“After three years of interviewing and being told by recruiters that I was going to have to get a master’s-level degree in order to progress further, I finally took their advice,” the 44-year-old said.
He enrolled in George Washington University’s online master of science in nursing program.
“The flexibility was key for me,” he said. “Two cross-country moves for my husband’s job and the adoption of our daughter, Parker, never disrupted my education.”
That was four years ago.
After graduating with his master’s degree in 2016, he enrolled in the university’s online doctor of nursing practice program and graduated in May.
This year, millions of adult students will enroll in online courses ranging from those that are part of an advanced degree curriculum like Dr. Kilgore’s to a professional certificate program to a single course to acquire a specific new expertise. The impetus for heading back to school is often a desire to change jobs, or to add skills. But sifting through the slew of online offerings can be puzzling.
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Here are steps to help sort through the options.
Interview Schools and Professors
Louanne Saraga-Walters, 50, who runs a video production company in St. Petersburg, Fla., spent months researching an online program to select for her master’s of science degree in Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine. “I have a full-time business and knew I wanted an online program, but I really got lost in a quagmire of what’s offered,” she said.
After some soul-searching, she discovered she had an interest in functional medicine, or a holistic approach to health and wellness. Then she began to drill down and ask questions of the program directors. The program she chose was offered at the University of Western States in Portland, Ore.
Two professors from the university also interviewed her. “They had their own process for vetting students,” she said. “They wanted to make sure I was a student who was dedicated.”
Dr. Kilgore interviewed admissions officers by phone and peppered them with emailed questions. “I paid particular attention to how well they responded,” he said. He checked the U.S. News & World Report online rankings.
Other important questions: Are career services available to help online students find internships or jobs after graduation? Does the program or school have an alumni network of prospective employers? Will graduates be prepared to pass a professional certification or licensing exam in their field?
Calculating the Cost
The range of virtual offerings provided by public, private and for-profit institutions is extensive and eclectic, and the tuition per course is varied.
“You can take an online class for anywhere from $25 to $700, or enroll in a full-online program, where you will generally pay the same tuition as a face-to-face program,” said Karen Miner-Romanoff, the assistant dean for academic excellence at New York University’s school of professional studies. “Some courses are a blend — part online, part face-to-face. It’s important to understand exactly what you’re buying and what you’ll be able to do at the end of the course.”
Look for Accreditation
If you’re paying to take a course for credit, make sure the institution is accredited, Dr. Miner-Romanoff said. There are about 75 regional, national and specialized accrediting agencies that serve as overseers for postsecondary institutions that have access to federal student aid.
The agencies regularly appraise the quality of institutions to certify they comply with federal education law. Most public, private and nonprofit higher education institutions are regionally accredited, while national and specialized accreditors review for-profit and trade schools.
Quality Matters, a nonprofit organization providing standards for courses and program review, is another indicator of worth in the online universe, according to Dr. Miner-Romanoff.
It’s really important to have “peer-to-peer opportunities,” Dr. Miner-Romanoff said. Building that connection and having the ability to share diversity of thought and teamwork with students meeting together from all over the world can be valuable, she added.
Another crucial component is “an instructor that pulls students in, gives immediate feedback and engages them,” she said.
Other questions to consider: Are there live online question-and-answer sessions? How are the teachers vetted? How many students are in the typical online class?
“At George Washington University, we have 15 students to one professor,” said Toni Marsh, director of the George Washington University Paralegal Studies master’s degree program, who also oversees the Paralegal Studies online graduate certificate program. “I might have a class with 60, but I will have three instructional assistants who are also professors.”
Having the ability to visit the online classroom while you’re shopping for your program is advantageous. At George Washington, for example, each semester prospective students can sign up for a free weeklong module of a course, or a course sampler, Ms. Marsh said.
“If you are going to invest in an online program, you should understand how many hours a week are expected of you,” Dr. Miner-Romanoff said. “You have to say, all right, with my job and with my other obligations, is this something I think I can do?”
Ms. Saraga-Walters discovered that firsthand. “I was really gung-ho, but the amount of work was a reality that I did not expect,” she said. “Something had to give.”
Some courses run smoothly on a self-paced autopilot with no need to interact with a professor or other classmates, but others will require your attendance.
One advantage of online learning is “it doesn’t advantage the extrovert,” said Daniel Redwood, director of human nutrition and functional medicine at the University of Western States.
“Quite often the person who might not feel free to speak out in an in-person class, contributes. The online discussion forums are an essential piece of the class instruction and content every week, and that’s one of the great strengths.”
A potential downside, of course, is “a feeling of isolation,” Dr. Redwood said.
Computer Setup and Tech Skills
Every school will have its own online teaching platform. Check that your computer, internet connection and tech savvy are up to the task. Most courses now allow for access on a mobile device.
For online programs supported by large colleges and universities, technical help is generally available around the clock. But it’s vital to know how easy access to assistance will be and whom to turn to for troubleshooting at midnight when you log in to do your homework.
“Inevitably, at the start of every class there are a few students who can’t work the technology,” Ms. Marsh said. “I have a pre-session orientation so they can get in and get comfortable with it in a situation that is low-risk — a test run. We use WebEx. You can’t break it, so I tell my students. It’s O.K. to get in and get comfortable with it.”
“As long as you are familiar with the way that search engines work and you’ve spent some time on a website and use email, that should be enough to get you up and running,” Dr. Redwood said.
Dr. Kilgore tapped into George Washington University’s online tutorial before he started his course. He was able to learn how to best operate on Blackboard, an online education portal, which is what he needed to use to navigate assignments and the syllabus.
For Ms. Saraga-Walters, it took a little time to adjust. “If you’re 40 and above and you have not become familiar with a variety of software, it can be challenging to learn,” she said. “It was a learning curve for me.”
“The biggest problem I see with my students is time management,” Ms. Marsh said. “The level of commitment and engagement are the same in an online course as they are for a campus course. It’s more convenient, but it’s not easier.
“There are still deadlines, deliverables and accountability. But if you don’t open your laptop it doesn’t exist. It’s not there. There’s a feeling of anonymity,” she said. “It feels easier to shirk your commitment and think that you don’t have to do it, if there is not that enforced engagement that you get in a classroom.”
Her advice is to log in to the class every day, even if there is nothing going on. “Make it part of your routine,” she said. “Put yourself on a schedule. Set clear study and class times into your paper or electronic calendar.”
By Kerry Hannon