Evaluating Distance Education Programs

Distance education and on-line learning opportunities are starting to show up at most universities and colleges. Here are a few things to consider when looking into taking classes over the Internet. I’m going to break this into two categories. The first covers things that you need to know about yourself, the second covers things you should find out about potential programs you are looking into.

Know yourself

Distance education isn’t necessarily right for everyone. Here are somethings to consider.

  • Do you work well independently? Distance education programs require a higher level of self motivation than their classroom counter parts. Many people find that facing a professor motivates them to complete homework. Distance classes have some degree of anonymity and that can make it easier to put off work if you aren’t self motivated.
  • Do you have enough time to take classes? You have to be realistic about how much time you can dedicate each week. Most professors should be able to give you an idea of how much time is involved before you sign up. At Harvard’s Extension school many of the professors put the expected time commitment directly in the syllabus.
  • Do you have the proper equipment? If a class uses the Internet for streaming video’s you need to make sure you have a decent connection to handle the bandwidth. Also make sure you have any hardware or software necessary. Make sure your software is the same version that your teacher will be using.

Know your university

The quality and experience of distance education programs can vary greatly. Here are a few things to think about when evaluating various programs.

  • How are the classes conducted? Some classes are basically correspondence classes. You are assigned books to read and papers to write. Other classes involve listening to a lecture and participating in discussion boards and on-line tests. Personally I prefer on-line classes where they are following an actual physical class. Most of Harvard’s classes are done like this. You watch videos of a class that takes place on campus.
  • Are there any specific time commitments? Some on-line classes require that you be at your computer during certain hours for chats or to watch live web broadcasts. Make sure you understand what will be expected up front. If a chat that impacts your grade is regularly schedule at a time that you can’t make it you could end up failing the class.
  • How are tests conducted? Some on-line classes only give you projects to complete. Others have open book tests. Still others require you to find a proctor to administer the test. There are usually specific requirements that the proctor must meet in order to qualify. The Harvard Extension school uses proctored tests for many of their classes. You select your proctor ahead of time and they sent a copy of the test materials a day before you take the test. Once you complete the test, the proctor seals the materials in an envelope and overnights them back to Harvard for grading.
  • Is there a residency requirement? Many institutions require some type of residency if you are pursuing a degree through their distance education department. (Harvard requires that you spend one semester physically in Cambridge.) If you are pursuing a degree, it is important to understand these requirements at the beginning so you can choose an appropriate school.


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