Choosing a ‘good’ post-secondary online learning program

March 13, 2015 Tony Bates

woman at computer 2

I am constantly asked to recommend ‘good’ online learning programs. This is a difficult question to answer, as it’s impossible for any single person to know all the good online programs, and in any case, any selection is going to be highly subjective. However, it is possible to suggest a set of criteria or questions to help you in your decision, if you are thinking of taking an online program.

Criteria for selection

1. What prior qualifications do I need in order to take this program? Although courses may be online, they are not necessarily open. Generally high school completion is the minimum level of qualification for admission for a college or university online program, or a bachelor’s degree for graduate programs, except for open universities (see below).

2. What is the general status of the offering institution, for example, is it an accredited school with a generally good reputation?

3. Experience in online learning: how long has it been offering online programs? Institutions, like people, get better with practice.

4. The size of the operation: does it have many online courses, whole online programs, and lots of online students? If it does it is likely to have good systems in place to support online learning. On the other hand, if it’s grown very rapidly, it may have cut corners on quality.

5. Does any tenured or full-time instructor have overall responsibility for the course or program? If not, it is likely to be primarily a money-making operation for the institution.

6. What is the instructor:student ratio? Will students be taught by full-time faculty, adjunct faculty or teaching assistants? (I have no problem with adjunct faculty, so long as they are well qualified academically and responsible to a full-time faculty member, but beware of courses taught online by teaching assistants or unqualified ‘tutors’.)  Do instructors or faculty receive any training in teaching online? (This is especially important for contract or adjunct instructors.)

7. Do you personally know anything about the program? Have you studied any of their online courses – or on-campus courses for that matter? Do you know the people managing the online program?

8. What do students think about the program? What’s the completion rate? (Well designed online courses should have a successful completion rate of above 80%, and for a whole program, more than half of those who start the program should complete it.)

9. How expensive is it? Can I afford it? Will I be eligible for grants or student loans if I take this program?

10. What can I do with the qualification? Can I transfer the credits from an online course into an on-campus program? Will the qualification be recognised by any appropriate professional or accrediting agency?

My recommendation to anyone considering an online course or program is to apply the above criteria to any course or program you are interested in. Any self-respecting institution should be able to answer these questions, through the program web site, or by your calling the office that supports the program. Getting answers to these ten questions is more likely to enable you to find the right course than any recommendation I may make about individual courses or programs.

Personal recommendations

Nevertheless, I’m willing to stick my neck out, based mainly on my personal knowledge, but caveat emptor: you are responsible for your own decisions, so don’t blame me if one of these recommendations doesn’t work out for you. And just because I haven’t mentioned a particular institution doesn’t mean that it has poor quality programs – there are too many good programs to list them all.

1. Publicly funded dual mode institutions

These are publicly funded and accredited institutions that offer both on-campus and distance teaching, and usually have done so for many years. Typical examples are the land grant universities in the USA, which were established originally with state-wide responsibilities, e.g. Penn State’s World Campus, the University of Wisconsin System eCampus, and the University of New Mexico Online. These online courses and programs carry exactly the same weight as their on-campus courses. In Canada, similar institutions would be Memorial University, Laval University (in French), the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Manitoba, and the University of British Columbia.

These universities usually use their own ‘on-campus’ faculty combined with professional support staff such as instructional designers experienced in online and distance learning, although they usually also hire contract or adjunct instructors to support the main faculty instructor.

In Mexico, the Universidad de Guadalajara has an excellent online program in Spanish through its Virtual Campus.

There are many others, too numerous to list all of them, so check your local state or province’s public universities and then ask the ten questions above, as not all ‘dual-mode’ institutions have moved quickly enough away from print-based to fully online, so check that the course or program you are interested in is available online.

However, in general, choosing an online program from any university in this category is probably your safest bet in terms of quality and value.

2. Publicly funded universities that have specialised in online or blended learning.

These are universities or colleges that did not have much prior history of distance education but have moved extensively into online learning, both in blended and fully online formats. The best example in the USA is the University of Central Florida, Another with a strong online program is Empire State College in the State University of New York system. In Canada, the University of GuelphLaurentian University (English and French) and Queen’s University in Ontario, and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, all have extensive online programs.

One of the largest online programs in the USA is the University of Maryland University College, which has many US servicemen as students. However, having been a guest tutor on some of their courses, I’m not particularly impressed with the overall quality, although some individual courses/programs are good.

In Canada, Royal Roads University in British Columbia offers a unique blended learning model consisting of one semester on campus and two or more semesters online, as well as some fully online programs, mainly at graduate level.

3. Publicly funded two-year community colleges

Many publicly funded community colleges in both the USA and Canada have excellent online programs. George Brown College and Algonquin College in Ontario have extensive online programs.

The Colorado Community College System offers a wide range of courses online, including science courses using home kits and remote labs. There are several other regional or state-wide online consortia in the USA, such as the Southern Regional Education Board’s Electronic Campus, covering 16 states.

Rio Salado Community College in Arizona has one of the largest online programs in the USA. However, there have been criticisms about the quality, because of its heavy reliance on short-term contract instructors who often lack training in online teaching. This is something to watch for in any institution that has suddenly and rapidly expanded its online programs.

3. Private, non-profit universities

The University of Southern New Hampshire has one of the largest online programs in the USA.

Tec de Monterrey is a dual-mode private, non-profit university in Mexico that offers high quality online programs in Spanish.

4. Publicly funded open universities.

The best online is the Open University of Catalonia, in Spain, which was founded in 1996 as a purely online university. It offers several graduate programs in English, and many undergraduate as well as graduate programs in Spanish and Catalan. It accepts many international enrolments, particularly from Latin America.

Tèluq in Quebec offers high quality online programs in French.

The U.K. Open University and the Open University of the Netherlands are also leaders in online learning. The U.K. Open University consistently ranks in the top ten universities in the U.K. (out of over 180) in terms of teaching.

There are many other open universities around the world, some with hundreds of thousands of students (e.g. the Open University of China, Anadolu Open University in Turkey, the Open University in Indonesia, Indira Gandhi Open University in India, and the University of South Africa). However, because many students in these countries lack easy access to the Internet, most of these universities are still primarily print-based.

Indeed, most open universities have a heavy legacy of print-based education which has limited their ability to move completely online. I’m not currently recommending Athabasca University in Canada, because it’s future is uncertain, and many of its undergraduate programs are still print-based, although it has some excellent online graduate programs. The same applies to Thompson Rivers University’s Open Learning program in British Columbia.

Nevertheless, open universities offer many people their only chance of a higher education, especially in developing countries.

5. For-profit private universities

I hesitate to recommend for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix, or Kaplan, not because they don’t offer high quality online programs – they do – but because of ongoing problems with federal student aid and recognition of their degrees. For further discussion especially of the University of Phoenix, see ‘How does the University of Phoenix measure up?

6. MOOCs

If you are not looking for a qualification, but are just interested in a particular topic, there are many free, massive open online courses (MOOCs) available to you from many of the world’s leading universities. The following are the main platforms/sites where you can find such courses:

Open Education Europa provides a comprehensive list of MOOCs being offered by European institutions.

However, be warned: while certificates may be offered for successful course completion, these are not usually accepted by even the offering institutions towards a formal degree. However the OERu is building a free degree program on open educational resources.

7. General advice

It makes sense to take an online program from any local institution that you know well and trust. There are risks in taking online programs from out of state or out of country, unless the institution has an international reputation. There may also be language or cultural issues. It is particularly important that you get good quality and frequent interaction with a good teacher on the program. Nevertheless the choice has never been so rich.

Over to you

There are many other universities and colleges offering excellent online programs, too many to number, but if you have experience of taking online programs and would like to make recommendations (positive or negative), please use the comment box below.

However, I will not publish any comments that are not offered in a thoughtful and constructive manner, and especially if they are being used solely to market (or trash) a particular program. And any requests to list or mention the many commercial providers of online programs will be ignored.


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