Students are enrolling in online classes in droves — in 2011 more than 30 percent, or six million U.S. students, took at least one online course. Higher education is adapting by steadily increasing online programs and funding to meet student demand.
Yet there is still a lot of skepticism towards online education in academic and professional circles, despite considerable technological advancement and innovation in the field. This leaves many students questioning the quality and reputation of an online education.
Misled by false information from all sides, students need help identifying and debunking common misconceptions. We’ve set out to address the assumptions of online education by pointing to the realities. As the inaccuracies get debunked, and the reality of what online education has to offer settles into place, it becomes clear there is a compelling case to be made for some form of online education for everyone. Here’s our rundown of the major misconceptions:
“Online degrees are looked down upon by potential employers, the rest of the education community and peers.”
Support for online education is evident across the corporate sector. According to a Western Governors University publication, Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, said that discounting a job candidate “based on an online degree may be shortsighted. People working all day and studying online all night have the kind of grrr most companies could use.”
This sentiment is echoed by human resource directors in a recent survey from Inside Higher Ed. Sixty-two percent of hiring managers who described themselves as “very familiar” or “familiar” with distance ed programs believe online degrees are just as credible as campus-based degrees. Another Edudemic study found that 82 percent of hiring managers felt that online programs were just as rigorous as their traditional counterparts.
Many companies pay for their employees to advance their education through online programs. A 2007 Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey showed that 71 percent of companies reimburse their employees for online degrees earned from regionally or professionally accredited higher education institutions.
The opinions of established academics remain some of the more stubborn, but evidence suggests the reputation of online credentials is improving. Some studies show, in certain fields, online doctoral degree recipients are beginning to experience better job prospects than their peers graduating from traditional universities.
The Sloan Consortium recently found the perception among traditional university staff is split between faculty and administration. While just 30.2 percent of chief academic officers believe their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of online education, 65 percent of higher education administrations now say online learning is a critical part of their long-term strategy.
“Since online education is cheaper, the quality of the information you receive will be cheapened. The same goes for who teaches the class, who participates in the class, etc.”
It is almost impossible to make generalizations about online learning because there is so much variation across institutions, programs and degrees. Yet most institutions do agree on one fundamental principle of online learning: the opportunity to provide education for all, without sacrificing quality.
For many universities, online education isn’t always significantly cheaper. The tuition difference between online and traditional course work is less than $200 per credit hour at some top-tier research institutions like Arizona State University. That’s because ASU believes the student experience should be the same for its online and on-campus programs. Therefore the costs are similar, since all students are instructed by the same world-class faculty, with access to the same resources, expertise and assistance.
“Online education is only good for basic degrees. Not bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorates.”
Most institutions of higher education with online degree programs have offerings that span the spectrum, from bachelor’s through doctorates — clearly disputing the notion that online learning is limited to certificate or two-year programs.
The U.S. News and World Report directory lists over 300 online doctorate and PhD programs, 200 master’s degree programs, and 625 bachelor’s degree programs. There are currently 277 accredited online universities, and that number is only expected to grow, according to Edudemic.
“Online classes are fundamentally easier than brick and mortar classes, regardless of subject.”
The majority of academic leaders disagree with this statement. In fact, 77 percent of them believe learning outcomes in online education are the same or superior to the outcomes of traditional courses, according to a Sloan Consortium survey.
Unlike with most traditional universities, experts in online higher education are investing in research to understand exactly how the science of teaching can be perfected to increase student outcomes. Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative is employing teams of cognitive scientists, technology consultants, designers, and disciplinary specialists to help design a new wave of challenging, interactive courses.
Experts plan to continually refine coursework, delivery and online tools to maximize the student experience. Researchers are dedicated to ensuring that online learning deploys the latest in technology to ensure a quality learning experience.
“Online degrees are often in irrelevant fields — I’m better off earning an in-demand degree at a four-year institution.”
Online learners are actually interested in many of the same fields as those in traditional four-year institutions. In fact, four of the top five degrees earned online, are the same degrees earned most often in brick and mortar schools, according to Edudemic.
“I will miss out on the interactivity of an actual classroom. I will be less engaged.”
The online student portal at Western Governors University is just one example of the many ways the classroom is reimagined online. As a gateway to student communities, the student portal provides chats, message boards, virtual classrooms, video conferencing and small group learning sessions to support cooperative learning.
In fact, many experts believe that using technology to engage with online learners around the world actually provides a richer experience than a classroom. Plus, students get experience using technologies to connect with others across the world.
Top-notch institutions, like the Penn State World campus, are use real-time video streaming and smart phone apps. Students can connect with others outside of their online courses through online student-based organizations and alumni networking through the World Campus chapter of the Penn State Blue & White Society.
“There aren’t ‘real’ exams or in-class essays, meaning it’s easier to pass an online class with less effort”
The lack of a physical classroom doesn’t mean instructors have fewer options to ensure rigorous coursework. In many ways, the Internet actually provides more methods to assess and instruct students.
The curriculums of distance courses taught at the Harvard Extension School are detailed and rigorous; equally demanding of students as a Harvard classroom. Technology can be used in innovative ways to test language, for example. Many online programs now deploy audio, video and recording assessments to develop student skills and provide real-time assessment.
“I won’t get any interaction or support from faculty”
A recent article in Forbes magazine found that online institutions are actually much more strict about limiting class size than traditional schools, usually setting a maximum of 20 to 25 per section. Fast instructor response time is an industry standard among most online programs. The University of Wisconsin-Madison, for example, takes professor response time seriously: it was one of the factor’s in its high ranking of online programs through the U.S. News and World Report.
There are so many misperceptions about online education, it’s only natural students have reservations. But once you work through the false ideas one by one, online education starts to look like a credible and effective option.