Social media platforms aren't the only resources prospective online students should use in their research, experts say, but they are definitely valuable.
Because online degree applicants often can live anywhere, social media easily connects them with current students and alumni to answer the questions they would have asked had they visited a campus in person.
Here are four ways online degree applicants might use social media to explore their options.
1.Find general information about academics and life as an online student: Some online programs, or their umbrella universities, have Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram pages that applicants can visit to narrow their list and gain a sense of how online learning works.
Oregon State University Ecampus' Facebook page, for example, shares articles about changing careers through online learning, and photos and videos of the online student graduation on campus.
Kelley Direct, the online branch of the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University—Bloomington, tweets networking opportunities, alumni achievements and photos from the required face-to-face residency components, like this one:
2.Engage with current online students and alumni: Features like Facebook groups and LinkedIn networks might be helpful, experts say.
"I think that's the most important thing for anybody – is to get a sense of how someone who's gone through the program or someone who's in the program, what's their opinion of it," says Catherine Dwyer, chair of information technology at Pace University's Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems, who researches social media.
On ASU Online's Facebook page, Castro, after doing more research online, says he asked enrolled students: "How did you apply? How did the process go? How are your classes? How is this online program different than online classes I've taken in the past?"
Kelly Lux, assistant director of the online Communications@Syracuse master's program offered through Syracuse University, says the program connects prospective students with student ambassadors. Experts say applicants can also find students and alumni to speak with on programs' Facebook or LinkedIn groups.
As a current online graduate student in Communications@Syracuse, Ashlee Post, 28, of New York City, sometimes receives questions from prospective students on social media about online learning and her program.
"I would say any question about what to expect is the biggest conversation out there, because the program is so new, and because the idea of going to school online has been a little bit taboo over the years," Post says.
When Post herself researched online programs, she couldn't really ask current students or alumni questions because the program was so new, but she still checked out the Syracuse alumni network on LinkedIn. Being able to gauge these potential connections "was a big deal for me," she says.
3.Ask admissions officers questions: Students might simply message an online program on Facebook, or reach out to one on Twitter or LinkedIn, for example.
Some online programs also hold Twitter chats to answer applicants' questions, Smitobol says. Pennsylvania State University—World Campus held one in March about transferring credits to the online program – a topic relevant to many online applicants.
During the chat, one prospective online student also asked some general questions about the program, and admissions counselors at Penn State responded.
4.Learn about virtual and face-to-face events: Online programs also advertise events for applicants, from webinars to Twitter chats.
Penn State posts information about virtual "open houses" and webinars on Facebook for prospective students, says Cara Bell, the recruitment coordinator at World Campus.
In general, "Social media is a great way for prospective students to engage and start that process if they're looking to go to a school online," Bell says.
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