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Feb
2019

Ten Questions to Ask Before Choosing an Online Degree Program

Questions

  1. Who created your courses?
  2. How do your online courses differ from their traditional counterparts?
  3. Do recorded courses have minimum video and audio quality standards? What are they?
  4. Who performs the quality control for your courses?
  5. Do your courses use “lockdown” browsers?
  6. Is all of the course material available at the beginning of the course?
  7. Is all of your course content easily downloadable?
  8. What is the ratio of individual vs. group work?
  9. Is there a service-level agreement for professors when it comes to answering questions?
  10. What course supervision is there? Can administrators log in to courses?

Introduction

When I started my online degree program, I had no idea which questions I should ask my recruiter. While some questions were obvious, such as “How much does this cost?” and “Is this program accredited?”, there were plenty of questions that I had not considered. Below is my list of questions that I wish I had asked, so that I could have gotten a real, on-the-ground view of what working through each online degree would be like.

It’s to be expected that a recruiter, administrator, or professor will not have answers to every one of these questions. However, their reactions can be quite telling. If you ask about the quality of the hours of videos you’ll be watching and the recruiter responds with “I don’t know, they most likely just record their screens and narrate,” that’s a sign for concern.

On the other hand, if they say, “We make sure that every course is professionally recorded, and have a department dedicated to making sure all graphics, recordings, and even audio are of top quality for our students,” you know they’re serious about their online curriculum.

1. Who created your courses?

When I began my program, I naïvely assumed that when you attend a school, the faculty of that school will teach the courses. When it comes to online degrees, there’s a completely different option – schools can pay companies like Pearson and McGraw Hill to create the courses for them. Your school will likely call these companies “education partners” or some equally neutered term, but in reality, this means that they pay them for the use of their recorded videos, assignments, and tests.

When you think about going to a particular school, you likely have in mind the stellar education and high-ranking faculty that you’ll find on their marketing material. But if your school uses one of these “education partners”, you’re really just paying them to administer Pearson content to you. You could get that exact same course at multiple schools – maybe for cheaper, or maybe from a more prestigious school.

At the end of the day, if the school themselves hides the fact that they don’t produce their own courses, that’s a real cause for concern. If they’re proud of their “education partner” courses, they should advertise them as such – but in my experience, they don’t mention their “partners” at all because it severely cuts the value of their degree.

2. How do your online courses differ from their traditional counterparts?

The digital revolution has changed many things, but in my experience, coursework isn’t one of them. Courses are structured as 14 lectures, each one corresponding to a week of the semester. Lectures are somewhere between 45 to 90 minutes each, like a traditional class.

When traditional courses are translated to online courses, some schools change very little. The administration approaches a professor and asks them to recycle content they already have for an in-person course by recording themselves giving those lectures. The actual mechanics of the course are an afterthought, and once the course content is posted, it can be used repeatedly for many years to come.

In some ways this is fine – I want to earn the same degree as terrestrial students, after all. But wouldn’t it be nice if your school took advantage of everything that the internet has to offer? You should ask your recruiter to provide examples of innovation in their online program, besides the fact that the material was posted online.

3. Do recorded courses have minimum video and audio quality standards? What are they?

As a paying customer, you deserve better than poor-quality Flash videos recorded a decade ago. MIT actually got it right a decade ago – age of video isn’t a factor when enough effort is put in, and the videos are high quality and easy to understand. Although there’s no direct correlation between lectures in 4K resolution and test scores, ask yourself – what’s the resolution of a blackboard? Should I accept any less than that? If a used smartphone’s camera resolution is better than that of the video that’s uploaded, then it’s probably time to re-record the lectures.

If a professor is about to sit down to record the ten hours of lectures provided in a course, they should be using a professional-grade microphone. More than once I’ve had to watch videos recorded on an old laptop that struggled under the weight of the screen recorder. The fans repeatedly turning on and off drowned out the speaker’s voice and made understanding the professor very difficult.

While these professors may have total mastery over the courses they’re teaching, they’re not necessarily professional video editors – and given the thousands of dollars you’ll be spending per course, it’s fair to expect some level of professionalism.

The recruiters will love to tell you about how high-rated the school is, but they won’t tell you that you can hear a laptop’s fan through an entire semester’s content.

4. Who performs the quality control for your courses?

Does anyone actually watch these videos besides the students? One person other than the professor should actually watch all of the videos in a course and give it a stamp of approval. Courses are recorded once and then recycled each semester to hundreds of new students. So how does the school know that the videos are actually, well, good?

I once had a professor with a thick accent record a course. He was not difficult to understand 99% of the time, and the videos had transcripts, which helped. However, there were two or three times when I just couldn’t figure out what word he was saying, so I consulted the transcripts, only to find that they said “(inaudible)”.

Did someone actually watch this video and understand the professor? Why was no red flag raised by the transcriptionist? Who allowed this to go through?

I’ve also seen plenty of videos where professors leave text comments saying “Slide #7 has a mistake; the formula should be…” Is there no one at the college that can edit the videos for them?

It’s extremely important to ask questions about quality control. You’ll find that many colleges don’t have any, and then you’ll be relying on the video editing expertise of your economics or sociology professor.

5. Do your courses use “lockdown” browsers?

For online degrees, there are a number of methods that schools can use to try to confirm that you are the student behind the computer, performing the assignments or taking the exams. One such method is the use of a “lockdown” browser. These types of browsers are offered by several different vendors, but all purport to do the same thing: ensure that you are not cheating by literally preventing anything that could be used to that end from running on your computer.

One such browser, from a company named Respondus, runs as an administrative process and just straight up shuts down any service or OS feature that it doesn’t like. No copying, no pasting, no printers, no screenshots, no background applications, no minimizing. It completely takes over your computer so that nothing can be running but the browser itself. It watches you through your webcam, and it listens to you through your microphone.

Beyond the disturbing and invasive nature of the browsers, there’s also the glaring computer security concern – you are required to give total administrative control to a program that tells you directly that it will make system-wide changes to your computer. Sure, the changes are reversed when you finish the exam and exit the browser. But unless you do a full audit of your computer afterwards, it may still leave behind traces of services it disabled but “forgot” to re-enable. And no, you can’t simply run the program in a VM – they check system specs like the motherboard manufacturer (which will likely have VMware or VirtualBox in the name), so you’ll have to be a little more clever.

I’ve previously written about how easy it is to defeat these kinds of systems – even a sticky note on your screen can render the anti-cheating browser entirely useless. But again, the questions that you want to be asking your recruiter surround what being in their courses is actually like. Their spiel will not include the fact that in order to earn a degree, you must run an invasive program on your computer that can make any number of silent changes.

6. Is all of the course material available at the beginning of the course?

This question invites a fun comparison with the television and online streaming industries. Before online streaming, you needed to tune in to the television at a specific time to catch an episode. This is akin to needing to show up to a professor’s lecture at exactly the scheduled time in order to learn.

Today, we’re free from our terrestrial constraints. Netflix can provide an entire season of a show at once, allowing their customers to binge watch an entire season at once instead of dribbling them out one episode at a time. They can watch just a few minutes of an episode and come back at any time.

When it comes to online classes, can I “binge learn”? Can I watch lecture 14 immediately just to see what we’re building up to, or do I have to wait 14 weeks for that course to “unlock”? Can I submit assignments ahead of time? One of the reasons that I was drawn to an online program was that I could work at my own pace – and indeed, that’s what you’ll hear the recruiters say repeatedly. How much of my pace is really under my control?

7. Is all of your course content easily downloadable?

How easy is it for me to log in to your course software and simply download what I need? A PDF, a PowerPoint, the actual video file? I’ll tell you from experience – it can be very, very difficult. Instead of following any particular standard, I have seen repeatedly that courses have their videos hosted by some internal service with a proprietary Flash video player, which has absolutely no options regarding playback. In such courses, if you move backward slightly on the timeline, your entire video has to rebuffer. Furthermore, PowerPoint files that could be easily searched through aren’t provided at all – the content is provided only through those videos, as unsearchable narrated screen recordings.

Intellectual property is a complicated issue, but I am only going to discuss it from the point of view of a student that wants access to their learning materials. When I am studying for a final and I want to know more information about a particular concept, I want to CTRL+F the course material to find that concept. I want the actual PowerPoint files that are presented to me. I want transcripts of the pre-recorded videos so I can find where a professor mentions a particular concept. What I do NOT want to do is quickly scroll through every video provided by a course in an attempt to find the one slide that seems to have the information I want.

From experience, it is perfectly possible to obtain these materials. For one thing, as previously mentioned, the course material itself may actually have been purchased from a company like Pearson – meaning that you are not the first one seeing the video, and certainly not the first one to want the PowerPoint from the video. Just searching for an exact string on a PowerPoint slide can yield websites hosting those very PowerPoints. Otherwise, it is relatively easy to send a video to someone on a service like Fiverr and pay to have a transcript made or a PowerPoint recreated – a cost that can be shared among many students in the class.

This leads to another question – perhaps it’s too much to ask if I can take the final on day one, but when you really think about it, why not? The risk is my own. Are they concerned that I’ll give the course answers to my fellow students? Because, as previously mentioned, it’s likely that this isn’t the first time the course is being taught. It’s also unlikely that the effort has been put in to make the exams use randomized, on-the-fly generated questions. That means that the answers to the final, like the PowerPoint files, are already available online.

But does the school itself provide the content? Is there a one-click download button which will provide me with 100% of the material needed for the course? Will I have to manually download and organize each file, and copy and paste the content of each forum post containing essay instructions? How much effort does the school put in to providing me with learning materials, and how much effort are the students expected to put in to obtain them?

8. What is the ratio of individual vs. group work?

There’s an old, morbid joke that I’m particularly fond of: “When I die, I want the people I did group projects with to lower me into the grave – so they can let me down one last time.”

I hate group work. Detest it. I’m for sure a “type A” personality, and I won’t claim that I’m the easiest to deal with when it comes to group work. Group work in courses sticks people together with radically different motivations – maybe one person just wants to skirt by, and another wants a perfect score. Why should my grades suffer if a groupmate is happy with a C? And why should that groupmate have to deal with my demands?

A similar situation could crop up in the workplace, but at least then you have a supervisor to talk to, and a poor performance by your colleague may get them additional training, reassigned, or even fired. I’ve found most professors state explicitly that they do not care about intra-group politics and they don’t want to hear about it – and you are 100% responsible for the project even if a groupmate doesn’t show up. Sometimes you can grade your groupmates’ efforts, but that does not increase the quality of the final project.

In addition, there are questions of competency (is this their first finance class, or their eighth?) as well as time differences (are your groupmates in your same city, or across the world?) that make group work online even harder. Again, that could happen at work too – but at least then, you’re getting paid instead of paying.

It’s really important to get in writing whether or not your grade will ever be based on the work of others. You might even prefer it that way, and it’s your right to have your own preferences – but it would be a shame to expect that you can take your online class alone and at your own pace, and instead be placed in a course that’s full of group assignments with people that you’ll never meet in real life.

9. Is there a service-level agreement for professors when it comes to answering questions?

Picture this: You’re in a course. You’re watching a lecture. The professor uses a term you haven’t heard before. You go into the course management software, navigate to the “Ask the Professor” section, and type your question.

Then you wait.

And as you continue to wait, other students start asking questions, too. Now they’ve started asking about the upcoming assignment. You all continue to wait. The professor suddenly, seemingly at random, answers two of the ten questions currently posted. The professor is not responding to emails. The deadline for the assignment is looming, but the professor hasn’t responded to a single question regarding the assignment.

What happens now? Does the professor get in trouble for their lack of responsiveness? Does a report get sent off automatically to administrators saying, “There are currently 8 open questions for Professor X. They have not logged in to the course software for 3 weeks”.

In many industries, there exists something called an SLA (service-level agreement), between a paying customer and a service provider. Students pay a significant amount of money for these academic services. It is reasonable to expect that the professor will, at some point, respond to requests for information.

These are extremely important questions that I asked only once I hit an issue – only to be told by school administrators, “There is no SLA, nothing will happen to this tenured professor, we cannot force them to answer their emails, just do the assignment as best you can.”

If the recruiter or administrator you’re speaking to says, “Oh, our professors are fantastic, they always respond to questions!” please, please do not believe them. You likely don’t answer every one of your emails, either. You can’t go up to the professor at the end of class, so what mechanisms has the school put in place to facilitate getting answers?

10. What course supervision is there? Can administrators log in to courses?

Let’s say that you’ve asked all of these questions and received positive responses from the recruiter so far. You start the program, and things have not lived up to your expectations. You have serious complaints that need immediate resolutions. Where exactly should you put those complaints, and is anyone responsible for resolving them?

“Of course someone is responsible for your complaints,” you say. “Obviously when you start a program, you’re given a direct contact who is responsible for you and your success in the program, and that contact has access to the professors and even the deans if something goes wrong.”

Oh you sweet summer child. The recruiter who got you into the program has moved on to attracting other prey, they have no access to anyone in the department. Your “advisor” is overworked, being responsible for every single online student – and if the recruiter is any good, they’ll be making sure that this program is chock full of students, each with their own issues.

I once got a problem solved by use of a “corporate carpet bomb” – because none of the lower-level staff was responding to my complaints, I emailed all of the deans of the program in order to get a response. Because there was no easy way to get through to anyone with power, I took control of the situation myself – but I should never have had to.

This final set of questions revolves around another event which occurred in a course I was taking. Let’s say, hypothetically, that a student asks a question in the course forum. The professor responds sarcastically, directly insulting the student. The professor went way too far over the line. In fact, let’s take this to the extreme – let’s say that what was said would be objectively viewed by anyone, no matter how thick their skin, as cyberbullying.

In your email complaint to the administration, you request that someone log in to the course and view the conversation themselves. I have done just this, and received a response saying that it is impossible for them to log on – administrators have no access to courses. In fact, I was told that in order to add the administrator to the course, they would have to request access from the professor themselves.

This means that the administration will rely on student screenshots of inappropriate conduct instead of going to the primary source. That’s ridiculous. There has to be some kind of oversight, even if it is not a permanent watcher and instead just the ability to take a peek when explicitly requested.

This leads to the final set of important questions – who exactly has access to the courses? If I am the victim of cyberbullying (rare though it may be in a professional setting), would the administration be able to see the actual conversation in context, or would they have to rely on second-hand sources like screenshots? And furthermore, if the latter is the case, is that due to an actual policy decision or due to a shortcoming in the technology?

Conclusion

It’s likely that most colleges won’t have answers to all of these questions. However, you have to make priorities for yourself to determine which aspects you really need. I highly doubt that the average online program recruiters can tell me that they mandate their videos all be in 1080p – but it would be nice to know that they’ve at least thought about it. However, if the recruiters are completely dumbfounded by these types of questions, it may be a red flag that they really are not prepared to work with you through the realities of online programs. These questions should help you get a handle on the actual quality of online learning at schools.

Have thoughts, opinions, or want to tell me that I’m totally wrong? Feel free to comment below! I’d love to hear from you.

Disclaimer: The name of my program and school was deliberately not stated in this blog post. The research performed in this blog post involved gathering stories and complaints from a number of friends and colleagues. My individual complaints should not be considered when applying to schools – instead, my questions should be asked to all recruiters, whether they are at my school or not.

This post was edited by awk.

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