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Online continuing education is a fast-growing market that is becoming more and more acceptable in the work place - as long as you choose a legitimate online education program.
- Verify the institution is "recognized" through the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's Web site at http://www.ncahlc.org. ("The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) database lists approximately 7,000 degree-granting and non-degree-granting institutions and over 17,000 programs that are accredited by United States accrediting organizations that have been recognized either by CHEA or by the United States Department of Education (USDE) or both.") Accreditation is necessary for recognition by your employer as well as recognition by other higher education institutions (i.e., in case you want to pursue an advanced degree).
- Make sure the price is right. Find out up-front - before you pay an application fee exactly how much tuition is and make sure that you have a full picture of all costs including any access fees, texts, other required purchases,etc. You have to be positive you can afford the tuition costs. Keep in mind that many companies have strong tuition reimbursement options. Although online education is generally more affordable than a comparable campus-based education, it is not cheap, so make sure you get your money's worth and know exactly what you are enrolling for.
- Check out the teachers. Ask about their experience - either real-world or academic - and make sure they are worthy of educating you on the area you are pursuing. It is important that they have the knowledge necessary to do the job. As a point of reference, most associate or junior college teachers have at least a Master's degree in the subject they teach, and the majority of full college professors have a PhD. in their area of expertise. Your online education teachers should have comparable levels of education.
- Make sure you will get any needed attention. Try and pin down at least a guideline for student-teacher ratios. Unlike classroom learning, it is possible to have an almost unlimited number of students in an online class, but obviously if the class size is enormous, you will not get the same sort of quality time with the teachers as you would in a smaller class. Making sure your teachers are not overburdened can help you get the education you deserve.
- Evaluate the history of the school. Schools develop their reputations for producing quality students - who get the job done at the companies that hire them - over time, so for the most part, the longer the school has existed, the better.
- Evaluate your fellow students. What is the total school enrollment and what percentage of students graduate? They should be able to tell you how many students are currently enrolled. A large amount of students shows both stability and future name recognition in the job market. Also, a higher graduation rate is a great indication that students are very satisfied with the programs at that school. Be leery if they do not share these data points with you.
- Determine what resources they will require you to have. Most online classes require that students have access to a computer and may require certain levels of hardware in order to adequately handle and run up-to-date multimedia and word processing types of programs. They may also require certain levels of Internet access. So make sure your equipment is up to the task, or that you are budgeted for buying new equipment. In terms of software, many online programs provide all the materials you need directly from their site, but some may require you to buy supplemental software on your own.
- Determine what resources the school provides to you. Top online degree programs offer great access to "virtual libraries" and other resources to help you through your education.
- Make sure the length of time needed to earn a degree works for you. The length of time required to earn your degree can vary widely in the online education world, so make sure you know exactly how long each program you are considering takes and determine which best fits in with your time frame. Some online schools will allow you to complete tasks at their own pace, while others require that students participate in virtual class sessions and have specific deadlines for assignments.
- Look into what forms of communication are available for you to get in touch with the school/teachers. You want to know if all communications are done online or if you can also call if you need help or have questions. Some schools even offer actual campus locations you can go to for certain classes, sessions or extra help. The more options available to you the better, but at a minimum, the school should have a legitimate phone number for you to reach them at.
- Accreditation and a good match to your desired degree programs are the two main keys.
- Watch out for non-accredited online degree mills that teach you nothing. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
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