How to Choose the Right Online Degree Program By Jesse Johnson

For students who have families and full-time jobs, or those who simply appreciate the convenience of studying remotely, an online degree program might make the most sense. The benefits online programs offer students include lower costs, unlimited access to course materials, and flexibility in schedules and location.




When making a decision about an online degree, it can seem difficult to get to know the school as it’s likely you won’t visit the physical campus in order to get to know the online program. Aside from checking if the program is accredited, it is important to understand the features that set certain online programs apart from the rest as recent innovations have allowed students to achieve a higher level of success and satisfaction with online programs. Here are a few of the most impactful innovations to keep in mind as you search for the right online degree program.

Traits of a Successful Online Degree Program

Consistently one of the top-ranked programs according to U.S. News and World Report, Arizona State University is a great example of how universities can work toward innovation in online education. ASU President Michael M. Crow has stated, “We do things differently, and we constantly try new approaches.” This embodies the spirit of what an online program should be: a place where instructors and administrators learn along with students in order to provide the best online degree experience.

One example of this is the PLuS Alliance between ASU, King’s College in London, and University of New South Wales in Australia. This partnership is designed to pool the resources of three major universities in order to find solutions to social, economic, environmental and health-related issues and expand the potential for online education around the world. For students, this collaboration demonstrates that these schools are active in improving not only their own programs, but online education as a whole.

A move toward distributed learning is one major trend worth seeking in a program. Distributed learning refers to the use of many types of media to convey information, including course materials and activities that feature audio, video, message boards, and other digital forms. Students are also able to use these forms to participate in the course in ways they couldn’t before. For example, a student who has trouble gathering their thoughts in writing could create videos in order to reflect on their progress and communicate with their peers in a more natural way.

Because these resources are always available, students can study on their own schedule regardless of location or timezone. While most online degree programs offer this flexibility in scheduling and location, not all programs vary the methods they use to convey information. Consider that it would be much less engaging if all course material came in the form of text-only prompts and word documents. This would neglect students who learn better visually or by listening, whereas programs that put effort into incorporating distributed learning can meet the needs of a variety of students.

Gamification, in a college context, refers to the use of game-based thinking within traditional coursework. This could include systems that reward student progress with digital badges, trophies, or progress bars, as well as simulations in which students can apply information from the course to real-life scenarios. Aside from simply being more fun than basic instruction styles, gamification offers students the chance to compete with themselves and track their progress in a clear, visual way. More and more, online degree programs are taking advantage of these entertaining and informative learning models.

You should also check to see if the college has a reliable, school-wide software that they use between different courses. These can range from highly customized learning management systems that offer useful features to cookie-cutter websites that offer few options for engagement. If your college isn’t investing in functional software, you will have a difficult time accessing class materials, presenting your work, tracking your progress, and communicating with your instructor and peers.

Adaptive learning is a term you should keep in mind as well during your search. This simply refers to a program’s ability to assess a student’s needs and adapt the course to best support each person or groups within the class. These adaptations could manifest as software that automatically tracks your progress and makes recommendations, or it could be as simple as an instructor who modifies an assignment or activity in order to meet a student’s most pressing needs. This is a big deal, and the program you choose should be able to provide some assurance that they are willing to pay attention to your individual learning style.

Once You’re Enrolled

Your vetting process shouldn’t stop once you’re enrolled in a degree program. Within each course, there are several things you should pay attention to in order to make sure you are committing to a program that will support you as an individual. Here are several questions to ask yourself.

  1. Is the content engaging and useful to you?

This is something many students take for granted, but there are a wide variety of educational materials available about any subject. A textbook that seems outdated and tedious to read shouldn’t be taken as the be-all and end-all for information about a subject just because an instructor assigns it. There are a variety of choices programs can make in order to include engaging, useful content. If you feel like the materials featured in your course are lackluster and aren’t serving your needs, communicate with your instructor and consider that other programs likely provide similar instruction with more applicable content.

It may be helpful to consider a situation in which you are not enrolled in this course and ask yourself if you would turn to this particular text in order to learn more about the subject.

  1. How do you feel about the level of communication?

In online courses, communication can take place through a number of channels including email, message boards, in-text comments, chat rooms, phone calls, and video conferences. Try to identify which of these work best for you and utilize them often. If your instructor only sends mass emails and doesn’t provide individual feedback, you’re less likely to recognize and improve your own strengths and weaknesses. Without clear, personal communication from an instructor, students in an online course can feel detached and unmotivated. Always be sure to look for a communication policy within the syllabus.

  1. Do you feel a sense of community?

Along with communication between students and the instructor, you should also consider whether there are opportunities for community within a course and the program as a whole. Creating real relationships with your peers can encourage deeper learning and help to instill a sense of pride in the progress you make. You can use these channels to present questions and struggles to your classmates, and when other students see the work you are doing and how you challenge yourself, they can offer feedback and tips.

This might not even be strictly related to the course or the university. For example, a message board where students can post things about their interests and personal lives can create a sense of community and a better understanding of the real people you’re working alongside.

  1. Do you have the freedom to explore your own interests within a subject?

Being able to follow your own interests within a course is a luxury not all online degree programs offer. Though this isn’t always possible, taking advantage of the chance to focus on something that genuinely interests you will help you to appreciate the progress you make on assignments throughout the course and give you a sense of satisfaction that you’re learning something practical to you as an individual. The opposite can also be true in courses that are overly scripted and offer little freedom within a specific set of assignments.

  1. Is the course well organized?

A successful online program will state the expectations for students and instructors clearly and offer a balanced amount of coursework each week. If you feel overloaded one week and bored the next, or if two assignments are going on at the same time with no clear connection, it’s possible the program or course you’re enrolled in might be poorly organized.

Strategize for Your Own Strengths and Weaknesses

Aside from seeking out active and innovative online degree programs, it’s important to consider what your particular needs are as a student. Whether you have experience learning remotely or this is your first time, it may be helpful to make a list of potential challenges you’ve faced or anticipate in an online degree program. This could include issues related to your study habits, the hours you work for your job, family responsibilities, your level of proficiency using digital learning tools, and your ability to be productive and on time with or without regular guidance from instructors.

Some degree programs have formed initiatives that specialize in helping students succeed in each of these areas. The more you understand yourself and what to look for in a program, the better chance you’ll have at succeeding in an online degree program.