connect, and not just for the sake of social networking: one’s academic success may correlate with his or her level of peer engagement.

“Peer-to-peer connection is an important part of our model,” said Ms. Simon. “On average, these students complete their degree twice as quickly as students who don’t join and are much more likely to persist to degree completion. Interestingly, even if they join later in their program, their productivity and pace increases significantly after joining.”

Plan for the Future

Higher education can be a catalyst for personal, social, intellectual, and professional development. Online colleges and universities may encourage or require students to find internships, clinical placements, and/or other practical experiences within their local communities. For example, students admitted to U.Va.’s Engineers PRODUCED in Virginia attend live, synchronous online courses while serving internships with relevant employers across the Commonwealth. Such endeavors let online students practice and refine newly-honed skills within a professional environment. While some online colleges help coordinate internships and placements, others require students to do most of the legwork. Dr. Groves discussed the value of these efforts with OnlineEducation.com.

“I always tell students that securing an apprenticeship is a collaborative venture. We will point them in the right direction and assist them during the process, but ultimately they need to prepare resumes and cover letters, learn about companies, and pursue opportunities,” said Dr. Groves. “I think that’s the best way. It’s good training for later in life.”

Many online colleges also help students prepare for employment beyond the completion of their studies. Dr. Ludwig-Johnson encourages online students to take advantage of their institution’s career services near the beginning of their studies—not the end.

“In terms of career support services, it has been our experience that students wait until the last term of their program to seek career support, usually in the form of resume reviews, when we could have helped them build their professional network, research possible careers and potential employers, and build experience in terms of internships or volunteer work along the way,” said Dr. Ludwig-Johnson. “Fully utilizing the advising and career services can help students make a more successful transition from college to career.”

Final Thoughts from Online Learning Experts

Prospective students researching online education should always contact colleges and universities to ensure compiled information is both current and accurate. Online degree programs change as the field grows larger and more diverse. The same is true of program structures, technologies, and methods of delivery. Dr. Pedersen said she expects these trends to continue.

“I think there is a lot of evolution still to come in the online education arena,” Dr. Pedersen told OnlineEducation.com. “While some see online education as an inexpensive way to deliver education to large numbers of students, others recognize the flexibility offered to students, particularly adult learners, who want or need to tap into learning from anywhere at any time. Still others recognize the unique, value-added experiences that online education can bring to all learners – in residential settings or fully online programs.”

As online education grows, so do learning opportunities it provides. New instructional approaches and technologies can accommodate a wider range of learning needs and preferences, but students must learn how to succeed in programs. Ms. Simon offered learners parting advice for making the most of this process.

“Don’t expect everything to come right away,” said Ms. Simon. “Put in the effort; reduce the fear; develop a growth mindset; listen to feedback from peers, [instructors, and advisors]; engage in discussions and challenges that are meaningful and interesting to you; reflect; go again. You’ll get there!”

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