7 Key Factors to Consider When Choosing an Online Degree Program

Find out from GTPE’s learning design experts what to look for and what to avoid

June 21, 2019 | By GTPE Communications
Outstretched hand holding a circle that says online learning. Surrounding are icons that represent lifelong learning.

Online learning is here to stay. By the end of 2019, four million students are expected to be taking online courses, according to research conducted by Study International. At Georgia Tech for example, one-third of students are taking courses online.

This growth in online learning is making it possible for more people than ever to access a university education. This is especially good news for working professionals and other adult learners who can’t put their lives on hold while studying. Online programs offer the flexibility they need to balance work and life while pursuing higher education. They also tend to be more affordable than their on-campus counterparts.

But not all online education is created equal. Earning a degree, whether graduate or undergraduate, is no small feat. It takes persistence, commitment, time, and money. It’s important to choose the right online option that maximizes your chances of success and return on investment.

With so many online learning options out there, how do you know which one is right for you? Find out from experts in learning design at Georgia Tech Professional Education (GTPE). Yakut Gazi, Ph.D., is assistant dean of learning systems and Christie Hayes is the interim lead of the instructional design team.

Here are the questions they suggest you should ask when choosing an online degree program.

1. Accreditation

Is the degree program accredited?
Regionally accredited institutions have to comply with numerous requirements, so it’s important to choose an accredited program. Only programs accredited by the Department of Education are eligible for federal funds, so if you intend to apply for financial aid, you need to be in an accredited program. But Gazi cautions that simply choosing an online program from an accredited institution doesn’t guarantee quality. “It’s not enough for a program to be accredited as there may be holes in accreditation processes,” she said. “And prospective students typically do not have access to the information that would enable them to identify these holes.” In other words, don’t let your research stop at accreditation.

2. Reputation

What is the reputation of the university offering the program? How established is the program?
Consider the reputation of the residential institution with which your degree will be associated. “Brand recognition is significant when looking for an online degree. We know that more than half of online students choose a program that is within 50 miles of where they live,” said Gazi. “Their communities recognize the brand, which is important for employment prospects.” Look at the big picture when judging a program based on how long it’s existed. Choosing a newly introduced online program is not necessarily a bad idea but be sure to explore other aspects to determine its suitability. For example, if it’s offered by a reputable institution that offers other successful online programs, it’s a good sign. Also, if the program was developed in response to specific market needs by a reputable institution, it could indicate that it’s in demand by employers. On the other hand, if the program is new and is offered by an unknown institution that has no track record with other similar online degrees, you may want to consider alternatives.

3. Retention, Graduation, and Job Placement

What is the program’s retention rate? How long does it take for the typical learner to graduate from the program? Can the institution provide insight into job placement rates?
If a large number of learners in the program are not completing it, it’s a potential red flag that could signal problems with program quality, delivery, engagement, or any other aspect crucial for student success. Much like retention rate, time to graduation is a telling factor when it comes to determining your chances of thriving in an online program. Ask for data that demonstrates post-graduation success of students. Information on graduates who found suitable employment as a result of their degrees will show if the program is valued by employers. Examples of the types of organizations that employ graduates of the program will also give you valuable insights about the appeal of the program to employers.

4. Student Services

What types of student services are offered to online learners?
Taking an online rather than an on-campus program should not mean missing out on essential support to help you succeed. Find out about the student support services offered, which will indicate the level of importance the institution places on the student experience. For example, what kind of technical support is available to students to ensure that they are able to use the learning technologies effectively? What kind of academic and career services does the institution offer to help students overcome academic challenges or to prepare them for careers in their fields?

5. Costs

How does tuition compare to other similar degrees and institutions?
Be sure to compare costs to determine the best return on your investment. Not all highly priced online degrees guarantee the learning and employment outcomes you’re seeking. By the same token, not all low-cost degrees are low quality. Georgia Tech’s signature Master of Science degrees in Cybersecurity, in Analytics, and in Computer Science for example, are available for less than $10,000 tuition and are among the most affordable and reputable on the market. These high-demand degrees are offered by a top 10-ranked institution. They have produced thousands of graduates worldwide and addressed a significant workforce need for cybersecurity, data science, and computer science professionals.

6. Technology

How effectively is technology being used to deliver the program?
The success of the program depends, to a large extent, on the technology used to deliver it. Find out about the learning systems used to deliver the content and the learning enhancement tools the system supports. Learning should never be passive, not even in an online environment, so tools and technology that enable application of concepts learned, collaboration, and engagement with students, faculty, and the content is essential for your learning experience. When it comes to engagement with faculty, find out about the level of contact with faculty that the program and the tools allow. For example, are the faculty members available for real-time interaction, such as office hours? How does technology facilitate your group work with fellow students?

7. Curriculum Quality

What and how will you learn? Is the online degree the same as the residential degree?
Take the time to explore and compare program descriptions, course listings, and attributes of the degrees you’re considering. Look for application components to ensure that the program isn’t designed merely for static consumption of content but for active, dynamic participation in generating new knowledge. Virtual labs, for example, offer students an opportunity to apply and test their knowledge as they learn. Discussion forums and collaborative projects enable learners to connect, share, and build on their knowledge, which enhances the learning experience. A practicum or a capstone project, as Gazi pointed out, is “a key differentiator of high-quality online degrees.” This hands-on aspect of the curriculum enables candidates to apply their skills to address real-world situations and sets them apart from others in this field, especially when being considered for a new job. An online degree should lead to the same benefits as a residential program, so be sure to find out to what extent the online degree differs from its traditional counterpart in the same university and whether the credential you earn upon completion is the same as for the residential degree.

While the delivery of online degrees differs from that of traditional on-campus degrees, the quality of the programs and the results of the learning should be the same. As online education continues to grow, especially with working professionals and other lifelong learners, more options are becoming available. It’s essential to evaluate them carefully to ensure you make the right choice. That means finding one that offers the same value as a traditional program. As GTPE’s instructional designer Christie Hayes pointed out, “When you complete your degree, you should walk away with the same learning outcomes and competencies as you would if you took a residential degree.”

Writer: Gordana Goudie
Digital Producer: Kelsey Harris