Evaluating Distance-Education Programs
Avoid Scams Floating Through Cyberspace
Laura Bobendrier, Staff Writer
April 9, 2001, 11:13 a.m. EDT
How do you find a distance-education program that isn't a rip-off?
Many universities and college guides agree on several qualifications that are imperative for distance-education programs. Among them:
- Accreditation. This is the No. 1 indicator of quality, said Charlotte Thomas, career and education editor at Peterson's. The distance-education provider should not only be accredited, but the accreditor should be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council For Higher Education Accreditation. Both organizations have lists of verified accreditors on their Web sites.
- Admission policy. Watch out for programs that admit people with few restrictions, Thomas said, and for those that will give credit for previous courses or experience without careful examination.
- School's experience with distance learning. A program's longevity shouldn't be a determinant of quality in itself, Thomas said, since some very good programs are just getting started. But ask if the course you're interested in has been taught before, and ask about the content, instructor and class size. Without physical seating to worry about, sometimes providers are tempted to pack a class with paying students. Be sure there aren't more than about 25 students per teacher, said Pam Dixon, author of "The Virtual College" and several other books.
Find out about the completion rate and, if possible, seek advice from graduates of the program. Many institutions provide electronic forums for feedback. If not, request access to student evaluations, said Paula Peinovich, vice president of academic affairs at Regents College. Ask where graduates end up when they've finished the program.
- Worth of certificate or credit. Find out if a certificate from this program will be recognized in your professional field and whether the course fulfills the requirement. If you take the course for credits, find out if they're transferable.
- Instructor's qualifications. As opposed to face-to-face education, having a teacher who holds a Ph.D is not necessarily an indication of quality. Many times, part-time instructors or professionals from the field teach distance courses more effectively than professors. Still, check all the faculty members' credentials. How many have Ph.Ds? Since many distance courses are geared toward working professionals, a combination of educational credentials, teaching experience and real-world experience is ideal, said Mary Beth Almeda, director of the Center of Media and Independent Learning at the University of California Extension in Berkeley, Calif.
- Course content. Before enrolling, be sure you know what the content will be and how the material will be presented. To attract the growing population of distance students, many schools are quick to offer courses in high-demand fields whether or not they have the expertise. If you can't find adequate information about presentation of the material, beware, said Thom Swiss, director of Web-assisted curriculum at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
- Level of interaction between students and faculty members. The level of interaction between distance-education students and their instructors is vital to the success of the program because of the relative isolation of the students. What type of interaction is used? Are e-mails and phone calls answered promptly? Do online discussions take place among students and the instructor? Does the professor have online office hours?
- Student services. Be sure you know what types of student services are included in your payment. Do you have access to the school's library and technical support staff? Is academic counseling included?
Thomas also encourages prospective students to take note of the instructor's response to their specific questions. Be cautious if an e-mail response goes unanswered for several days, or if the instructor gives incomplete or confusing information.
Be sure you know the specifics about the payment policy, said the International Association for Management Education (AACSB). If the total amount or payment plan seems fishy, it's time to take a closer look.
Above all, look beyond an institution's brochure or Web site, Thomas said. Talk to professional organizations about an institution, and make sure it's accredited. Ask the institution's faculty and staff questions about the program. The more research you do, the less chance you'll end up with a worthless degree.
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