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Online Degree Programs
How to Choose an Online Program Amidst a Surge in Options

As online education continues to grow in popularity, more higher education institutions are beginning to develop and introduce online degree programs – increasing educational opportunities for scores of people looking for convenience and flexibility. In fact, over 90 percent of American colleges and universities now offer at least one online course and according to Eduventures, the U.S. online education market will "to continue to grow rapidly."

Faced with these increased options, how should prospective students go about choosing a quality program that provides a solid educational background and helps them to meet their life and career goals? 

Not all online programs are created equal. The quality of instruction and platforms can vary significantly among different schools.  Potential students need to gain a clear understanding of the overall reputation of the institution as well as the practical elements of the program before enrolling.  

The first thing to look for is institutional accreditation, which means the school has met a rigorous set of educational standards. Most schools are accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.  Prospective students should also ask questions about the school's history.   How long has the institution offered online courses?  How many students has it graduated?   How are its degrees perceived in the marketplace?   

One of the most important components of any program is the faculty. When people look back on their college experiences, their fondest memories are often associated with a dynamic and inspiring instructor, whose way of teaching or unique personality inspired them to learn.  The challenge today is bringing that same type of engaging and memorable learning experience to a virtual classroom. What are the backgrounds of the instructors? Are they professionals in their fields? Are they provided specific training to teach in the online environment? How accessible will they be to students? 

Another area that online students should investigate is the flexibility of the program – and how it meets their real life demands.  Because most online students are considered "non-traditional" and often must deal with juggling family, work and academic life, the "convenience factor" of online programs provides the opportunity to pursue education in a way that accommodates their schedules.  

Further, potential online students should evaluate the program's online platform to make sure that it's user-friendly. Before enrolling in a program, potential online students should get a sense of the look, feel and functionality of the platform and how the course will flow from a practical standpoint.

It is important for the program to be self-explanatory and not require students to be experts in computers to take classes. Some schools allow students to participate in class demos to get a feel for the functionality prior to enrolling in actual classes. It is also advisable to inquire about whether fax, voice communications and/or postal mail could be used as back-up communications tools to supplement e-mail. In addition, prospective students should have a clear understanding of what will be expected of them during the course. 

The array of options available to students seeking online education provides them with tremendous flexibility, but requires them to do some homework before getting started.  The most successful programs provide all the elements students need to succeed: the ability to mix campus-based courses with online courses, faculty that is skilled in teaching online, programs that truly engage students and prepare them for the workplace, and content that is challenging with systems that are simple to use.

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