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These Questions Can Help You Evaluate an Online Degree Program

Russ Poulin

Vice President for Technology-Enhanced Education, Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE); Executive Director, WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET)

Lindsey Downs

Assistant Director: Communications, Community, and Social Media, WCET

Learning online can be a rewarding experience that increases your skills or prepares you to succeed in a current or future career.

It may be unfamiliar territory, so it is important to know which questions to ask when searching for an online program. This will help you find a program that best matches your educational goals, finances, and home and work realities. As with everything else in life, the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the process.

Advice for your search

There are some basic concepts to understand before beginning your search:

  • Go beyond a simple web search: A search may produce ads for ranking sites. The rankings are often driven by ads or criteria that may be different than your needs.
  • Search for programs designed to be online: Some students have a sour taste about courses that were converted online due to COVID-19. Fully planned and well-designed online programs provide a much better experience.
  • Search for the program, not the institution: Online programs may be an afterthought at one institution and the prized commodity at another. The skills of teaching and supporting online students may vary even within the institution. 

Questions you should ask

Your needs are unique to you. Your goal should be to select the program which will meet those needs and benefit you the most.

Representatives from organizations focused on quality online learning collaboratively developed a list of questions for you to ask during your program search. The list length may look overwhelming at first but do not let that stop you. Use the list to create a handful of questions that are important to you to find your best match.

Program expectations 

The program you choose should be one that meets your expectations for quality, time, and outcomes. Consider what you need to learn to be prepared for your future and make sure the program includes that material. 

Campuses may have drastically altered the delivery methods of their courses due to the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s important to ask whether the program still meets your needs, such as time constraints or whether practical experiences (like labs or internships) are being offered in-person or virtually. 

Learning experiences

How your online “classroom” is “constructed” should match how you would like to learn. This will directly affect your success as a student. Asking questions now about instructional methods, instructor interaction, and the types of learning opportunities will help you understand whether these approaches will work for you. COVID-19 has changed how and when people work and learn. 

Student support services

Online programs should offer services to help students succeed at a distance. Ask questions about the availability of online student orientation, technology support, financial aid advice, tutoring, and advising. Confirm the support services for students with disabilities or for students who are active-duty military, their families, and veterans. 

Money matters

Education is an investment in your future. You need to make sure you understand the price you will pay. Tuition is not the only expense. There may be special fees or items you will need to buy, such as test proctoring services, software, hardware, and video cameras. Ask about the availability of “open” or low-cost textbooks. Explore all financial aid options available

Technology requirements 

You will need a computer and a reliable internet connection to complete your coursework. Technical support is invaluable for students learning online, especially if something isn’t working when a deadline is approaching. 

Ask whether technical support will still be available whenever you plan to work on your studies. Many students use publicly available computers or internet access. Some of these services may not be available at this time. The college may be able to help you access these resources.

Choose the questions that most affect you

Choosing an online program is just like picking a car or a place to live — there are many options to consider. All these questions are important but you need to select the ones that directly address your needs. Organize the list by categorizing the “must-haves” and the “nice-to-have” requirements.  

Once you have that list, describe to yourself why each item is important. This will help you determine what you expect from your future program. Do not let recruiters persuade you from the factors that are important to you. When focused on what is important to you, your search becomes much easier. 

See our infographic and more detailed student questions document that can guide you through your search. Good luck! 

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