5 questions to ask before enrolling in online education

While online schools were once looked upon with suspicion, virtual education has been increasingly embraced by public and private schools alike. And despite a common misconception, these schools don't offer a "lite" education at all. Consider Open High School, a public online high school in Utah, where science test scores ranked sixth in the state in 2010, according to the school's 2010 report.


Yet before jumping on the online ed bandwagon, it's important to carefully consider whether distance learning is right for you, or, if you are a parent, right for your child. Here are five questions to think about before enrolling.

1. Are you self-motivated and ready for the commitment?

While online education can help those who need flexible scheduling or an innovative approach to learning, online students should be prepared to work just as hard as they would in a classroom setting. At the college level, this means a single class could call for a nearly 10-hour-per-week time commitment.

"The old rule for traditional classes is that a student should spend three hours preparing for every one hour of classroom time," said Susan Colaric, who oversees online curriculum development at St. Leo University. "That holds true for online classes as well. So for a class that meets online three times a week for an hour, that's a nine-hour-per-week time commitment."

Since online classes often rely on independent studies, it is vital that students--and their parents--are committed to logging in regularly to keep up on class assignments and course materials.

2. Who is teaching the class?

Online courses don't just require a lot of time from students, they also demand extra attention from instructors. Not only must they create and implement lesson plans, but they are also expected to provide timely responses to numerous emails from students and parents alike. Colaric recommends students and parents ask how long an institution has been offering online classes and whether the teachers are trained to work in the online environment.

Meanwhile, Dr. Rebecca Wardlow, provost of Ashford University, warns against programs that offer little more than online study packets that students complete and return for credit.

"It is important to know that a qualified teacher is in the classroom everyday and will be guiding, interacting with and supporting the learner," said Wardlow. "The size of the class also matters online, just as it does in a traditional setting."

Finally, parents should make sure teachers at elementary and secondary schools carry the certification and qualifications required by their state.

3. Is the school reputable and accredited?

A diploma or degree from an online school isn't worth much if it comes from an unaccredited program.

"For a high school program, accreditation by a regional accrediting body is vital," said Wardlow. "This ensures that courses taken at this online school or program can be used for college admission in the future."

Patrick Patridge, Marketing and Enrollment Vice President at Western Governors University, says accreditation for post-secondary institutions can come from a variety of sources.

"Online universities should have regional accreditation, which is the same accreditation given to campus-based schools such as Harvard and Stanford," Patridge said. "A good online school may also have national accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council, and individual degree programs in subjects like education and nursing should also be accredited by bodies such as the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education and the Commission for Collegiate Nursing Education."

4. How much does the program really cost?

The price of college can vary dramatically, whether taken online or on campus. On one end of the spectrum, public charter schools such as Open High School are free for eligible students. On the other end, private colleges and universities can cost tens of thousands of dollars per year.

"If the tuition is quoted by course, by credit hour or by semester, translate this to a common figure to really understand the cost differences of the options available," said Wardlow. "Price should not be the only consideration, but it is certainly important to know upfront."

5. What support services does the school provide?

Finally, parents and students should ask which types of support services and resources an online school offers. For parents, this could mean finding a point of contact on the school faculty to discuss challenges and plan learning strategies. Meanwhile, older students returning to the classroom may need extra academic support to brush up their knowledge and skills.

"Many online students haven't been in school for a long time. Some skills--­especially math skills--may be a little rusty," said Colaric. "Many schools offer tutoring support to help get students back up to speed."

Other support services offered by a school may include student orientations, tech support and career planning.

Online schools can be found in all 50 states and in countries across the globe. However, not all schools are created equal, and online students must be motivated to succeed. It pays to do your homework. Make sure the online program you select offers a quality education that matches your learning style.

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