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How to choose the best school for online degrees

An instructor stands behind a transparent white board and points to a series of math equations.

Oregon State University is a leader in delivering high-quality learning experiences to learners around the world — and Oregon State faculty help lead the innovative development process of rigorous online courses.

5 factors to help you determine what ‘quality’ really looks like for online learners

By Tyler Hansen

In the not-too-distant past, earning a degree online from an accredited university was a bizarre concept. The early days of the internet were dominated by chat rooms, pirated music downloads and that weird dancing baby, so the notion of colleges offering full academic programs via “The Net” seemed outlandish.

Now? There are so many institutions offering degrees online that your options are seemingly infinite, and it takes ample research to know which ones you should consider applying to.

This is a good thing.

It means you have a greater variety of reputable schools to choose from, plus more information at your disposal as you explore which programs align with your goals and standards.

And it means institutions like Oregon State University have put many years’ worth of effort into designing online learning experiences that engage and challenge students in transformative ways. At Oregon State Ecampus, we’re committed to infusing every online course with the level of quality you deserve.

But what do we mean by “quality”? It’s an important question to ask — and it’s an important one for us to answer. Knowing this information will help you determine which online education provider best meets your needs.

To guide you along your fact-finding mission, here are five specific things to look for as you evaluate the quality of an institution’s online learning experience.

1. The institution is credible

This starts with a simple, verifiable fact: Is the school accredited by an agency that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education? If yes, that’s great. Check that box.

Enrolling online at an institutionally accredited university like Oregon State will help ensure that the course credits, degree or credential you earn will be honored by future employers or if you apply or transfer to another institution nationwide.

Beyond accreditation, determine whether or not a school is well-respected within the landscape of online teaching and learning. Also, is it new to distance education? Building a high-quality infrastructure to deliver learning experiences online takes considerable time and collaboration. 

5 factors that contribute to ‘quality online education’

Any institution you consider applying to should possess these five traits and standards of excellence:
1. Credible
2. Rigorous
3. Innovative
4. Designed for online
5. Student-centered

One trait that distinguishes Oregon State Ecampus is the fact that, for more than 20 years, online students have been able to choose from the same offerings, learn from the same expert Oregon State faculty and earn the same degrees and credentials as OSU’s on-campus learners.

2. The online courses are rigorous and challenging

For many years, a common misconception stated that online learning was easier than face-to-face learning because learning online requires little effort on the student’s part.

This was — and is — a myth.

Online learning is not inherently easier than face-to-face learning. In fact, numerous studies over the years have shown no significant difference in learning outcomes between online and in-person courses and that learning online is as effective as in-person education.

With that in mind, you should expect to be challenged in the online classroom just as much as you would be in a face-to-face setting.

How does this play out in Oregon State’s online courses? It starts with the fact that OSU Ecampus courses have identical learning outcomes as the university’s on-campus classes. The difference is the delivery method, not the content or quality of the course.

Additionally, all Ecampus online courses are designed by Oregon State faculty to meet research-based, quality standards as defined by the Quality Matters organization.

3. There is a culture of innovation

Innovation is not about fancy technology or offering bells and whistles. It’s about introducing a new idea or creating a solution that positively impacts student learning.

How do you identify innovation in an online education provider? You can start by looking for universities that are doing things that others aren’t. Is there a specific program that is offered by only one or a few institutions? Can you find a school that is known for its pioneering contributions to the field of online teaching and learning?

When students in STEM disciplines faced barriers because certain lab experiences were not available online, Oregon State developed in-house solutions from the ground up. Working hand in hand with OSU faculty and departmental partners, Ecampus co-created a first-of-its-kind 3D virtual microscope for biology labs and an interactive chemistry lab platform.

Both won national awards for innovation, but that’s a footnote to the larger story. Said one OSU chemistry student after taking the online lab: “I would not have been able to take this class without the use of the online lab system and would not be able to progress further in my degree field.”

Samantha Diaz interviewPlay

In close partnership with Oregon State faculty members, the OSU Ecampus staff delivers innovative, cutting-edge learning experiences that didn’t exist until we created them.

4. The classes are specifically designed for online

Classes that are offered online should be built to be delivered online from start to finish. This is a simple concept, but it’s not a common practice.

Because the online classroom is its own unique teaching and learning environment, an online class deserves its own unique development process.

At Oregon State, we develop and redevelop every single online course — nearly 2,000 of them —in a collaborative, in-house process between OSU faculty members and Ecampus staff. Before that process can even begin, instructors take part in an extensive faculty training and development program.

Each faculty member works closely with an Ecampus instructional designer and multimedia developer to design their course. And each class is customized to align with the instructor’s subject matter expertise as well as best practices in online teaching.

This comprehensive process differs greatly from the emergency remote learning that many students experienced on Zoom during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, it is a unique approach that aims to produce a high-quality course intentionally designed for the online realm. 

5. Students are the focus — always

Even as an online learner, you should feel a sense of community from and with your university. The distance between you creates some inherent challenges to engagement, but a learner-centered approach can overcome those challenges.

What does this look like in practice? With Oregon State Ecampus, you’ll have access to a full suite of services that includes dedicated enrollment specialists who can answer application, admissions and financial aid questions; academic advisors who support your every step and a student success team that offers one-on-one coaching sessions, free tutoring, course registration guidance, and exam proctoring assistance among other resources.

Putting students at the forefront is not a trailblazing position to take. But as an online learner, you deserve a team of professionals that understands and can meet your unique learning needs.

These learner-centered tactics will help create an authentic sense of engagement with your classmates, instructors and support network no matter where you live.

“Some of the student support resources that I used the most included the success coaching,” said Katharina Staudt, who earned a business administration degree online. “They were amazing and helped me find my internship, which just made me feel like they really cared from day one to the end of my degree.”


Keep exploring and moving forward

Now that you’ve had an introduction to what high-quality online education looks like, you’re ready to enter the next phase of the journey. Learn more about Oregon State’s online degrees and programs, and discover how we uphold these quality pillars.

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