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What separates the best online degree programs from the rest?

Online degree programs are more popular than ever, and not just with students. From small community colleges to the most prestigious universities in the world, schools of all shapes and sizes have jumped on the e-learning bandwagon. But with so many programs to choose from, how can students separate the the best online degrees from the rest?

We asked six experts to weigh in on what distinguishes a truly great online degree program. Their responses illustrate just how far these programs have come in recent years, and how seriously schools now take virtual education.

What are the characteristics of the best online degree programs?

Renata Engel & Karen Pollack, Penn State UniversityRenata Engel, Associate Vice Provost for Online Programs, & Karen Pollack, Assistant Vice Provost for Undergraduate Online and Blended Programs at Penn State University

The best online degree programs share two characteristics: highly qualified faculty who are in tune with and engaged with their students and excellent student support services and resources. At the Penn State World Campus we are proud of the fact that the faculty who teach in our online programs are the same faculty who teach on our residential campuses -- and that is a high bar. They have terminal degrees in their fields of study and have participated in faculty development activities before they teach their first online course. Research in the field has consistently shown that students view the quality of engagement that they have with their instructors as being the most critical to deep and meaningful learning.

The second most important characteristic is excellent student support services: experienced academic advisors and technical help desk services that are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Busy adult learners need to know that help is available when they need it in a variety of specialized areas including financial aid counselors, career counselors, staff who are expert on providing services to students with disabilities and military student populations. Tutoring and remediation support are important, as well as staff who are able to assist students in evaluating transfer credits and experiences outside the traditional classroom that may be appropriate for prior learning assessment.


Mary Oriol, Loyola UniversityMary Oriol, Associate Professor and Interim Director of School of Nursing at Loyola University New Orleans

A well-developed program with a strong faculty. The best online programs begin with a strong curriculum, a full-time faculty dedicated to the curriculum and to online learning, and the technology to deliver the learning experiences using the latest tools to engage students. The level of engagement with the professor and the learning experience can be directly linked to the student's professional and personal growth.

Caliber of Your Student Peers

One of the most valuable aspects of an online program is the caliber of the students that are in class. In an online environment, students are not restricted by geography so they tend to be from all over the country, and even the world. Having this kind of diversity offers opportunities that are not easily gained in a traditional classroom setting, for example, sharing industry knowledge and advice, thoughts, perspectives and even networking.

Flexibility & Individual Attention From Faculty

Working in an online modality also provides a flexibility that makes advanced education possible for the busiest working professionals. For nurses specifically, who are fitting their academics in around long days and hectic schedules, the online environment removes the stress of attending a physical classroom at rigid class times that may or may not fit their schedules. Our online nursing courses at Loyola University New Orleans have been instrumental for our graduates reaching their goals for this very reason.

Another key benefit I would certainly call out is the individual attention provided by faculty due to smaller class sizes.


Timothy W. Spannaus, Wayne State UniversityTimothy W. Spannaus, Program Coordinator for Instructional Technology at Wayne State University

The best online degree programs treat students as individuals, respecting their strengths and addressing with their weaknesses, rather than as an undifferentiated group of learners. Students have the opportunity to interact individually with their instructors and classmates, as well as collaborating with other learners.

The best programs take advantage of learning as an active process, so that students are engaged in activities that foster deep learning. They are not passive audiences for recorded lectures. The best programs offer multiple ways of interacting with the content, the instructor and other students. They offer authentic assessments that allow students to demonstrate and apply their new knowledge.




William Andrew McCollough, University of FloridaWilliam Andrew McCollough, Associate Provost and Professor of Finance at the University of Florida
  1. Quality content
  2. Institutional commitment; proactive, strategic planning
  3. Design to promote student engagement
  4. Creative assessment modalities that meet the baseline of evaluative integrity
  5. Development of and adherence to best practices and markers of excellence in the production of online programs
  6. Clear identification of clientele to be served and appropriate standards for participation
  7. Use and build on the strengths of the modality -- do not try to replicate alternative modalities that have characteristics that are not replicable on line
  8. An early and continuing commitment to research in the science of teaching and learning -- the opportunity presented by the conjunction of external data and learning analytics


Lisa L. Templeton, Oregon State UniversityLisa L. Templeton, Executive Director of Oregon State University Extended Campus (Ecampus)

The best online degree programs give learners around the world access to the same enriching educational opportunities that students receive in a traditional campus setting. The learning outcomes in programs that are delivered online should be identical to the ones taught on campus.

At Oregon State Ecampus, our most successful online degree programs engage learners through rigorous course work that prepares them for career advancement, as well as high-touch interaction between learners and their instructors and classmates. OSU's online degree programs consist of courses that feature three types of interaction: student-to-instructor, student-to-content and student-to-student. This helps eliminate the natural divide between our distance learners and our university and provides them with a genuine Oregon State experience.




The hiring professional says...

Chad Thies, Union Bank TrustChad Thies, VP of Union Bank Trust

College costs continue to rise and people want degrees but can't afford them. Personally, I know a lot of college professors who have never worked outside of "higher education" and if you are talking to any professor that fits that mold I would consider their opinion as weak at best.

I think reputable professors are critical. Most professors that I have seen in the online space have their PhD's from very respectable schools. At the very least they tend to have a Masters from a reputable school. Furthermore, a lot of the people teaching these classes on-line are working "real" jobs so they have practical applications they can share with their students.