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Guide to Online Degrees

The arrival of online distance learning has made it much easier to earn a degree if you are working or just busy. There is less need to consider time, distance and cost. If you would like to earn a degree but are already working, or cannot afford to travel - perhaps abroad - an online degree may be the answer. You may have to be very self-disciplined and master certain computer skills, but the opportunity is definitely there.

These days you can earn a degree from a major university (even one abroad) without ever having been to it. Many universities and colleges have realised the potential in online learning and are offering online courses and degree programmes. Some of these are established "bricks-and-mortar" universities, others are "virtual" universities with no physical presence created solely for the purpose of online education.

What do Employers Think of Online Degrees?

Employers are much readier to accept online degrees than they used to be. In fact, there is usually nothing on a diploma to indicate that it was earned online and most of the time employers accept degrees from properly accredited schools in the same way that they accept traditional degrees. Employers will be more cautious of degrees earned through non-accredited schools. So it is really the standing of the school that interests employers, rather than whether a course was online or offline.

In some fields, Information Technology for example, online learning may well be seen as an advantage. If your online degree is likely to be an issue at a job interview, make sure you take with you all the information you need to support and validate your learning method and school. Taking an online degree requires self-discipline, and that in itself is a quality worth emphasizing to a potential employer.

How Online Degrees Work

There are many different ways in which online learning can be presented and managed. Course instructors work with designers and web developers to create an interactive and effective learning experience.

You can then follow an online course from any computer with internet connection. That means that with a little self discipline you can study at home, at work or almost anywhere in the world. In some ways, online degree programs are similar to traditional learning methods: there are lectures; there are assignments; there are exams. But online learning is much more flexible, so you can usually "go to class" when it's convenient to you. If you get sick, you can catch up later.

You will have (interactive) contact with your instructor by e-mail, chat room, bulletin board, and instant messaging. And you will have contact with other students in your class, which will usually consist of a special software program using recorded lectures, with streaming video and audio, chat and bulletin boards. You may even have your own "virtual workgroup" with other students and be set problems to solve with them. Or you may have to work through interactive quizzes and puzzles.

In fact, because the internet works 24 hours-a-day and 7 days-a-week, you may well find that contact with peer students is actually greater than at a traditional school.

You may receive some printed matter through the mail, or be able to download and print it instead.

Depending on your chosen course, sessions may be "synchronous" (live) or "asynchronous" (non-live). If you miss something, you can normally go back to archived transcripts from lectures or archived discussion sessions among students.

Some but not all schools require you to visit an initial "boot camp", where you will meet the instructors and other students and learn to use the school's technology and reference systems. If you are studying from abroad you would probably want to avoid such schools.

Accreditation and Online Degrees

Teaching establishments can receive "accreditation" from government or other official bodies. Being accredited means that the teaching establishment has met certain recognized standards. These standards vary from country to country and even from state to state within some countries. Most countries require that a teaching establishment must be certified, authorized or accredited before it can award degrees to students. Despite this, there is a degree of fraud found in some educational programmes, the worst of which "sell" degrees without any official sanction and without students having undertaken a reasonable course of study.

This is why it is essential that before you begin any kind of online course you check its accreditation. This does not mean that you look for a statement on the course's website saying "accredited by XYZ" or "licensed by the state". All fraudulent programmes make such claims. They may claim accreditation from agencies that do not exist. They may claim accreditation from agencies that they have created themselves. They may claim accreditation from genuine agencies which in fact have not accredited them. You will waste time and money and risk rejection by potential employers if you take a degree from a non-accredited school. Furthermore, credits from such schools cannot be transferred to other universities.

To satisfy yourself that a school is accredited you should either choose a well known school whose reputation is beyond question or contact the appropriate government agency to check whether the school is truly accredited. This may be tedious if you are seeking to study with a foreign programme, but it is an essential part of your pre-school research.

Choosing and Evaluating Your Online Degree

After sorting out the accredited from the non-accredited, there are still a number of questions you need to ask before making your final choice.

School's Reputation: Check the school's reputation for its online courses, not just as a traditional school. A long established bricks-and-mortar school may have an excellent reputation in general, but its e-learning programme may not have been online for long and may not be up to scratch. Find out! Even great schools have occasional weaknesses.

Course Format: The presentation of the course can be just as important as its content. You will absorb great content more easily if it's presented in a dynamic, innovative way involving interaction between you and the instructor and between you and the content itself. You need a programme that takes advantage of all that interactive online technology has to offer. You need to ask: How does the instructor give lectures? Are they simply put online as text? Are there accompanying images? What interaction is there? What video or audio is there? How are assignments turned in? How are exams given?

Instructors' Qualifications: Online learning is relatively new, so check not only the credentials of the instructors but also their knowledge of online learning and how it differs from classroom learning. What support do the instructors receive from the school for their online courses? What happens when technical problems arise (as they surely will)?

Library Facilities: With online courses it is vital that the school has a good system for students to access reference materials and texts from anywhere in the world. Your ability to do assignments should not be hampered by lack of up-to-date electronic reference materials.

Student Assessment: Naturally, you want a degree that you've earned, not just received. But to earn a degree students need to be properly assessed to ensure that they have learned and understood. Find out what method of student evaluation is in place and whether it is rigorously applied.

Student Interaction: There should be as much interaction with other students as possible, often through chat rooms, instant messaging and tele- and video-conferencing. Find out what the established method for interacting is. Avoid schools that offer little or no student interaction.