What Should You Look for in an Online Institution?
Use this checklist to help you evaluate an online college or university
Online universities vary so be sure to look carefully at the school’s technical requirements for students and the specific support services they offer to online students. Here’s a list of some of the things you need to keep in mind for online institutions (other than the previous already-mentioned items). These include the following:
Know about the required computer requirements before you enroll into any online class. This includes internet access and a computer. You can expect to 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 some new online students make. They assume it’s okay to use a work computer or a friend’s computer, but when the other person needs it to attend class and can’t loan it to you, or you can’t take the work computer home, frustration can build because you know you’re likely to fall behind with your studies. It’s not fair to blame the instructor for failing to give you additional time to get your homework in, when the fault is your for not having the necessary equipment. An experience like this can sour your experiences with online classes, even if they don’t actually cause you to withdraw from the online university.
Be sure you have the proper software (online platform software) from the institution available to you (if possible, get it on a CD or flash drive).
Be sure you have a tech support number and check that available help is provided 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. Be careful here!
Go through the student tutorial — something that can show you around the online platform, because platforms vary greatly. Reputable online universities should have one easily available.
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!
Be sure you have an online library accessible to you 24-hours a day, 7-days per week.
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).
Before you enroll, make sure you fully understand how online exams work . If you don’t, you could be in for quite a surprise.
Be sure you have other tutorials available to you that are necessary in an online format; for instance, a plagiarism tutorial.
*Online Writing Center
Reputable online universities should have one available to you, at no extra cost.
Understand fully the online student code of conduct prior to enrollment. Most students fail to read this.
Know the difference in the online delivery mode for the institution chosen. For example, 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 how many students are in each class in your full program of study. You probably don’t want to be in a 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 institutions that state they provide tutors or teaching assistants when there are large numbers of students in the course. You may then become 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 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.
Ask about the qualifications of the online instructors/professors.
Be sure that you can understand the instructor/professor’s (written language). You want to be sure you get fully reputable faculty with high-quality grammar and communications skills, even in the online environment.
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).
Find out what 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?
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.
Know what the policy is for taking a break during the length of your program of study. In other words, can you take a month off without it affecting your financial aid or program of study? Sometimes students get burned out and need this break. Find out ahead of time.
Check to see about other online policies, for instance, those that cover what is expected in terms of payment, registering 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).
Communication is critical to any online class. Your professor should set up guidelines in your respective classroom for communicating.
“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
Intimidation can scare any new online student from enjoying an exhilarating educational experience. Being aware of this can help you to overcome it. 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 are likely to 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.
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.
Learning online requires discipline and effective time management.
In any online class, you may 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 or her learning outcomes. The online classroom typically includes lectures and like items needed for the class, but it is the sole responsibility of the student learner to read those materials — it is not up to the instructors 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 can become frustrated when or if you fall behind and then, as many students do, and you could end up blaming your instructor or others for things that are not even that person’s 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.
“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 are likely to 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. 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 in your online classes, you are probably going to become frustrated 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 can 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.
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. 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 professor’s if you wait. Be prepared for the consequences.
The sources for school statistics and data is the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System unless otherwise noted.
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