The 6 Questions to Ask About Flexibility in Online Degree Programs

Experts say prospective online learners should research their course scheduling options for each semester and the hours that student services are accessible. (Getty Images)
For Dana Thompson, who lives in the Washington, D.C. area, finding an online master’s program in social work that was flexible enough to supplement her life outside the classroom was key.
The 50-year-old – who ultimately enrolled in MSW@USC, the online graduate social work program offered through the University of Southern California  turned to online learning because her husband was active in the military, and they moved often. On top of that, she worked part time while pursuing her degree and has three children.
“I was looking for a program that would give me a variety of times of day for the classes to occur because some programs only have evening classes available,” says Thompson, who earned her degree in August 2014. “And I needed to make sure I could flex it within the needs of my family.”
Like Thompson, many online learners balance their education with jobs and other responsibilities. Therefore, students should ensure an online degree program will allow them to work around their schedules and integrate online learning into the rest of their lives.
“Flexibility would be probably the primary reason why anyone would even consider an online program,” says Christine Shakespeare, assistant vice president for continuing and professional education at Pace University. “And that’s because flexibility allows for people to juggle multiple priorities.”
As prospective online learners consult school websites and speak with online students, faculty and officials to select a best-fit program, experts say they should ask the following questions.
1. Are classes live, self-paced or both? From a scheduling perspective, experts say, a class that is asynchronous, or self-paced, is generally more flexible than one that’s synchronous, requiring students to be in class at a predesignated time on a certain day. Some programs combine both formats.
Still, synchronous learning allows for more student-faculty interaction and networking, Shakespeare says. Prospective online students should decide whether greater flexibility outweighs these benefits.
2. What are your options for building a semester’s course schedule? Experts suggest that prospective online students understand the different ways they can construct their course schedules each semester.
Prospective online students might ask, for instance, whether there’s flexibility in how many classes they must enroll in per semester and the amount of time it takes to complete the entire program, as well as when semesters begin and end and if there are shortened or accelerated options. 
They might also want to know which courses to take concurrently based on content and rigor.
“It becomes a bit of a complex puzzle for them sometimes because they’re not able to devote going to school full time,” says Jordi Getman-Eraso, a consortial faculty member at the CUNY School of Professional Studies, which offers online degrees and certificates.
3. At what times of day are student services available? Online students might be located anywhere in the world, so access to services such as tech support, career counseling and librarian assistance at various hours is critical, Shakespeare says. Experts say to check how flexible these hours are for online students.
Mari Moxley, who recently earned her bachelor’s degree online through Pennsylvania State University—World Campus, says students should also be aware of the time zone they are in and which time zone their school is in, which can impact accessibility.
“If you’re working a full day, and you need to get a hold of tech support or a teacher, what time is their close of business versus what time is your close of business?” Moxley says. 
4. Are there in-person test-taking or other requirements? Many online learners pursue online education because they can complete classes wherever they are, experts say. So learning whether there’s a clinical or internship component or an in-person exam is crucial to determining how accessible a program is for a specific student.
When it comes to exams, James Andrews, director of external programming at West Texas A&M University, suggests asking whether tests are proctored online or at a testing center, for instance, and what the technical requirements are.
5. Do you have the option to come to campus for resources or particular courses?Students who live near a school might wish to see if they have the flexibility to access certain resources or classes offered on the physical campus, particularly for disciplines that might not be as suited to online education, Shakespeare says.
“Sometimes we’ve had students who’ve decided they wanted to come to campus to meet with us, or they want to use the library as a study place during a certain time, or in the rare case, have said, ‘I really want to take this dance class,'” Shakespeare says.
6. Will previously earned credits easily transfer? Part of an online program’s flexibility, Shakespeare says, is the ability to piece together course credits from past academic and professional experience. Moxley, who gained some course credits through military experience, agrees.
As an adult online learner, “You’re going to have a lot of real-world experience, and you might have credits from all different places that a school might be willing to consider,” Moxley says.
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.