Red Flags to Watch for When Choosing Distance Education Programs
Will you get what you're paying for?

by Charlotte Thomas, Career and Education Editor, Peterson's

Though distance education has existed for some time in one form or another, once the magic words "on line," "Web," and "virtual" were added, learning outside of a classroom became a hot item. Spurred by a host of cutting-edge technologies, innovations in distance education took off, and an amazed and delighted public latched on in record numbers to this way of being taught. The halls of academia are being filled by distance students who otherwise probably could not have accessed higher education.

But along with the enormous potential that distance learning offers, it's undergoing tremendous change and as a result is shaking the very foundations of how education is--can--or should be--delivered. In this transition time, measuring quality is not easy to define. How will you, the potential distance learner (or the employer who is paying your tuition), know you're getting your money's worth? There are no blueprints--they're still being printed. And little history for comparisons since the "old" is still under development.

The many variables inherent in distance education programs also hinder easily or quickly checking quality. Course structures vary from asynchronous networks to video tape and print. Distance learning providers range from traditional institutions to brand-new virtual universities. According to Frank Mayadas, Program Director at Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Asynchronous Learning Networks in New York, New York, name recognition alone is not enough. A small regional college might have stellar professors teaching their online courses who know the difference between the virtual and real classroom.

Reputable colleges or universities don't automatically offer quality distance learning either. As institutions push to get in on the distance boom, some haven't fully developed how they deliver distance education. Are their distance courses as good as what on-campus students receive? Are they designed with distance students in mind or just Web versions of correspondence or on-campus courses, questions Pam Dixon, journalist and author of seven books, including The Virtual College, published by Peterson's in 1996.

Students looking for distance education providers need a lot more information to make wise choices, observes Paula Peinovich, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Regents College in Albany, New York. "They must use a different set of resources. It's difficult to tell what's real, so checking quality poses challenges for the consumer."

RED FLAG: Have you looked deeper than the Web site or catalog?
Students can readily assume that getting a degree off-campus is as effortless as logging on. Questionable organizations can slap up spectacular Web sites and call themselves bona fide educational institutions. "It's time for the buyer to beware," says Michael Lambert, Executive Director of the Distance Education and Training Council in Washington, D.C., speaking of bogus degree mills that can be mistaken for legitimate institutions by the uninformed.

RED FLAG: Is the distance provider accredited by a recognized accreditor?
Accreditation is the number one verification of the quality of a distance education provider. As a wise consumer, you must be aware that not all accreditors are equal or recognized, says Peter Ewell, Senior Associate at the National Center For Higher Education Management in Boulder, Colorado. Accrediting agencies number in the hundreds, and the list grows longer as unscrupulous institutions create their own accreditors to get past consumers who look no further than the institution's Web site.

There are a number of ways to check on the legitimacy of accreditors. The U.S. Department of Education ( has a list of verified accreditors as does the Council For Higher Education Accreditation ( The Distance Education Training Council ( also can help you verify accreditors. "Check to see if the institution is properly licensed and approved in the state where it's located," urges Lambert, because some states have very lax regulations.

RED FLAG: Will that certificate or credit be worth something?
For students such as teachers or nurses getting certificates, it's critical to know if distance education courses will apply. "Is the program recognized in your professional field? Will the course meet the requirements?" counsels Kay Kohl, Executive Director of the University Continuing Education Association in Washington, D.C.

Transferring credit is just as important. Say you take a distance math course over the summer. Will it be accepted elsewhere? If you have a goal in mind when taking online courses, you've got to know if the courses will be credited at future institutions.

RED FLAG: Does the distance provider have a track record?
With distance education evolving so quickly, it's tricky to judge quality based on longevity. Some very good programs are just getting going. According to Dr. Joe Boland, Director of the Center for Distance Learning at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, distance education is viewed as a large growth area, thus private investors are providing education and in some cases are doing a good job of it, he adds.

But, you can ask if the course you're interested in has been taught before or are you the guinea pig? says Mayadas. Check on course content and who is teaching it as well as the credibility of the institution. Students also will want to assure themselves that the program will still be around by the time they are ready to complete it.

RED FLAG: Are the admissions policies too easy?
Watch out for those programs that admit you with few restrictions. Do their admissions policies give credit for all kinds of things you've done without careful examination and then charge you an exorbitant tuition? asks Bobbi Thomas, Academic Advisor for the Extended Degree Programs at Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman. Muriel Oaks, Associate Vice President of Extended University Services also at WSU, mentions that some well-known institutions do give credit for past experience but only after close evaluation. "If they don't, that's a definite red flag," she warns.

RED FLAG: Is the class too big for the professor to adequately teach?
Without having to provide physical seating, the temptation for distance education providers is to pack a class with paying students. However, the more students per faculty member, the less apt they are to get the attention distance students need. If it's anything much over twenty-five students per teacher, faculty members have a hard time handling the teaching load, says Dixon. Distance teaching is difficult and the contact between teacher and pupil much more demanding, necessary, and time-consuming.

RED FLAG: What is the course content, and how is the material presented?
"Let your consumer interest drive your search," says Thom Swiss, Director of Web Assisted Curriculum and Professor of English at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, who urges prospective students to carefully examine the course content before signing on. "If you can't find sufficient information about how distance courses are presented, then beware," he says. Even top institutions with well-recognized names might not present distance courses with the same quality as their on-campus courses. You've got to ascertain if the institution really has the expertise for teaching online.

In the rush to attract the burgeoning population of distance students, some institutions will focus on high demand fields without much regard for whether or not they possess the expertise. "I would be concerned about an organization that emerges from nowhere, especially when it is offering postbaccalaureate-level programs yet has no obvious ties to either professional organizations or universities," Kohl says. While little-known programs can be good, she notes that before committing to a program, a student would be wise to seek information from professional societies and accrediting bodies about the history and performance of a distance education provider as a way to assess quality.

RED FLAG: What qualifies faculty members to teach a distance course?
Not all faculty members who are asked to teach distance courses have the experience to effectively do so. As many are finding out, there's a big difference between instructing a room full of students and interacting with virtual students. To really teach, they just can't tape their lectures and send them off. Some distance education providers rely heavily on part-time instructors or professionals in the workplace. This is not necessarily an indication of poor quality and often is one of the benefits of distance education. But check on who is teaching and what gives the teacher credibility in that field.

Mary Beth Almeda, Director of the Center for Media and Independent Learning at the University of California Extension, Berkeley, advises students to examine faculty members' credentials. Where did they get their degrees? What level of experience have they had teaching Web-based courses? Are they full-time faculty members or part-time instructors? Do instructors have a background relevant to the course you're interested in? How many have Ph.D.s or appropriate terminal degrees? Almeda remarks that many of their courses are designed for working professionals, so a combination of educational credentials, teaching experience, and real-world experience is what they look for in instructors.

RED FLAG: What is the level of interaction between distance students and faculty members?
Interaction between student and teacher and between students is vital in the success of the distance student who sits alone instead of interacting in a classroom. Some teachers might only post assignments and grade homework with little communication on an individual basis with students. Others are open to questions and comments at all times due to the accessibility and convenience of e-mail. What kind of interaction can students expect and how much? Is it only by e-mail? Fax? Phone? Do professors hold online office hours? How is homework submitted? How extensively will professors work with their distance students? Is there a structured way for students to interact with other class members? You might not need or want a high level of interaction, so it's important to know what's offered.

RED FLAG: Is a full level of student services provided?
The lack of student services can be a major obstacle for online students. "Does the Web course support everything you as a student want?" asks Swiss. Not all distance programs do, which can make getting a degree or certificate arduous.

Kohl points out that student success with distance education often has a lot to do with the services that are provided to them. "It varies among institutions," she observes, "and ranges from tutorials to tech support. Or it could mean an array of administrative services, plus academic advising and access to digital library resources."

RED FLAG: What is the institution's response to your specific questions?
Observe how a distance education provider responds to your questions about its program. "If you send an e-mail, and it lingers for more than a week, I'd question taking that course," observes Swiss. Not getting the information you want in a timely and complete manner is cause for concern.

RED FLAG: What do current and graduated students say about the program?
"All institutions should be gathering feedback from students and providing it to those who ask for it," says Peinovich, suggesting that you request access to student evaluations. At Regents College, students comment about courses on an electronic peer network.

Find out where graduates go. Lambert says to get the names of one or two graduates, although some institutions, because of privacy issues, will decline. However, it doesn't hurt to ask.

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