Online education continues to explode in both popularity and reach. In addition to MOOCs (massive open online course) at a number of leading universities offered for free, including Berkeley, Northwestern, Princeton, Stanford, and the University of Virginia, there are degree courses at both for-profit institutions such as Strayer University, and traditional institutions such as nursing at Georgetown, education and social work at the University of Southern California, as well as public administration and business at UNC Chapel Hill.
Having taught in hybrid degree programs (combining online and face-to-face) at both a private and a major public university, and having helped develop online degree programs as well, we have some advice for those who are considering pursuing online education, whether for a formal degree, a certificate, or just to learn for fun.
Do you want to be able to demonstrate that you’ve mastered some specific knowledge? If so, you’ll want to pursue online education in which you’ll be formally tested on the material, and receive a graded test, certificate, or actual degree from an accredited institution.
Who designed and teaches the course are just as important in online formats as they are in traditional learning ones. Be sure to see where faculty obtained their degrees, what type of research they conduct, and of course, what students say about them.
Asynchronous format refers to material that is delivered by the instructor/professor to the student, for example a PowerPoint lecture or case study. Synchronous format is interactive, typically via chat or video. Both formats are useful for learning, and which one is more useful depends on your personal learning style, the quality of the lecturer, and the material that is being presented. Your decision might also depend on the time you have to devote to the coursework: do you plan on fitting this in during your “free” time or are you able to “attend” class at designated times?
As in traditional classrooms, in synchronous learning formats, the quality of your peers can matter as much as the quality of the instructor. You can get an idea of the quality of your peers by how difficult it is for YOU to get into the program.
Even free courses are not free, as they will still take time to complete. For courses that have a financial cost, that needs to be weighed against the cost of learning it in a traditional classroom, which includes travel and other costs in addition to the course fee. There is also the cost of the reputation of the school and degree program. Look ahead to where the school has placed previous graduates to make sure that you will get an excellent return on your investment.
Aneil and Karen Mishra are business school professors and authors of Becoming a Trustworthy Leader by Routledge Press (2013). Aneil was instrumental in the launch of the MBA@UNC program prior to becoming Associate Dean for Academic Affairs for the NC Central School of Business in Durham, N.C.