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How to Choose an Online University

By Hillary Frattini

How many times have you considered studying online, but felt insecure about the quality of the course, or overwhelmed by the options available? Trust me, I have been there. In this article, I will be sharing my tips on how to choose an online university course.

Firstly, I thought it would be useful to give you an insight into my background so that you can understand where I come from and my choices. Hopefully, you will be able to relate to my story and understand why I value specific tips over others.

After earning my high school diploma, I was unsure whether to pursue higher education or to start working. At the time, the reputation of online degrees was still undervalued, so I barely considered e-learning as a choice and focused on traditional institutions only.

I also wanted to study in English, but because it is not my first language, I was not confident with my level at the time. I ended up choosing to travel for work rather than going to university. With the benefit of hindsight, today I can say that my choice turned out to be the right one. But it was a hard decision to make at the time – I was sure that I would have never gone back to studying!

I was 21 years old when I left my home country and believed that I was already too old to enrol at university – the power of public opinion! However, my mind would not stop teasing the idea of getting a degree. My desire to travel and discover the world was stronger than any other; I often found myself exploring university courses available in the area I was in at the time, then putting them aside and concentrating on choosing my next destination.

For four years, I continued to postpone the start of my academic journey, partly because I found excuses, partly because I still needed to mature enough to be able to take on this responsibility. When I finally grew tired of spinning around the world like a pinwheel – and I also found myself in a city that I liked – that was when I started thinking about university more seriously.

Though my desire for travelling was dormant, I knew it would soon rouse from lethargy. It was clear to me that considering an online degree would be the best option, as it would allow me to move around without worrying about interrupting my studies. And finally, here we are at why I decided to write this article, to share my tips on how to approach choosing an online university course. Let us not linger, and jump straight into my recommendations!

Language should never be an obstacle

If you want to study in English to broaden your possibilities of international employability, you should not preclude yourself from doing so, just because you are not currently satisfied with your English level. Take the time to improve your English skills. You do not have to travel to do so – though it does speed up the process!

You can consider taking an English course online while focusing on watching movies, reading books, and listening to music in English at the same time. There are also apps that you can download on your phone, which allow you to chat with an international community willing to learn your mother tongue while teaching you theirs!

Consistency and perseverance always pay off – different people may gain different results in more or less time, but what matters is to improve enough to be able to understand academic texts and produce intelligible written documents in English. It does not have to be perfect, bear in mind that a university degree in itself is also an opportunity to refine your English!

Do it with purpose

If you decide to enrol at university because all your friends have a degree, or because statistics say that those with a degree have higher chances of employability, you may have valid points, but they will scarcely help you to succeed.

Take time to think about your passions and interests, and what would you like to accomplish through them. The start is necessary, the finish is rewarding, but the journey is what makes the difference. Do it because you are seriously intent on gaining knowledge on that specific subject. Do it for the sake of self-improvement.

There is a risk that you will load your experience with expectations that will never solidify, because you spent too much time thinking about the beginning and the possible outcome, but not enough to remember that there is an entire course that requires your time and energies.

Statistics may prevent wrong decisions

A study conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign delineated factors that may lead to the dropping out of online courses. I only highlight a few in this blog, but you can check out the entire paper here. Financial difficulties, schedule conflicts, job responsibilities and family problems are a few examples of the main factors that lead students to quit an online programme before completion.

It is essential to be objective with your current situation. We often make the mistake of taking on initiatives based on how we would like our life to be and not based on how it is. If you wish to study, but you have some difficulties now, do not rush the process.

Set priorities and focus on sorting out whatever is preventing you from studying and apply for university only when you feel confident enough with your schedule. I’m discussing factors that are known at the time you decide to start your academic journey and not those that may occur once you are enrolled at university already; unpredictable events shouldn’t prevent you from trying to get a degree!

Get ready for what awaits you

The challenges faced by online students are isolation, self-motivation, self-imposed academic discipline, dissatisfaction with the course design, and lack of instructor understanding of online learners – you can read the full report on this here.

As a student enrolled with University of Essex Online, I can relate to the issues of isolation, self-imposed academic discipline, and motivation. As an online learner, you are responsible for organising your schedule effectively. You will likely attend fewer lectures compared to traditional learning environments and engaging with your peers will not be as easy as if you shared the same physical spaces. But whether these points are pros or cons depends on what type of academic experience you are seeking. Because I have other commitments, the course structure and independent work suit me perfectly.

Please note that, if you decide to enrol in an online programme, you will still have the chance to engage with people – the experience will just be different compared to a traditional face-to-face environment. For example, University of Essex Online does its best to deliver an engaging learning experience to students through social discussion forums, collaborative learning tasks, and extracurricular activities. I definitely feel part of an online community; I can work at my own pace, but I often have the opportunity to interact with other peers if I need to gain different perspectives.

Finally, in terms of engagement with the course design and instructors understanding of online learners, I must say I haven’t personally experienced an issue with this aspect. The tutors at University of Essex Online are highly qualified, and their lectures are always integrating the independent study that we undertake as online students. Also, the online learning platform which delivers all teaching is user-friendly and very interactive.

To avoid surprises, you may want to discuss the course design with the staff at your university of interest before sending an application. They may have webinars you can join, PowerPoint presentations, introductory videos, and other tools that you can use to understand better how courses are delivered.

Pour yourself a cup of tea, play your favourite music, and get ready for the research

Once you have pondered your choices and set your mind on the idea of applying for an online course, it is time to find the right institution for you. It can be quite tricky because the first options that may appear on your search engine can be those institutions that invest a lot in marketing, but scarcely on the product.

Choosing the right university for you will increase your chances to complete your degree successfully. So do not stress if you end up spending several weeks exploring the numerous alternatives available. Watch vlogs on Youtube, read articles related to the institution of interest, ask friends (they may not have direct experience with that university, but they may know someone who does), and get in touch with the staff at the university you are considering.

Gather as much information you can and compare your different choices. For example, University of Essex Online offers webinars that potential students can join to learn more about the course, tuition fees, career options, and other useful information. They also provide the opportunity to chat with Student Ambassadors via Unibuddy on their website. This is where potential students can get in touch with learners who are already enrolled at that university and ask questions about their personal experience with the institution. Use any tool available and be patient – it will be worth your while!

Why I chose University of Essex Online

University of Essex Online ended up being my choice because, since the first time I got in touch with one of their Admissions team members, I got clear and prompt answers. Although I did not meet their staff in person, I still felt that there was someone there for me, ready to help with any doubt or concern I had. This did not change once I started my course online – I have a Student Adviser designated to my department, who is always giving me her support. University of Essex Online also provides me with an authentic academic experience thanks to activities like the Journal Club and the Student Council, while also allowing me to organise my schedule and to study at my own pace.

Because I am satisfied with my experience with them so far, I used it as an example to highlight some of the characteristics that you may want to look for in an online university. However, I recommend following my tips and spending a good deal of time considering various options to find the right course for you.

The choice you are about to make is a difficult and important one, so whether you follow my recommendations or not, what matters is that you will end up being satisfied with your decision. I hope that I have helped to provide a fruitful starting point and useful guidelines to inform your research. It only remains for me to wish you an exciting academic adventure!

Hillary Frattini is completing a Psychology degree through the University of Essex. She is a passionate storyteller and adventurer, and she firmly believes that education is the key to a better future. Hillary has recently started working on combining her passions to represent the voices of her generation.  

This article was originally published on University of Essex Online’s Unibuddy blog: https://api.unibuddy.co/og/university-of-essex-online/blogs/5f98050212897f04378c5e44