Basics of Online Education

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University of Phoenix StadiumIf you go back a ten or fifteen years, there were two things you could do online that would get you laughed at: finding a date and getting a post-secondary degree.

With dating sites flourishing and online education popping up everywhere, the stigma associated with the “online” versions of both have all but been washed away. Meeting someone online no longer means you’re meeting someone capable only with interacting with a computer and getting a degree online no longer means you took some cupcake classes and paid for a diploma.

However, just as how you still want to be careful with who you choose to meet in person from an online dating site, you’ll also have to be careful which online university you choose to attend. Like dates, not all universities are created equal.

Benefits of Online Education

The main benefit of online education is flexibility. When I attended Johns Hopkins for my MBA, I had to drive half an hour each way, pay for parking, just so I could sit in a classroom. Sure, I participated, but the vast majority of the time I listened to a lecture and then drove home. With online education, the flexibility of listening to courses when I wanted to would’ve been very appealing. Nothing replaces the classroom experience but when the majority of your other part-time classmates are looking to learn a little, get a degree, and get out – the classroom experience is limited. Plus, by taking it at my own pace, I free up an hour of my life that I can spend on something else.

While flexibility is probably the biggest benefit, a close second has to do with the speed of learning. The class always seems to progress at the speed of the slowest vocal student. This is bad for two reasons. First, if someone understands a concept quickly, they must wait. If someone doesn’t understand a concept quickly but is shy about it, the class continues on without him or her. Both students are done a disservice and that’s mostly avoided with online education.

Finally, the last big benefit has to do with cost. There are certainly plenty of other benefits of online education but cost is definitely one of them. Online programs are often less expensive than traditional programs strictly from a tuition perspective. With a lowered cost, students won’t need loans, which further drives down the cost of education. It’s a lot like the idea of online banks and brick and mortar banks, online banks don’t have the overhead that traditional banks do and they are able to pass that on to consumers.

Drawbacks of Online Education

As with anything else, there are pluses and minuses. Online education still suffers from a stigma because it’s not “traditional.” Some online universities are incorporating a classroom component, where you might have to attend a classroom session once a month, but some people still see it as “buying” your degree (which is still true with some institutions).

Another drawback of online education is that it’s self-paced. Self-paced learning is a double edged sword. For some, they learn at their own speed. For others, they learn at the last minute and don’t get the full value of the course because they’re trying to cram it all in at the last moment. Understanding how you’ll handle self-paced learning is important in understanding of online education is for you.

We’ve briefly discussed the benefits and drawbacks of online education, let’s look at how you should choose a an online education institution.

Educational Accreditation

The easiest measure of a university is whether it’s been accredited. Accreditation is a way to determine the quality of the education at a particular school. It’s performed by state and local private accreditation organizations, not the federal government. Fortunately, the Higher Education Act of 1965 required the U.S. Secretary of Education to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies and subsequently a database of nationally accredited post-secondary institutions and programs.

It’s important to note that not all accreditation’s are created equal, though all are recognized as equal by the federal government. It’s generally accepted that regional accreditation is the highest level of accreditation a school can get. There are six regional accreditating organizations:

  • Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges
  • North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools

You can also go to the Council on Higher Education Accreditation to find out more about the accreditation body that accredited an online university you’re looking at. They track both legitimate and fraudulent claims.

Finally, individual programs or degrees of study are not accredited, the institution as a whole is put through the accreditation process. You can read more about educational accreditation, which includes any level of schooling, at Wikipedia.

You do not have to be accredited to open a school and award degrees. That’s a very important point to understand. A school may be authorized to operate and not be accredited, so you’ll want to check its accreditation and which organization awarded it.

Why does accreditation matter? Some employers and other universities may not recognize degrees you’ve obtained or classes you’ve attended at non-accredited universities because they can’t be sure of the quality of the education. By going to a non-accredited school, you run the risk that your degree or your classes aren’t recognized, so why risk it?

How to Pick the Right Online University

After accreditation, you’ll want to start doing the same research you would on a traditional university:

  • Professors: Since you’ll be learning from them, do a little bit of background research on the professors that will be teaching your courses. See what their degrees are in, what their experience is, and what you think they bring to the virtual classroom.
  • Cost: Online education is generally cheaper but it may not be, after you consider all the fees and charges they may add on (cost of software should be included in tuition).
  • Classroom size: It may seem kind of silly to look at classroom size when you aren’t in a classroom, but this will give you a better idea of how stretched your professor may be. Remember that these professors will be reading your work and giving you feedback, if he or she has 50 students, then you won’t get as good an experience as one that only needs to interact with 20.
  • Software requirements: If the online university uses software that requires you to have a newer computer, you’ll need to add that to the cost of attending.
  • Classroom attendence: Some universities will require you to regularly attend a classroom session, perhaps once a month or once ever two weeks.

Free Online Courses

If you’re not concerned about getting “credit” for classes or degrees but are instead focused on expanding your skillset, you might want to try taking free online courses from your traditional universities. Many universities like MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Tufts, and Stanford offer self-paced online courses that are absolutely free. Here are a few to get you started:

What are your thoughts on online education?

(Photo: kenlund)

{ 18 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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18 Responses to “Basics of Online Education”

  1. Ethan says:

    I’m taking a few online classes and something that I didn’t expect were fees for things like using their computer labs, shuttle services, and other things that I would never take advantage of b/c I never set foot on campus. I spoke with the Bursars office to see if they’d waive them, but that didn’t happen.

    A little off topic, but something to be aware of when choosing the right online university.

    • Cap says:

      That’s a good point Ethan. It’s probably especially true when the online course you’re taking is being offered by a traditional, offline institution.

  2. I agree on-line education has come a long way, but the stigma is not entirely gone. Accreditation is critical.

    BTW, after my divorce and meeting the wrong types of women, I tried Match and met my wife seven years ago.

  3. Great post! Another way to save on education is to take online courses through a community college.

    As long as the college is accredited, you should have no trouble transferring your courses to another institution.

    If you get your education from an accredited school that is primarily considered a face-to-face institution, you will most likely find that your transcript doesn’t say you took your classes online.

    My husband is an online instructor at a community college, and until I became a stay-at-home mom I was an academic advisor at the same college. While online courses do offer some flexibility, that doesn’t mean they are easier! Keep in mind that you will spend a lot of time at the computer; everything you would normally hear in a lecture, you’re going to have to read!

    You should also consider supplemental services when selecting an online education. How easy is it to access the library and tutoring services? You should also be able to easily access an advisor and get financial aid questions answered.

    Online education is a great option for many people. Just make sure you do your homework on it before you enroll!

    • Cap says:

      I’ve also taken a few online courses at the local community college for scheduling conveniences and they weren’t half bad. The thing about these courses was that you have to be self-taught able and independent. Something for students to consider before deciding the course to take. If you’re think you may have issues teaching yourself through textbook or online instructions, then consider the more informational/factual coursework.. versus courses that will need you to acquire/learn new skill that will be needed to apply to future courses.

  4. Modder says:

    I am very skeptical about on-line education. While it might be a great way to get “a” degree later in life e.g. a working mom in her 30s wants to get a college degree, I think it is a very bad idea for people who want to get a graduate degree. For grad degrees, you typically want to experience a career step function, i.e. be considered for a much more senior role or a very different field. In those cases, school reputation really makes a difference and the individual needs a catalyst to make it happen (like graduating from full-time school and needing to focus on finding a new job combined with supportive LOCAL career office, career fairs etc). Case in point, someone in my family got an Master in Finance from Phx Online. Even though she graduated with that degree she stayed in the same job, gets the same entry-level salary and is not on a new trajectory (unable to find something better).

  5. Personally, I would find a brick-and-mortar school that also offers online classes. Some people really cannot succeed well in online classes (I know – I’m one of them).

    Also, if you attend a regular university that has online options, few will suspect that your degree was made online.

  6. AJ says:

    Great post. Some schools in the UC system offer great online courses if you arent ready for a full on degree yet.

  7. Thanks for the list of free online learning. I was aware of some of these, but not all.

    Causual and Statistical Reasoning (CMU) – I’m all over that class!

    On the tangent of online dating – my wife and I met online. We’ll be married 5 years in September.

  8. Andrew says:

    About 12 years ago I met my penultamour on She dumped me for another guy she met on and wound up marrying him. About a year later, I met my wife on, and a few years later she encouraged her friend Jeff to look there, and he met his wife there. So online dating definitely works for some people, and has for many years.

  9. freeby50 says:

    I look at online classes as equivalent to taking night classes. Its just a different format for the same instruction.

    Of course what college you go to matters a lot. Universities that are online only are not as well regarded as traditional universities. As far as the status of your degree you may be beter off taking traditional classes at your local state school than going to an online college. But online classes from Stanford, Columbia, Carnegee Mellon, USC or U Washington are going to get you the same degree as going to those schools in person.

  10. Thanks for the links to the free courses! I had no idea those existed. I’m going to spend next weekend finding some courses I want to take.

  11. Stephen says:

    So long as the university is not a for-profit company that takes your tuition and plays corporate john for the naming rights to a football stadium, then you can at least consider the school. In case you’re wondering which school is the john, it’s the U of P stadium you see in the picture. I would have hoped that the money they wasted paying for the naming rights they’d use for scholarships or to reduce the cost of tuition. I guess their ads on the web sites aren’t bringing in enough students. I can see it now: years down the road, alumni are telling their kids the reason they picked such a school: Well, they paid for the naming rights to the stadium of my favorite football team so I had to go there.

    • tperko says:

      God-forbid a for-profit organization like the Apollo Group uses naming rights as part of their strategic business plan much like any other successful corporation. :rolls eyes:

      In other news, state universities around the nation are requesting federal $$$ and posting tuition hikes…

  12. Cap says:

    Agreed with others that I’ll personally look for a traditional intuition that offers both online/offline coursework (with majority of your credits being done offline). For those that are looking to do undergrad transfer from a 2 year to a 4 year.. you should also consider carefully before you pack your entire credits full of online classes, as it will matter to certain 4 year schools you may be considering…

    Unlike online dating, online education probably still has a big degree of stigma associated with them (not belittling anyone that has graduated from an accredited online-based institution — but its just the unfortunately)…

  13. The potential for online education is huge. I think the availability is huge. I have found online education that has helped my personal business down to my personal economics. There are many to choose from. Anyone know of any good forums to find good feedback from online education courses?

  14. tperko says:

    I love the UOP online learning format. The tuition is expensive but I am lucky to have tuition reimbursement. I couldn’t imagine trekking to community college or night classes. Online is the way to go!

  15. Celina Macaisa says:

    Thanks, I bookmarked this page coz of your list of FREE online courses offer. In line with your post accreditation indeed is important. But you know what? right now i don’t think college degrees matter as much as WHAT YOU CAN DO AFTER—can you make a hot program? can you come up with a new business model? exciting product? effective distribution system?

    So if anyone maximizes their learning from these online courses (whatever the current opinion is about these not-so traditional method)and develop real skills, then they are better off than those students who went to the brick and mortar colleges.

    Self-directed? Everyone will need to be ‘responsibly’ self-directed anyway. Let them make their own mistake of cramming (is that the worst thing?)–the student will learn to correct him or herself based on the rewards and punishment he gets from the behavior. Everybody crams at one point or another due to HIGH workload….it will teach them the NEED to learn time management–and productivity tools such as enounce myspeed, project mgt. worktools, and etc.—> like what they would do AFTER they graduate.

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