Contributor Charles Choi
As well as the convenience of an online course, key to a course’s viability is whether the institution offering it is accredited. “I have students email me from all over who, for whatever reason, can’t take biochemistry at their own institution and are looking for alternatives. Because the University of Buffalo is an accredited institution, other institutions are willing to accept students taking our courses,” says Lara Hutson, a research assistant professor at the University of Buffalo.
The issue of accreditation is a significant consideration when it comes to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered by companies such as Coursera. MOOCs are typically free, offering a whole curriculum of written material and online videos. However, they usually do not offer credit.
“MOOCs are a huge growth area across the world, but it remains to be seen how much of that experiment is going to work out,” says Chris Taylor, engagement manager at the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education in the United Kingdom. “A key issue when it comes to MOOCs is how assessment of students will work and the accreditation given to them. They don’t give rise to any recognized higher-education qualification.”
If someone does want to learn only through MOOCs, they should consider whether they want academic credit for professional development, Taylor explained. “No-one wants students to spend time on something that doesn’t get them wherever they want to go.”
Cost is another factor in choosing online science courses. “I have a lot of students who are applying to graduate school or another pre-professional program and who only need one course, biochemistry, as the condition to enter,” explained Lara Hutson, a research assistant professor at the University of Buffalo. “By taking the online course, they don’t have to register for the full semester but can pay per credit hour, which is not too expensive.”
The convenience and cost of online science courses may help redress the projected shortage of future scientists. The Department of Commerce has estimated there will be about 7.6 million US STEM graduates by 2018, about a million fewer than employers are expected to require. More than 60 per cent of potential STEM majors in the US currently fail to achieve a STEM degree, perhaps due to a lack of time and money. STEM courses typically cost more than non-STEM classes because of smaller class sizes, labs that require expensive equipment and maintenance overheads. These costs mean many students need a job to pay for courses, and work schedules can interfere with good grades.
Another factor to consider is the reputation of the institution that is offering the course, which we’ll explore next week. Just like you might consider the reputation of the brick-and-mortar institutions you apply to, the same consideration should be taken when choosing an online course.