Q&A: Quality of Online Courses

Answer: Maybe.
There are no established Harvards in online education, because online classes haven't been around long enough for the equivalent of an Ivy League to develop. There are, however, ways that you can make better choices, and greatly increase the chances that the online program you're looking at is a good one.

Start with the basics: accreditation.

You want your degree to be recognized, and any credits you earn to transfer to other programs at other institutions, so you want your program to be accredited, which means it has been reviewed and approved by one or more nationally recognized accrediting agencies. Specialized programs should be recognized by a discipline-specific accrediting body, like the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools.

Unfortunately, that recognition only covers the basics. A school can be accredited and still be pretty mediocre. That means you'll have to look elsewhere. Next, look at how long programs have been around. New programs may be exciting, but they are going to have fewer quality controls in place. That means if you attend a newer program, you're likely to see wild fluctuations in what's asked of you. Changes in how courses are organized or work is submitted are more likely to change, and with less preparation, in newer programs than in more established programs.

After that, evaluating online colleges becomes like other major consumer purchases. Look first at what you're trying to accomplish through going to school online. If you're just looking to get a few credits in general requirement courses that you may not want to get a lot out of, a good community college would probably be your best buy. However, if you're looking for a unified program to help you get ahead in a specific profession, look to outside reviews. As you're reviewing schools, commentary from professionals in the field you're going to enter, articles about the programs in the news, and ratings from students can all help paint a picture of the quality of the program.

Greg BeattyGreg Beatty has a PhD in English from the University of Iowa and over twenty years experience in higher education. He’s taught everything from standardized test prep courses and freshman orientation and composition courses on up to serving on doctoral committees. He’s taught in the traditional classroom, correspondence courses, online courses, and hybrid courses. He’s developed curriculum for several colleges (sometimes as sole author, sometimes working collaboratively), and served as a textbook manuscript reviewer for Longman. He’s won grants for course development, and awards for his teaching. Greg has mentored new teachers and co-taught workshops on teaching excellence. He’s also served on a range of committees and college advisory boards, and has served as an area chair for humanities.