Caveat emptor (buyer beware)!

There are thousands of programs available at a distance from many different institutions. In general, ‘buyer beware’ operates in this area. There are many poor quality and unscrupulous distance education programs which do not have accreditation or secure financial resources (and so may disappear overnight).

I provide below some guidelines for choosing distance education programs, and some sites that list programs which in general may be more reliable. However, you as a consumer must take responsibility for doing due diligence on the quality and reliability of the program.

Guidelines for choosing a distance education program

1. For-credit distance education programs from public and not-for-profit private education institutions, at least in USA, Canada, most European countries, Australia, and New Zealand, are likely to be good quality and provide recognised accreditation. In the USA and Mexico, be sure to check on the accreditation status not just of the institution, but also of the program itself. The university should provide you with this information either o its web site or on request. In Canada, all programs from public (government-funded) universities must be accredited by a provincial government agency before they can be offered to the public.

2. Most DE programs from public and not-for-profit private universities require you to meet the normal admission requirements for entry to that institution, so check on the admission requirements for the program you wish to take. Many require a high standard of English for admission. Some universities, e.g. Athabasca University in Canada and the Open University in the UK, have ‘open’ admission. However, even these have some restrictions, so check on their admission policies as well. Many non-credit distance education programs also have open admission, but these do not usually provide you with a recognised accreditation. Unfortunately, many institutions, even for distance education programs, have residency requirements, which means you must have an address within the stateor province, to be admitted to the program. However, if you have a cousin…..

3. Just because a distance education program is accredited, don’t assume that it is of high quality in instructional terms.

• Check on the student-teacher ratio, for example (how many students in a class with one instructor. Most classes should have a ratio of 30 students or less to one instructor – lower for graduate programs).

• Check whether the program is managed or supervised by regular, tenured faculty for programs coming from public and especially not-for-profit private universities. There may be contract tutors or adjuncts on contract who are not tenured, and this is acceptable, provided the course has been designed and is being supervised by a tenured or full-time professor or instructor. Some excellent private distance education institutions, such as the University of Phoenix and EMDC, do not have tenured research professors, but they do have full-time subject experts and instructional designers, who are responsible for the design template followed by contract instructors, with low student-teacher ratios. Thus the quality of instruction is often better from some private. specialised distance education institutions than from many public institutions offering online programs.

• Check on the media used for delivery. In general, online programs should be better than correspondence programs, because they allow for more and quicker interaction between students and instructor. However, many print-based distance education programs work well also, and in countries with limited or costly Internet access, these are often a prefectly acceptable alternative. Again, though, check on the opportunities for interaction with instructors and other students  (e.g. through local learning centres).

4. Generally, you get what you pay for. Beware of really low-cost programs, because they will be cutting corners, probably by hiring poorly qualified instructors, and having little opportunity for interaction, unless they have a large subsidy from government or a charitable organization or donor. Remember, education is a ‘transactional’ process. You need good feedback, a chance to raise questions and get them promptly answered, and opportunities to discuss concepts and ideas with other students. This requires interaction with a person, even if remotely, and this is expensive. Some high cost programs may have scholarships or bursaries for people with low income who qualify for admission. Also, remember that although tuition costs may be high, studying at a distance saves costs on accommodation away from home and costs of travel to campus.

The Commonwealth of Learning also provides a very useful set of guidelines for students contemplating choosing an online program.

Distance Education programs

Many public education systems provide comprehensive lists of online programs available for the public institutions within their system. In general (although there are always exceptions) programs on these sites are pretty reliable.

BCCampus Provides a list of fully online programs available from institutions in the province of British Columbia, Canada. Note however that programs from the University of British Columbia or Simon Fraser University (the two largest providers of distance education programs in the province) are not listed here.

eCampus Alberta provides a similar service for Alberta, Canada.

Canadian Virtual University(CVU) is an association of nine Canadian (public, accredited) universities specializing in online and distance education. The members of CVU between them offer over 300 degrees, diplomas and certificates and 2,000 courses online or through distance education. You can mix and match courses from different universities to suit your needs. You can take one or more online courses and transfer credits to your university anywhere in Canada or around the world; or start courses online before coming to Canada, then complete your degree at a Canadian campus or finish it completely from home.

Southern Regional Education Board’s Academic Common Market provides a similar service for learners in 19 states in the Southern USA.

The Degree Experts site provides a selective list of both public and private universities in the USA offering distance education programs, but many of the main public universities, such as Penn State and the University of Maryland University College, offering distance education programs, are not included. Again, do due diligence on any of the institutions on the Degree Experts site that you may be interested in.

If you know of other sites that provide an extensive list of reputable distance education programs, please let me know:

Please note: I cannot and will not enter into discussions about the quality of any particular distance education program, except those at the institutions in which I have worked (all of which, of course, I would recommend!).


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