Sharon Clark's favorite time to take her abnormal-psychology class is while the roast is cooking.
She heads over to the study of her Myrtle Beach, S.C., ranch house, sits down at her computer and starts responding to questions that her professor -- 2,000 miles away, at Brigham Young University in Utah -- has posted as part of the online course she's taking.
"I don't have to worry about picking up the kids, driving home from work, getting dinner ready and then rushing out the door and fighting traffic to make a class on time," says Clark, a mother of three. "Once I'm home, I can start dinner and then go to the study."
Clark, 40, first got the distance-education bug eight years ago and since then has taken online classes from Tidewater Community College, Old Dominion University and Norfolk State University in Virginia, the University of Maryland, the University of Colorado and Colorado State University -- and now Brigham Young. All those classes, plus a few traditional "face-to-face" ones, are about to earn her a liberal arts degree from the online-only Excelsior College. And then it's onward to an MBA. "I can't stop," she says.
Along the way, Clark has learned what to avoid in the online classroom. Top of her list: "Professors who are slow to respond, slow to grade assignments and don't post to the class on a regular basis." Coming in a close second: students who don't help one another out. "If there's not any involvement between the students, then we've got a situation."
As the number of students taking online classes continues to grow at a furious pace, Clark represents a trend within the trend: students who know the ingredients of a good online class, who are picky about which ones they sign up for and who will drop a class if the teacher turns out to be a dud. They are an emergent student bloc, the educated consumers of online education.
Nearly 3 million students are believed to be taking online classes at institutions of higher education in the United States this year, according to a report from the Sloan Consortium, an authoritative source of information about online higher education. The explosive rate of growth -- now about 25 percent a year -- has made hard numbers a moving target. But according to Sloan, virtually all public higher education institutions, as well as a vast majority of private, for-profit institutions, now offer online classes. (By contrast, only about half of private, nonprofit schools offer them.) Sloan tracks degree-granting institutions, but no one's keeping tabs on the thousands of corporate and vocational e-learning programs.
What's fueling this growth? Online classes are much more convenient, particularly for people who work full time or have families. The costs to students are typically the same as for traditional classes -- and financial aid is equally available -- while the cost to the institution can be much less. And the Sloan report, based on a poll of academic leaders, says that students generally appear to be at least as satisfied with their online classes as they are with traditional ones. In addition, the academic leaders say they believe the quality of online learning is equal to or superior to face-to-face instruction.
But there's still at least one big way in which online classes lag behind traditional ones: For most students, picking an online class is much more of a crapshoot.
When you walk into a traditional college classroom, it's often easy to tell what you're in for. If the students look interested, the teacher is energetic and there's a lot of informed back-and-forth, chances are that you've found yourself a winner. But how do you tell if an online class is any good? What clues should you look for in a virtual classroom? And how can you make sure that the class isn't a horrible, confusing and depressing bore? The answer, offered by students, teachers and academics studying the field, is surprisingly simple: It's almost all about the teacher.
Seek Out Engaged Teachers
You should look for signs that the teacher is involved, personable, tough, experienced -- and able to convey those attributes in the online medium.
By contrast, a bored and autocratic teacher who may be new to the online experience and see the Internet as nothing more than a modern mimeograph machine can make the class deeply unpleasant.
"One of the things that I found is that if your professor is not participating in the class in a regular manner, that makes it real hard," Clark says. "There's really no way to make an accounting course fun, but the professors who are participating in the class and responding to your comments, those are the professors that really make it worth your while."
"A good teacher explains things," says Colleen Andrews, 33, of Parma, Ohio. Andrews works in the finance department of a hospital and is getting an online bachelor's degree in accounting at the national for-profit Kaplan University (which is owned by The Washington Post Co.). "They have office hours. If you e-mail them that you're having problems, they're receptive," Andrews says. "A bad teacher, they're, like, 'Here's the assignment, you figure it out.'"
Check for Clear Rules of Engagement
The heart of an online class is generally a mechanism not unlike the message boards that you find on many Web sites. The professor will post a new topic -- or thread -- and students are expected to respond and engage in a back-and-forth. Improperly managed, the threads can explode into anarchy or go deadly silent.
Professors need to be skilled and assertive in managing the discussions, says Ray Schroeder, a veteran online teacher at the University of Illinois at Springfield who runs the best-known blog now tracking developments in online education. "There's a carrot and a stick," says Schroeder. If the conversation starts to stray off topic, he says, the instructor should post a note saying, "Well, we've talked enough about that; realize that your grade for this week is based on your responses, and let's get back to the topic."
Experienced students agree that if you know what to look for you can tell a lot about a class right away. If the instructor is actively participating and student postings are responsive and concise, you're probably in good shape. If not, it may be time to withdraw and get a refund. Schroeder says that, at most universities, students have about two weeks to drop classes without penalty.
Look for Experience
The more sophisticated consumers of online education avoid novice online teachers and brand-new courses. Who wants to be a guinea pig? "If the thing is being offered for the first time, watch out," says Frank Mayadas, who heads the Sloan Consortium.
"Look for the teacher who has the most online experience," says Mike Evanchik, who teaches in the University of Maryland University College's MBA program. "Anybody who's been a teacher can tell you: The first time you teach a class is not as good as you'd like." Teachers with several years of such experience are the best bet, he says.
Similarly, it's probably not a great idea to take a course that is being offered online for the first time. Even a great classroom curriculum can require some serious tweaking to work in cyberspace.
Watch Class Size
Mayadas says that the ideal online class size is about the same as in a classroom: around 20. "If it's five, I would tend to be a little suspicious. An online thing with five people might be a disaster, especially if one guy's asleep and the other's working and there's no one to discuss anything with." On the other extreme, "at some point you've got so many messages flying around you can't keep up with it." Mayadas says that when a class is larger than 35 students, it's best to divide into teams.
In theory, online classes have the potential to be more transparent to a would-be student than traditional ones. Institutions could simply offer students a peek into a previous class's message boards. But it turns out that, in practice, this is rarely allowed.
So the next best thing is word of mouth. "You kind of want to ask around," says Clark. Try to find a student who's taken the class before. Barring that, Clark says, it's worth calling the school and speaking with an academic adviser. "They can put you in touch with students who've taken that teacher, or they might have access to the surveys. You can get a lot done through a phone call."
"Talk to students," says Mayadas. "To me, that's very primary."
Make Contact Ahead of Time
Because so much of a class's success seems to be wrapped up in the teacher's character and responsiveness, here's one last trick: E-mail your professor beforehand, and see what kind of response you get.
Evelyn Beck, who's been teaching English at Piedmont Technical College in Greenwood, S.C., for almost 15 years -- five of them online -- says that's a fair test.
"I often get a lot of e-mails before the semester starts, asking what we'll be doing. If I sort of gave them a terse e-mail back -- 'You'll see when the semester starts' -- that would probably be a bad sign."
Dan Froomkin, a longtime education reporter, is deputy editor of NiemanWatchdog.org. and writes the White House Briefing column for washingtonpost.com.