8 Criteria for Choosing an Online Degree Program

When Eddie Schepp started shopping for an online degree, the lieutenant at the Fairlawn, OH, Fire Department did his homework first. He realized that finding the right program and institution would require a roadmap of sorts to succeed.

"I already have an associate's degree in fire protection technology; however, I wanted to move up the proverbial corporate ladder," he says. "I recognized the need for more management and business knowledge, so I started looking into programs that were known more for their corporate and public safety academics as opposed to a program that was built on the fire science platform."

Schepp's research narrowed his degree field, which prompted the next question: Where do I find the right online institution? Many others get to this point with little help other than a Google search and a recommendation from a coworker. According to the Sloan Consortium, an organization dedicated to online education, more than 3.5 million students took at least one online course during the 2006 fall semester -- a staggering number representing 20% of all higher education courses. If you are searching for a quality online higher education institution, you have many options beyond specific degree programs to consider. In some ways, the choice is similar to the ageless question: What is the best pumper: The answers are always somewhat subjective. However, applying some measured research will narrow your choices, which should provide you with a "right fit."

Deciding which is the best college or university for you is an orderly process of due diligence. The questions posed in this article will allow you to winnow your list of prospective schools to a manageable handful that will undoubtedly suit your academic needs.

  1. Is the college or university accredited?

    Accreditation for college and universities in the United States is provided by 19 institutional accrediting organizations that ensure quality programs for 7,000 institutions. These organizations are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). The accrediting organizations also review 17,000 programs. The federal and CHEA partnership empowers the 19 accrediting organizations with the task of ensuring that member institutions maintain an acceptable quality of education. These organizations are not mere paper tigers; they have been known to strike fear in the hearts of many college administrators when an accreditation committee visits an institution to audit its operations.

    A searchable list of accrediting organizations for distance education is available from the department's National Center for Education Statistics website. While this database provides initial direction, you need to arm yourself with other tools to determine which institution is right for you.

    To assist you, the College Board, which is a non-profit organization, and whose mission "is to connect students to college success and opportunity" offers basic tips for searching from among its more than 5,200 schools, colleges, universities and other educational organizations:

    • Size of the student body -- This is an indicator of student-teacher ratio and often the number of programs offered.
    • Location -- Especially important for traditional classroom students, an institution's location has little relevance to the virtual classroom of e-learning.
    • Academic programs -- A major area of concern for firefighters looking to continue their careers.
    • Campus life -- This is usually not a consideration for the student at a distance.
    • Cost -- This undoubtedly is a concern for all college students, but it should not be the main factor. An expensive program does not make it better and vice versa.
    • Diversity -- This goes to the institution's philosophy of student enrollment.
    • Retention and graduation rates -- Shows how valuable the student is as a customer. All institutions want these numbers high, but not all students stay in a program or pass all classes.
  2. Is the course of study reputable?

    In today's highly competitive business of higher education, a number of unscrupulous private institutions have found a winning formula for their bottom-line success: everyone passes -- sometimes with an A average. This might be a good business strategy, but it fails the student as an educational goal. The notion of student-driven learning is valid and useful in learning at a distance. However, when an institution accepts substandard work from students to perpetuate its existence, no amount of quasi theory justifies this lack of standards. It only harms the student by not preparing him or her for future real-life challenges on the fireground or before government decision makers.

    One reputable online program of study for firefighters is offered by the U.S. Fire Administration, dubbed "FESHE" (for Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education). Making its full debut this year, this two- or four-year program is available at seven accredited regional colleges and universities. It is designed for the fire professional aspiring to earn either an associate or baccalaureate degree in fire officer or fire prevention concentrations. Dr. Younes Mourchid, who administers the FESHE program at Cogswell Polytechnical College, CA, was part of the curriculum design team that developed the 13-class program of study. The 13-year veteran of online education bristles at the notion that the curriculum was crafted with any sense of marketing in mind.

    "The marketing of this program has nothing to do with its content," he says. "It is designed using the constructivist model." This model accentuates research findings that knowledge is built within each individual's mind, especially when applied to problem-solving tasks. It eschews the notion of learning built on rote memorization or a sequence of tasks. "Our concern was to have the content as close to reality, in the field, that was possible. This is a good way to connect with the learner," he says.

  3. What is the schedule?

    When talking with an admission counselor, make sure to find out whether the courses constituting the program are available several times a year or must be taken sequentially. This is especially important if you are bringing some college credit to the table. If you are unable to fill the gaps in a program's scheduled courses without waiting a year for their offering, then that two-year degree might take three.

    Also, an admission counselor might make some promises that an institution will later want to modify, so get any promises in writing. This will alleviate any misunderstanding once you have been accepted to an institution. Make the most out of the written medium e-mails offer and create separate folders for correspondence with those institutions you are considering.

  4. Will your credits transfer?

    One of the frustrations some firefighters experience is when their education and training paths do not intersect. For example, a 40-hour course in codes and standards at a local vocational-technical institute provides the desired certification, but might not meet the needs of some colleges offering fire science degrees. A little planning can save you the mind-numbing and expensive task of re-taking a course because it is not acceptable to the college you would like to attend. This is not to say that local institutions offering state or national certification should be excluded from your mix of coursework. However, make sure that you can articulate these certificates for college-level credit. But you're not interested in going to college? Never say never, because all situations and careers change.

  5. What modality of instruction does the program offer?

    Not all online courses are free from the constraints of meeting your class at a specific time and location. This blended approach to an asynchronous online education can be a challenge for firefighters and shift schedules. A prime consideration when looking at a program or institution is to determine if the instruction is blended or totally asynchronous -- without constraints of specific time or place of instruction. Without the requirement to log in for a specified discussion once a week, you will reduce the possibility that you might be on a call or engaged in an important family event at that specific time.

  6. What is the instructor's availability?

    As with most educational experiences, the instructor's influence in the class is pivotal to its outcome. Instructors, to a greater extent in the online modality, need to be accessible. A good rule of thumb for instructor replies to e-mails is a maximum of 24 hours, but even that much of a break in feedback can be perilous to a student with an imminent issue in need of resolve.

    Schepp has some insight here: "Ask questions about the instructor's availability. This is to be an interactive course of study -- one that includes dialogue between student and teacher. I wanted a program that was more than a self-study course where someone sends you a packet of material and says 'go at it.' Get instructor availability input from other students, both past and current."

    At present, no professional qualifications exist solely for teachers plying their trade in the virtual classroom. However, research suggests that some instructors who have not been schooled in e-learning practices and procedure are reluctant to teach in this modality. Research your target institution's instructor qualifications and backgrounds in online education. Because as educational author Parker Palmer writes in his 1998 book The Courage to Teach, good teaching requires instructors who are present in their classes and deeply committed to their learning communities. This is especially significant in the online environment.

  7. How easy to use is the course software?

    Some colleges and universities allow prospective students to test drive their learning management software (LMS). This is as important as selecting the best pumper, because without some familiarity with the software, you might not like its performance once you make the commitment to use it.

    Along these lines, sometimes a professor will allow you to preview a sample syllabus. This is exceedingly useful in determining the objectives and course requirements. For example, if you see that a private fire protection systems course syllabus requires you to visit a commercial construction site as a sprinkler system is being installed, and you live in a rural area with little commercial growth, you might not want to take this course. The syllabus should spell out all the course requirements, timelines, textbooks, grading criteria and other crucial information required of the student. In Schepp's case, he applied strict criteria that did not disappoint him. "For my college classes, software including Microsoft Word, Excel, Access and PowerPoint were an absolute necessity," he says. "Also, I asked what programs unique to the university are necessary to participate in the courses."

    Further, research resources must be easily available because the Dewey Decimal System and card catalog are not in the lexicon of the e-learner. "You should ask what kind of resources the university provides. How easy is it to access the university library? Are Internet reference sites, such as Lexis-Nexis Academic, EBSCO or the Electronic Journal Center, accessible to the online student? Is tutoring available, and, if so, what are the requirements for tutoring and the associated hours of availability?"

  8. Does the college or university offer adequate technical assistance?

    Technology is the lifeblood of online education. Just as you might like the looks of a chrome-plated engine, without a serious centrifugal pump and diesel power plant to deliver a substantial supply of water, it rapidly becomes a museum piece. Likewise, you should not select a college just because the firehouse education guru says it is the best. So find out what sort of support is available for your unimpeded access to the class. Can you phone in at any hour and expect to talk to someone if you are having issues with your or the institution's hardware or software? The answer here should be obvious.

    As Schepp relates, some of the difficult choices are made prior to beginning an online class. But once you begin, each step toward your degree entices you further along the journey. "Getting a degree is like reading a book; the hardest part is starting, but once you get going, it gets harder to put it down the farther you read."

PAUL SNODGRASS is a firefighter with the Sarasota County, FL, Fire Department. He is an adjunct professor in fire science at Hillsborough Community College and teaches at Manatee Technical Institute and Sarasota County Technical Institute. Snodgrass is a former fire chief. He holds a bachelor's degree in political science from Augsburg College and a master's degree in adult and distance learning from the University of Phoenix. Snodgrass has designed and taught online courses for a variety of institutions and businesses. He can be reached at e.educational@gmail.com.