If 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.
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:
- MIT OpenCourseWare 
- Open University  (UK’s largest academic institution)
- Carnegie Mellon University 
- Stanford  (iTunes)
- UC Berkeley 
- Utah State University 
- Kutztown University 
- University of Southern Queensland  (Australia)
- UC Irvine 
What are your thoughts on online education?
(Photo: kenlund )