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Choosing Online Learning: What are your priorities?

Not all academic programs are the same, but you may find more than one that offers the basic components you are looking for. Students are different, too – the factors that sway your decisions about higher education may be different from those that matter to other learners. How will you compare online programs you are interested in to find the best fit?

In a video presentation from, Robert Massa, former vice president for enrollment at Dickinson College, proposes “it’s not so much a question of the best college, but a question really of the best college for you as a student.” Finding a good fit means identifying your goals and assessing how specific programs and institutions may help you reach them. Massa primarily addresses traditional campus-based colleges, but his advice translates well to online learning.

Enrollment Factors

Noel-Levitz higher education consultants recently released the results of an annual survey that informs colleges and universities about student preferences. The 2012 National Online Learners Priorities Report offers a look at the perspectives of today’s online students.

This research includes responses from more than 120,000 students enrolled at 109 colleges and universities. Some students were enrolled in both online and on-ground courses, with the majority (98%) enrolled “primarily online.” Why did they choose online learning?

From the input provided, researchers identified a list of factors that influenced the decision to enroll online. As you review the top five factors listed below, think about how important each one is to you, and how you might find out more about them when comparing possible programs.

  1. Convenience: If convenience is at the top of your list, what specifically are you looking for? Think about where and when you will be completing your coursework and ask about any on-ground or synchronous (real-time) virtual meetings that may be required for online learning. Some online programs do include internships or practicum credits, and online courses may require you to meet with your class in virtual rooms on specific days and times. These requirements may or may not be conveniently scheduled.
  2. Flexible Pacing for Completing a Program: Course length for online offerings is often accelerated, taking place in 5 to 10 weeks instead of the traditional 15- or 16- week semesters you’ll find in most campus-based programs. Do more than just look at the list of courses that may be required for each program you are considering – research how they are offered in terms of timing and sequence.
  3. Work Schedule: Not unrelated to convenience and flexible pacing, many learners choose online options as alternatives to on-campus programs that require attending classes during the work day or at other times that would not be possible due to job commitments. Most of the learners in the Noel-Levitz study were full-time students. Consider the course load you are planning to take and how you might manage the logistics of attendance and assignment completion outside of your work hours.
  4. Program Requirements: This factor may include a wide variety of items, such as total number of courses or academic credits and practical experience (i.e., internship, practicum). Graduate programs may also require admissions test scores (e.g., GRE, GMAT), comprehensive exams, residency, and thesis or dissertation writing. Many online programs designed for adult learners with professional experience may not have as many application requirements, such as test scores. Before enrolling in any new program, online or on-campus, make sure you understand all of the components you will have to complete in order to graduate.
  5. Reputation of Institution: Does the prestige level of a school matter to you? It was an important factor for the students responding to the Noel-Levitz survey. Many reputable campus-based colleges and universities are now offering online programs, and primarily online institutions are expanding their catalogs. If the name and reputation of the school is important to you, add this to your list of priorities when comparing programs.

Your future employers have their own perspectives when reviewing your resume and educational achievements. If your goals with online learning are primarily career-related, add this research to your efforts before enrolling. A recent survey of MBA hiring managers, for example, found that they are interested in accreditation, school name and reputation, student work experience, and the types of interactions taking place within courses. What is important to the employers in the industry you plan to enter after graduation?

Room for Improvement

While the students surveyed reported high levels of satisfaction with their online learning experiences (75% would enroll again), several challenges were identified. These are areas that institutions should be attending to, and items that you might add to your list when comparing potential programs. The students surveyed think these factors are important, but aren’t completely satisfied with what they are experiencing right now.

  • Quality of instruction: How are students interacting online with each other, the course content, and the instructor?
  • Student expectations: Ask to view a sample syllabus. Look for clearly defined expectations related to student participation and assignments.
  • Value: Determining the value of higher education is critical at all types of institutions. What would make the experience a “good value” for you? Research all of the costs involved, the availability of financial aid, and potential earnings after graduation.
  • Faculty response and feedback: Students indicated the need for more timely feedback from instructors. How do instructors communicate with students? Are they available for one-on-one meetings or web conferences?

What are your priorities?

Determine what is important to you and see how each of the programs you are considering sizes up. Information about what you can expect from an online program is becoming more transparent – from cost details to academic requirements. School websites are helpful, but you should also work closely with admissions and academic advisors for more information.

How do your priorities compare with other prospective students? What additional factors will influence your enrollment choices?

Image credit: bigpresh, Flickr, CC-BY

September 11th, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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