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What Should You Look for in an Online Institution?

Use this checklist to help you evaluate an online college or university

Subject

Online universities vary so be sure what you are looking for is what you get. There are certain things you should look for in any online institution (other than the previous already-mentioned items). These include the following:

*Computer Requirements

Be sure you have the required computer requirements before you enroll into any online class. This includes Internet access and a computer. You will have nightly assignments and weekend work, so you should not assume you can borrow someone else's computer for your schoolwork. This is a huge mistake that new online students make. They assume it will be ok to use a work computer, a friend's computer and then when they need it to attend class and can't, frustration builds because you will quickly fall behind. Then because the instructor failed to give you additional time to get your homework in, you then blame the instructor for something that was totally your fault to begin with but should never have happened in the first place. This will leave you with a sour note about online classes, if you have not already withdrawn from the online university.

*Software

Be sure you have the proper software (online platform software) from the institution available to you (if possible, get it on a disk or CD).

*Tech Support

Be sure you have a tech support number and available help 24-hours a day, 7-days per week. Make sure it works. One online university that I was associated with had a tech support number available, but there was no one at the other end of the line manning it. Caution - please be careful here!

*Student Tutorial

Be sure you have a student tutorial to show you around the online platform (platforms vary greatly). Reputable online universities will have one available.

*Time

Be sure to start out slowly. Take one class at a time until you have adjusted to the new online learning environment. Adjusting does take time. Do not just leap into several classes before you get your feet wet!

*Online Library

Be sure you have an online library accessible to you 24-hours a day, 7-days per week.

*Virtual Bookstore

Be sure you have access to a virtual bookstore to obtain all of your textbooks and/or required class materials (if the texts are not online texts).

*Comprehension

Be sure you fully understand how online exams work (suggest you do this before you enroll); otherwise, you could be in for quite a surprise.

*References

Be sure you have other tutorials available to you that are necessary in an online format; for instance, a plagiarism tutorial.

*Online Writing Center

Be sure you have an online writing center. Again, reputable online universities will have one available to you, at no extra cost.

*Online Conduct

Be sure you fully understand the online student code of conduct prior to enrollment. Most students fail to read this.

*Contextualize

Be sure you know the difference in the online delivery mode for the institution chosen (in other words, is it fully asynchronous, synchronous, or hybrid). Asynchronous learning is where the student and instructor are not online at the same time, and there is no face-to-face (f2f) connection. Synchronous learning is where the student and instructor are online at the same time (similar to chat sessions). A hybrid-learning environment is a mixture of both. This is why it is critical to check which environment you are getting into.

*Ask Questions

Be sure to ask how many students are in each class in your full program of study (you do not want to be in any program that has so many students in the class that you are only a number and then you end up without any help when you need it. Be careful of some institutions that state they will provide tutors or teaching assistants because of 100 or so students in the course. You will then be just another number for an institution more interested in collecting profits rather than taking an interest in the learning outcomes for you and the other students. I would be very wary of this type of institution since I learned this first-hand. Suggestion, find another online program (university) as you truly do not want to be in any online program that has more than 25-30 students per course.

*Qualifications

Be sure to ask about the qualifications of the online instructors/professors.

*Compatibility

Be sure that you can understand the instructor/professors (written language). You want to be sure you get fully reputable faculty with high-quality grammar and communications skills, even in the online environment.

*Your Environment

Be sure to ask how the online class is run, for instance, are you required to be in a chat session at any particular time in the course, even if it is a fully asynchronous environment. This could become a hardship if you are on the East coast and others in the class are on the West coast and/or other time zone(s).

*Other Requirements

Be sure and ask what the requirements are specific to your online class (in other words, how many times per week do you need to be online in that week); are there specific requirements you must meet in regards to participation or discussion rooms? If so, what are they?

*Scheduling

Be sure to ask how long each class session runs; how much time off (if any) in between each online class, and if there are any breaks for any holidays.

*Policies

Ask what the policy is for taking a break during the length of your program of study. In other words, can I take a month off without it affecting my financial aid or my program of study? Sometimes students get burned out and will need this break. Find out ahead of time.

*Online Policies

Be aware of the online policies, for instance, what is expected in terms of payment; how do you register for your next course; whom can you contact in case issues arise; etc.

What to Expect in an Online Class

Online learners learn how to prepare themselves to succeed

While online classes vary quite a bit from face-to-face classes, the intent is still the same: learning. Priest (2000) posited,

Many people think that online education is an easy way out. I let those people know that if a person is planning to attend an online class, he or she must be self-directed. Online is a tool to assist those who are unable to enter the traditional college classroom but are motivated to meet their educational goals. As working adult learners, online students bring their goals, experiences, and desires to the classroom. They are motivated to bring something new to each and every class. They are prepared to succeed (p. 41 as cited in White & Weight).

Classroom Communicating

Communication is critical to any online class because your classmates can quickly intimidate you and/or their experiences may especially since you cannot see them. However, try not to let this happen. You will soon realize that one of the greatest things about online education is to not feel intimidated, especially by your classmates. Your professor will set up guidelines in your respective classroom for communicating.

learning tips
"Although online learners do not have to be computer experts or have a complete understanding of the software, they do need a willingness to learn."
    - White & Weight

Online education allows you to be yourself and let go of the barriers such as intimidation. Using the written text, you can communicate openly in your classroom sharing your professional experiences and adding to the knowledge of the classroom. Once you adjust to this new way of going to class, you will feel less intimidated. Communication in an online class "takes the form of written text through responses, feedback on assignments, and the classroom discussion process. Lectures and faculty perspectives are no longer spoken, but rather written. Student interaction is through e-mail, chat rooms, or actual classrooms (newsgroups) set up for the virtual learning process that takes place in Outlook Express (OE)" (Mertz, 2003, p. 37), Blackboard, WebCT, eCollege or some other proprietary software. Enjoy it!

Intimidation can scare any new online student from enjoying an exhilarating new experience-i.e., being a new online student. Being aware of this will help you to overcome it. A typical online classroom will include either conferences, folders, or newsgroups or something along this line that contain all of the online class materials and information you will need during your time in the course. These items will vary depending upon the university and its set-up. You should not have to go to various locations while in the classroom area. However, be prepared to work, and work hard.

Time Management

Be sure to set aside a significant amount of time for your online class and this includes time to study. Time management is critical and I cannot stress this enough.

Time Management?
Learning online requires discipline and effective time management.

In any online class, you will have to work harder than in an on ground class because everything in the online environment is written, not spoken. This requires more time than most students expect. Thus, there is a more significant time commitment involved with online courses. It is important that you set aside study time away from family members and distractions.

Online courses require more support from family and friends to keep one's motivation high since the online student is responsible for his/her learning outcomes. The online classroom will include lectures and like items needed for the class, but it is the sole responsibility of the student learner to read those materials, not the professors to be sure the student is spoon-fed in any way. Therefore, having family and friends support is critical. Many students fail to recognize this and in turn, blame the professor when something goes wrong or does not seem to fit their perceptions. It happens a great deal in online classrooms. Burnout occurs all too often.

Meeting Deadlines and Timeframes

Online classes require a lot of discipline from the student learner and motivation to get the work done. You must take full responsibility as a student in the online environment that learning is your sole responsibility. Meeting deadlines and timeframes is your full responsibility, not the instructor's. Priest (2000) posited, "it [online learning] does require commitment and particular characteristics of the learner. Although online learners do not have to be computer experts or have a complete understanding of the software, they do need a willingness to learn" (p. 40-41 as cited in White & Weight). You will become frustrated when/if you fall behind and then, as many students do, you could end up blaming your instructor or others for things that are not even his/her fault, but yours. It is imperative that you, the student, take ownership for your learning outcomes. Recognize this. Do not blame someone else for your inabilities.

Be prepared to work

Just because online education is flexible to meet the growing demands of adult students does not mean it is for students who do not wish to put forth any effort.

learning tips
"Having your employer support you will also be a great attribute especially when there are some competing responsibilities that bid for your time."

If you fit the slacker-type student, you will quickly find online education frustrating and place blame where blame should not be placed. I have seen it many times in several online universities, and also, during my days of being an online student, had other classmates who fit this profile. Some students realize this way too late into an online course and then drop out. In addition, isolation (not having the ability to see one's classmates or the professor) can lead to attrition. If you are not prepared to work hard and swift in your online classes, you will become frustrated quickly as the accelerated pace can sometimes overwhelm students.

Your Support System

As noted earlier, be sure you have a strong support system with family and friends in place. Having your employer support you will also be a great attribute especially when there are some competing responsibilities that bid for your time. Online learning does not sit still and patience does not last long. Deadlines are critical and excuses only go so far. Time management could not be more significant than in an online class.

Technical Considerations

Lastly, be sure you have a good working computer that is not on its last legs. Be sure your Internet connection is fast and that you have the ability to search online for needed items for your class without getting dropped all the time. If you must be in chat sessions in your online class, be sure your online platform is not dropping you off chats either. Having technical issues is expected (within reason) but when something is due is not the time to have technical issues. You will quickly find yourself overwhelmed, frustrated, ready to give up on online classes, and place blame on anyone you can find. Anticipate technical issues, work ahead and never wait until the day, or last minute anything is due to begin work on it. It is your sole responsibility, not the professors if you wait. Be prepared for the consequences.

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