Are accelerated online programs harder?
Many students are drawn in by the promise of accelerated online programs. These specially designed programs offer a path to a college degree or certificate in as little as half the time as a traditional program. Who wouldn't want that?
But one big question may stop some students from enrolling in one of these courses: Are accelerated programs harder?
Accelerated online programs usually compress a traditional 14- or 16-week semester into a five-, six- or eight-week time frame for about the same cost as regular courses. Their difficulty depends on the student's comfort level with working independently and staying on top of an intense reading and assignment schedule. Such programs typically are aimed at non-traditional students who are older than the usual college age, often have full-time jobs and school-age children, and are looking to streamline the process of completing their degrees.
"For a non-traditional student, online accelerated degree programs provide an opportunity to balance all their responsibilities while improving their employment options," says Dominick Miciotta, director of marketing for online programs at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. "Even in today's job market there are employers in industries with open positions who lack skilled labor to fill those positions. Accelerated degree options assist both employers and potential employees with developing those skill sets."
Different time frame, same material
Accelerated online schooling covers similar ground as regular ones by building the curriculum around the same learning outcome, says Roxanne Gonzales, academic dean of Regis University's College for Professional Studies in Denver. These virtual classes may not require students to come to a physical location, but they are not "any time, any place" kinds of experiences, she says. In Gonzales' view, they offer a "different kind of ride," requiring strong time management skills and self-discipline.
"What we look at is not necessarily 'seat time,' but accomplishments," Gonzales says. "There are weekly assignments, there is structure online. You do have to be in a 'classroom,' and expect dialogue as if you were 'on ground.'"
A little or a lot of respect?
Accelerated learning over the past five decades has become an accepted counterpart to the traditional classroom and is similarly respected within the online learning community.
The Commission on Accelerated Programs released new standards for accelerated learning in August 2011 that it hopes will be adopted by institutions around the country. The list of standards calls for certain benchmarks to be met in nine areas, including program mission and integrity; leadership and administration; educational offerings; faculty appraisal, support and appreciation; and student support services.
However, there still remain misconceptions by some academics about whether accelerated learning offers the same quality of education as in the classroom, says Dawn Spaar, vice-chair of CAP and an associate dean at the Center for Continuing Education and Distance Learning at Elizabethtown College in Central Pennsylvania.
"I think once [they] see a well-constructed, online accelerated class, they realize there is rigor there. There is academic integrity. There is interaction between the students and between students and faculty members," Spaar says. "You can pull in video and a lot of different media, and there's a lot of flexibility."
At Quinnipiac, online students have access to the same faculty as students who attend classes on-campus. According to Miciotta, students considering accelerated online programs should find out whether the classes are "outsourced" or taught by faculty. The latter "lends itself to academic quality, access to faculty members for questions or additional support and an overall improved student experience," he says.
Are you in or out?
Accelerated programs often appeal to adult learners, who tend to be more focused on their goals than their younger counterparts, which may explain why accelerated programs have a lower dropout rate than traditional courses. However, nontraditional students may use accelerated courses strategically to allow them to "stop out"--or take time off because they're getting married or are expecting a baby--and still complete their degrees.
"It's their dime. They have high expectations of the institutions they attend and are truly more motivated," Gonzales says. "Adult learners may take longer on paper to get a degree, but they have a higher completion rate."
How fast do accelerated online classes go?
Traditional students who are accustomed to classroom learning may find it's a special challenge to keep up with the pace of accelerated online coursework and are usually the ones who may opt out shortly after a class begins, according to Patricia M. Ellis, chair of CAP and associate dean for undergraduate programs at Stevenson University in Baltimore.
"A lot of people don't understand the rigor," Ellis says. "It's difficult for many of them to have the self-discipline to turn in the work on a timely basis for accelerated classes. There's much more due--much faster. Adult brains are at a different stage than traditional students. They have all that life experience they bring to [their education], whether it's in the classroom or in front of the computer."
Speed for speed's sake
Although time may be of the essence for those opting in to accelerated programs, it's not a good use of precious educational dollars to select one solely because it offers a faster, online pace. Instead, students should focus on their end goals rather than the time it takes to get there.
"Pick a program that really gets you where you want to be academically and professionally," Gonzales says. "Don't just go for the quick program or the cheapest--that's not always the best bet. You want your degree to have quality academic program standards behind it."