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How should I choose an online school or program?

By Grace Wong

As distance education continues to grow in popularity, more universities and colleges are developing online certificate / diploma / degree programs to provide educational opportunities for students who are looking for convenience and flexibility.

If you are considering taking an online program, it's important to take some time and ask some important questions up front about the institution and the program to make sure that they will provide you with the quality education you need to achieve your career goal. Once you've asked the following questions, and perhaps a few more of your own, you should have a pretty good idea about whether or not you want to enrol:

1. Is the school accredited, and by whom?

Unlike the U.S., in Canada there is no official organization that accredits universities and colleges. Membership in the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) is used by Canadian universities and colleges to determine their credibility.

In the U.S., the Department of Education is required by law to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies that the Secretary of Education has deemed able to evaluate and accredit schools and training programs. The Council for Higher Education (CHEA) currently oversees these legitimate accrediting agencies. If you go to CHEA's Web site, you'll find a database of about 7,000 institutions which are accredited by CHEA and recognized by the Department of Education.

Why is accreditation important? According to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, students at U.S. institutions that do not hold some form of recognized regional or national accreditation are likely to encounter problems in credit transfers and in having their credentials recognized by employers. Pretty important, don't you think?

Another thing to keep in mind is that the longer the school has existed, the better it is. A school isn't automatically credible because it has been offering educational programs for a long time, but having experience is certainly a plus. If you enrol in a newly-established school with a small number of students, it's conceivable that you might encounter quite a bit of instability.

2. Are the credits transferrable?

Even if the school offering the program in which you are interested is accredited, make sure that its credits are widely transferrable. This is really important because you may want to transfer your credits to another school later.

3. How many students have graduated from the program, and what is the job placement rate?

If you are planning to take an online diploma or degree program, a higher graduation and job placement rate usually indicate a higher level of student contentment as well as success of the graduates in the job market.

4. What credentials do your instructors or professors have?

If these people will be grading your work, it's important that they have the knowledge necessary to do the job. The majority of college instructors have at least a Master's degree in the subject area they teach and the majority of university professors have a Ph.D. in their area of expertise.

Distance education instructors / professors should have similar qualifications. If you are planning to take an online vocational program, your instructors should at least be experts in their field and accredited by the professional associations in their industry.

5. How much is the tuition?

Are there any additional fees for books or hidden costs? Your tuition should be comparable to that of a traditional in-class program, perhaps even slightly less. If you will be required to purchase textbooks, try and determine what the cost will be. Books can be expensive, sometimes hundreds of dollars per course. Make sure that you won't be over-charged or get stuck with a bunch of hidden fees.

6. What hardware is required? Are there any special computer requirements?

Most online classes require that students have access to a computer that has the ability to run up-to-date software programs. If your computer is too old, it may not work with the instruction platform.

7. How long does it take to complete the program?

Some schools offer students the flexibility of completing an online program at their own pace, which means it could be less or more time depending on the student's circumstance. Also, you should have a clear understanding of what will be expected of you during the program.

8. What support services are available to students enrolled in online programs?

Many schools assign their students a tutor so that they can communicate with the tutor when they need extra help or are struggling in a course. Others may expect students to work independently and do not offer direct assistance.

9. How will you communicate with the school?

Is it all online or is there a number you can call for help? Having a number to call or an actual location you can go to can be very helpful when you need help or are looking for answers. Most legitimate schools will give you a number you can use to reach them.

10. Where is the school?

Although some schools offer an entire program online, many schools require students to take some of the courses in the program on campus. Because of this, you may want to consider a school that is geographically close to where you live.

Taking a program online can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. However, distance education is not for everyone. While some people thrive on the independence and freedom offered through such classes, others find themselves struggling with having to learn independently. Therefore, before enrolling in an online program, check to make sure that distance learning is really right for you.

Successful and happy distance learners share a few characteristics in common. Compare yourself to these characteristics to see whether or not it would be the perfect option for you. And if you do decide to take a program online, be sure to get some work experience along the way.

It is safe to say that for just about every program, work experience is a must-have if you want a job after you graduate. Good luck with your program!

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