What factors should be considered when selecting online courses?

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Answered by: Richard, An Expert in the Online Universities and Colleges Category
Selecting online courses can be one of the most important--if not most intimidating--decisions in a student's academic career. Regardless of one's class standing, major, or even geographical location, the recent proliferation of online curricular offerings among public, private, and proprietary (for-profit) institutions of higher education provide today's learner with what can seem an overwhelming number of options for online study.

Given the 21st century learner's freedom to select from among this vast array of courses, it becomes crucial for students to choose an online college wisely in order to ensure smooth progress towards their academic goals--and to avoid unnecessary complications that could disrupt the path to one's degree. While many students proceed in selecting online courses offered by their home institutions, this article seeks to address the dilemma facing those who choose either to supplement their studies at the "home" institution by taking classes offered by other colleges and universities or who decide to pursue their degrees through programs offered entirely online. Scrupulous learners, therefore, should be aware of four factors that combine to make a particular online class an appropriate choice--appropriateness, affordability, access, and course design.

The first measure of the suitability of a particular online course is its appropriateness to the student's field of study and progress towards graduation. Many students, unfortunately, have worked diligently to complete courses that do little or nothing to aid their academic progress; they find out only after the fact that the course will not count in their major field of study, it is not transferrable to their home institution, or the university offering the course lacks the accreditation necessary for the class to be factored into the student's transcript.

It is crucial that the student who is considering taking an online course--whether it is offered by the home institution or a separate university--research its applicability to their program of study by consulting with an academic advisor at the home institution to ensure the class will count towards the student's particular programmatic requirements. The academic advisor can consult with the institution offering the course to determine whether or not this is the case. If the course under consideration will not be accepted by the home institution for credit, the student is far better served knowing this prior to enrolling so he or she can find another online class or enroll in a traditionally-delivered class on campus.

As higher education costs continue to skyrocket, many students are drawn to online courses for their perceived affordability. While it is true that many online offerings come with a considerably lower tuition rate than traditionally-delivered classroom courses, students should be prepared to research the complete picture of a particular course's fee structure to prevent being unwittingly slapped with "hidden" costs. These charges, which may take the form of anything from additional "enrollment fees" to fees required to transfer the course to the home institution, can actually result in online courses that be more costly than traditional on-campus offerings. Additionally, students receiving financial aid should consult with their home institution as well as the university offering the class in which the student seeks to enroll.

A key measure in the process of selecting online courses is the accessibility of those classes. If a student in New Hampshire decides to enroll in a class taught by a professor in Indiana who works for a university in Arizona, it is vital that the student have consistent, reliable access to that instructor, the institution offering the course, and, most importantly, the course itself. Learners should obtain a copy of the course syllabus prior to enrolling, if possible, to ensure that their remote geographical location will not inhibit their ability to succeed in a course.

Some "online" courses actually contain residency or attendance requirements--that is, they require the student to attend particular seminars or workshops in person, which may be impossible for the remote learner. Students should also feel confident that their needs will be supported by the institution offering the class in the event that difficulties arise in the student-instructor relationship. Finally, it it vital that instructors make themselves accessible to learners via virtual office hours, regular chat sessions, and consistent e-mail responses.

The final facet of selecting online courses that must be considered by the learner is the design of the classes themselves. While it may seem obvious that the course should address the particular content the student needs in order to make solid progress within his or her program, many students unfortunately overlook the importance of selecting online courses that match their learning styles and academic strengths.

For example, learners who thrive in lecture-based courses due to their auditory learning styles may be unduly challenged by online offerings that rely exclusively upon text-based delivery modes. Students should once again insist upon an opportunity to peruse the course's syllabus to determine if the class will be a "good fit" and provide them with an opportunity for success.

If the prospective online learner pays close attention to the appropriateness, affordability, accessibility, and design of a course he or she will be well positioned to succeed in today's highly competitive and diverse academic environment. Regardless of whether one opts to supplement traditional "brick and mortal" instruction with online learning or complete a course of study offered purely online, selecting online courses effectively can be the key to academic success.

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