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Chapter IV: What Should You Look For in a School?

In Chapter III we talked about narrowing your focus and choosing schools that have programs and departments that fit your goals. As you move through the process of evaluating schools, your primary focus in choosing a program should always be quality.

That’s easily said, but how do you assess the overall quality of a school? Quality is a work in progress at every institution, and each school defines quality according to its own specific mission. However, the Online Learning Consortium has developed a guide by which an institution can measure its own progress and be gauged by others. The guide is known as the Five Pillars of Quality Online Education. Don’t let the title intimidate you. This framework is largely just common sense. It’s entirely fair, not to mention sensible, to ask your advisor any questions you have that involve these five pillars.

1. Learning Effectiveness
The school can demonstrate that online learning outcomes meet or exceed institutional, traditional programs.

2. Scale (Cost Effectiveness and Commitment)
The school continuously improves services while reducing cost.

3. Access
All adult learners who wish to learn online have the opportunity and can achieve success.

4. Faculty Satisfaction
Faculty achieves success with teaching online, citing appreciation and happiness.

5. Student Satisfaction
Adult learners are successful in learning online and are typically pleased with their experiences, including interaction with instructors and peers, learning outcomes that match expectations, services and orientation.

Each of these metrics is more fully developed than what we have presented here, but this provides a relatively quick and straightforward framework to help you think through your assessment. The entire document can be found at The Online Learning Consortium.

The Cohort Model – What It Is and Why It’s Important

 A cohort can be defined as a group whose progress is followed and measured at different points in time. At Linfield College, an adult learner who is enrolled in the nursing courses in the RN to BSN program, for example, would enroll as part of a cohort. This means that you join a group that  progresses through the same coursework together.

This is important because nearly every industry now asks employees to work in teams. The cohort model in the Linfield College RN to BSN program emphasizes this collaborative approach and provides adult learners a strong social support system. 

Maureen Fox, RN, BSN, Mixed Online Learning with World Travel

Maureen FoxMaureen Fox, RN, BSN, is a recent Linfield graduate who transferred her credits from her associate degree to Linfield and received credit for prior learning in recognition of her license as a registered nurse. She completed the Linfield RN to BSN program online, as a member of a cohort. In the final nursing course, Integrated Experiential Learning, Maureen carried out a Service Learning Experience in Kenya. While she could have met the assignment in her local community, Maureen chose to spend two weeks living and working with clients through a health care agency in Eldoret, Kenya with whom Linfield has an agreement. “Traveling internationally for service learning is a rare opportunity and one that I’ve long wanted to do,” Maureen said. “It was the right time for me. My children are older. I have vacation time, and I can afford it.” RN to BSN students journal about their encounters and insights while carrying out the service learning experience, and have online class discussions to support one another in meeting the service learning goals of the course. 

When Paying for Higher Education, Buyer Beware

Linfield College employs a “pay as you go” financial arrangement. This means that you pay for only the credits that you are taking that semester. You can pay the entire amount up front, or you can pay the balance on an installment plan. Some schools require that you pay all program costs up front. If you register for a four‐semester degree or certificate program, you may be committed to the entire program cost whether or not your interests change or you find the program not to your liking. Again, it pays to ask questions.

Is an Online Degree Legitimate?

One of the central components of legitimacy is this: the worth of the degree you earn online measured against a similar degree you can earn in a face‐to‐face environment. If you can determine that an online bachelor's degree measures well against a similar bachelor’s degree earned on a campus, you’ve answered the legitimacy question.

Now to answer the question directly: Yes, a degree that you earn online is legitimate. In every way that matters, a degree that you attain by taking classes online is legitimate if that degree has been awarded by a regionally accredited institution. Are there caveats? Yes, based on accreditation issues and variations inquality. Are there some who question the legitimacy of degrees acquired online? Yes, but the number of dissenting voices are few and continue to drop every year. 

Are learning outcomes in online comparable to face-to-face?

Over 82% of academic leaders in U.S. institutions of higher learning that offer online education, rate the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face instruction.

“Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States,” 2013, Babson Survey Research Group with data collection in partnership with the College Board.

Michael FloreaMichael Florea did have concerns about legitimacy when he was considering a college for completing his bachelor’s degree.  Now a graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Information Systems, he is Senior VP and Chief Information Officer of Columbia Credit Union in Vancouver, Washington.  “With the reputation Linfield has, my degree has given me advancement opportunities in my career.”

The online BIS program is designed with career advancement in mind. Martin Dwomoh-Tweneboah, Chair of Linfield’s Computer Science Department, says: “We belong to alliances with Microsoft and Oracle that equip our students with industry strength software for success in our online Business Information Systems courses.” This type of cutting-edge mentality has benefitted BIS students like Michael Florea.

Interesting Historical Fact

 British physicist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. 
The date? 1989.

Chapter V: An Interactive World: A New, Dynamic Way to Live and Learn Emerges

During the fall of 2013, more than seven million people were enrolled in an online class in colleges and universities in the United States, according to the Babson Survey Research Group’s report, “Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States, I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, 2014. The report on tracking online education in the U.S. has been compiled every year since 2002. The enrollment in online classes in fall 2013 represents an increase of 6 percent over the previous year. To understand the dramatic growth in online learning, since 2002, there has been a compound annual growth rate of 16.1 percent in students taking online courses. For comparison, the overall higher education student body has grown at an annual rate of 2.5 percent during this same period – from 16.6 million in fall 2002 to 21.3 million for fall 2012.” (Allen and Seaman, pg 15, 2014). The proportion of students enrolled in colleges and universities who are taking at least one online course stands at 33.5 percent.

In a new national survey by the Pew Research Center to mark the 25th anniversary of the Web,  "The Web at 25 in the U.S.," Susannah Fox and Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Internet Project report, “The overall verdict: the internet has been a plus for society and an especially good thing for individual users.”

The rapid growth of the internet has had a significant impact on how people learn, which is the focus of this guide.

Online learning now has a potentially huge and rapidly growing audience in higher education more sophisticated tools, and a more user‐friendly and interactive platforms. All of which means a far richer and deeper experience awaits adventurous online learners and educators.

Online learning has the ability to connect ideas and people to one another and to deliver information to anyone, anywhere, and at any time.

Depending on course design, online learners in colleges might participate in discussion groups with fellow learners of wide and varied experiences who could be anywhere in the world. They might watch videos and create some of their own. They might listen to or create podcasts; upload their creative work for feedback from classmates and their instructor; share their thoughts, feelings, and opinions on relevant subject matter via discussion boards; visit websites and blogs, and engage in a robust back‐and‐forth exchange with an instructor. They may collaborate in teams while running a business simulation or conduct research at the British Museum. Times really have changed.

Information Currency – A Growing Variety of Source Materials

It used to be that knowledge was disseminated through traditional channels: textbooks, journals, and other types of scholarly publications. All of that has changed. One of the great advantages of online learning is immediacy and variety. Academic papers, breaking news, articles by innovative thinkers and journalists, and video lectures are all available instantly. Far gone are the days when it took nearly two years for a published article or a breakthrough idea to make its way to readers. 

Adult Learners and Students - Readers and Writers

Earlier in this e‐book we discussed the concept of the guide at the side and the sage on the stage. We pointed out the distinction between the traditional lecture format and the guide at the side who facilitates self‐learning and discovery of knowledge. 

In part, it is the guide‐side phenomenon – that quality of self‐direction, motivation, and responsibility – that online learning demands and that drives the use of the word “learner” instead of “student” in many discussions of online learning. This is not to suggest that students are not learners or vice versa, only that the online environment suggests a distinction.

Jennifer Rhafir: Online Learner

Jennifer enrolled in the Bachelor of Science degree program in Marketing at Linfield, while caring for her infant daughter. With her husband’s support, she knew that earning her degree would open up career opportunities that could better the life of their family. She learned the value of initiating contact with her professors and classmates in order to further her ability to learn within the class framework. “Sometimes I have to take it upon myself to research exactly what I’m looking for and it’s made me a stronger learner,” she said. “I’ve become a stronger researcher, and I know that if I’m not comprehending something, that I have the tools to go out and find exactly what I’m looking for,” she continued.

While increasingly there is a rich, multimedia aspect to online learning, much of the online learning experience still involves reading and writing. Online learning makes for better readers and writers simply because the process is largely text based and demands clarity of thought and expression. Online learners should expect to read and write a great deal.

Context and Community – Merging the Virtual and the Real

The online learning community is unusual in that participants are generally a bit older than average college-age students and are career based. The average age of an online student at Linfield College is thirty‐ seven. That means that on any given day in any given class, the potential exists for a truly varied and exciting network of adult learners who bring a rich mix of life, work, and personal experiences to the group. The cross‐pollination of cultures, ideas, strategies and new ways of thinking alter our understanding of what a community of adult learners looks like and acts like.

Chapter VI: Legitimacy: Accreditation and Reputation

One distinction about accreditation should be understood at the outset. For degree seekers, accreditation is critically important.

mortarboard and diplomaThe reason is that accreditation confers value and worth. Accreditation equals legitimacy. Any college must have accreditation from an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education to be eligible to participate in the administration of federal student aid programs. The gold standard is regional accreditation.  Regionally accredited institutions do not accept credits earned at unaccredited colleges.  Attending a regionally accredited school is an important consideration if you think you might want to transfer credits to another school. Virtually all graduate schools require graduation from a regionally accredited school. In the eyes of potential employers in government, science, law, academia, health care, business, and every other field imaginable, the accredited degree that you worked so hard to earn is accepted, recognized, and respected.

Imagine learning that after years of hard work, the degree you earned is not recognized or accepted by potential employers. It can and does happen.

Regional Accrediting Bodies

There are six regional accrediting bodies that have been evaluated and approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

Middle States Commission on Higher Education

New England Association of Schools and Colleges

North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the Higher Learning Commission

Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools

The Western Association of Schools and Colleges has two separate commissions; one for senior colleges and universities and one for community and junior colleges.

WASC - Senior College and University Commission

WASC - Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges

Questions to Ask

With regard to accreditation, there are two key questions that you need to ask as you evaluate a college or university.

  1. Is the school of my choice accredited by one of the six regional accrediting bodies listed above?
  2. Is the program I am interested in recognized by its relevant professional association?

Linfield College is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and offers three undergraduate degrees, Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

In the latest edition of "America's Best Colleges" published by U.S. News & World Report, Linfield College has been listed alongside the best liberal arts colleges in the United States, which confirms Linfield's growing excellence as a selective undergraduate college.

The online degree program at Linfield College was rated one of the Best Online Bachelor's Degree Programs in the nation in a recently released U.S. News & World Report survey.  Linfield was one of only four schools in the Pacific Northwest included in the rankings. The rankings are based on criteria which include student engagement with faculty and classmates; faculty credentials and training; peer reputation; diverse online learning technologies that allow students greater flexibility; and student services that provide a strong support structure.

Professional Accreditation

When considering earning a degree in nursing, professional accreditation is essential. A learner attending Linfield College’s RN to BSN program is attending a regionally accredited college and a nursing program offered by The Linfield–Good Samaritan School of Nursing that is approved by the Oregon State Board of Nursing and accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). The college and the nursing program are both accredited.

 State Authorization

States expect colleges and universities that are located outside of the state to be in compliance with the relevant state office that authorizes higher education, prior to performing any activities such as advertising or enrolling students in distance education programs.  Some states have laws in place that require out-of-state schools to apply for and obtain authorization in order to enroll students into a distance education program.  Other states do not require authorization by out-of-state schools and therefore, schools are exempt when enrolling students in distance education programs.

State authorization is part of consumer protection and is important to know about when you are exploring enrolling in an online degree program. Upon request the school must make available for review, a copy of the documents describing the school’s accreditation and its State, Federal, or tribal approval or licensing. The school must also provide you with contact information for filing complaints with its accreditor and with its State approval or licensing entity and any other relevant State official or agency that would appropriately handle a student's complaint.

Most schools’ websites will have a section devoted to State Authorization that will provide you with a list of states in which the school is "Authorized" or "Exempt" from authorization.  If the school is "authorized" by the state where you have your legal residence, it means that all degree programs being offered are approved and may be taken by out-of-state students who enroll in distance education programs at that school.  If the school is "exempt" by the state, it means that the school may enroll students in distance education programs and they are not subject to the state's rules and regulations.

“In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education issued a regulation tying an institution's ability to offer federal financial aid in a state to the institution being authorized in the student's state. The regulation was subsequently "vacated" by federal court ruling and is not currently being enforced. The Department is currently in the process of reinstating the regulation. Regardless of the status of the federal regulation, states still expect institutions to follow their laws and regulations,” according to WCET, a division of the Western Commission for Interstate Higher Education.

The Linfield College web page on State Authorization is updated regularly and provides you with an example of the information that you will want to know before you enroll in an online degree program.

How To Evaluate the Student Experience

Most schools that offer online courses offer technical support, virtual library support for research, advising services, online academic tutoring, and so on. The quality of that support, from your initial inquiries to questions that may come up once you are enrolled, are key indicators of the level of commitment that the school has toward adult learners.

Responsive faculty – teachers who promptly respond to communication from their students in the online classroom – are another indicator of a supportive, student‐oriented institution. On to Chapter VII. How does all this work, and what does it all look like?