Online Education Overcoming Its Origins

Online Education Overcoming Its Origins

Marlborough, MA, June 12, 2008

Distance Education's Secret History

By the 1950s, distance education had acquired a bad reputation. Many were increasingly suspicious of correspondence schools promise that a college education could be had with much convenience and little cost. Since the late nineteenth century, correspondence programs had taken out advertisements, first in the help wanted sections of newspapers and then on radio and television, that made wild, too good to be true claims about the payoffs of an at-home education. Distance education has long hawked its wares with the promise of career advancement, yet the more popular these programs became, the more people realized that the pocketbooks of correspondence programs, not the pocketbooks of their students, were growing big.

Students who paid to enroll in distance education programs soon discovered that their educational materials were often substandard. Furthermore, many students encountered what we now know are predictable and preventable problems with their distance education. The lack of face to face contact with an instructor, the awkwardness of receiving and completing assignments and materials on time via the postal service, as well as the inevitable realization that education wasn't always convenient and easy, meant that many students paid their tuition, but didn't complete their programs of study. Not surprisingly for these students, they found that their correspondence programs did little to enhance their career possibilities. If students were lucky enough to complete their programs, they soon realized that potential employers were unimpressed with their credentials.

Distance education became known as a hack business and correspondence schools were thought of by employers as "degree mills:" institutions that would issue degrees based on the tuition you paid, not the work you completed. In fact, many people came to see correspondence schools as downright fraudulent. As a result, legislators started passing regulations that limited the practices and promises of distance educators.

For example, distance education programs were barred from advertising in the same places as employers. In other words, after the bad practices of correspondence schools were exposed in the 1920s, these programs could no longer take ads out in the help wanted sections of newspapers. Similarly, legislation was passed that restricted which educational institutions could broadcast both advertisements and course materials on radio and television. Additionally, legislators restricted the amount of national, government-based financial aid these kinds of educational programs could apply for.

Until recently, colleges and universities had to enroll at least fifty percent of their students on bricks and mortar campuses to qualify for federal educational moneys. Students enrolled in distance courses were unable to apply for financial aid and their schools were barred from receiving money from the state and federal government.

Why Your Employer Doesn't Respect Your Distance Degree

Because distance education has a history of fraudulence that has inspired legislators to pass legal restrictions on for profit degree mills, employers have similarly become suspicious of applicants whose qualifications include degrees from distance education programs. Many employers assume that these degrees are bought, not earned. Many also assume that applicants with degrees from distance education programs are people who would be unsuccessful in campus-based colleges and universities. Finally, many employers suspect that the education received from a distance is insufficient to prepare employees for real life, in person, working circumstances.

In other words, not only do employers assume that the content of the education students receive from distance programs is substandard, they also assume that distance education fails to place students in hands-on situations that require negotiating multiple tasks and deadlines that are similar to the kinds of situations employees face in the workplace. Time and again, research has shown that potential employers will choose to hire a candidate with a traditional degree over the candidate with an online degree.

Can an online degree then help you advance your career?

This doesn't mean you should throw your arms up in the air and abandon pursuing an online degree. Most online degree programs that are now available are far removed from their fraudulent forerunners. The government has recently recognized the hard won legitimacy of many online educators by withdrawing the earlier restriction on enrollment percentages and government funding.

Students enrolled in fully online programs are now, for the first time, eligible for financial aid, and online programs that enroll even one hundred percent of their students at a distance can apply for state and federal funding. Furthermore, online educational programs are offered now by standard, traditional universities. You don't have to sign up for an online course through a for-profit online university or a well advertised program. Almost every college and university, from your community college to the ivies.y leagues, has an online education program that you can enroll in.

While academics and the government appear to have increasingly accepted the legitimacy of an online education, employers have been slower to respond. In many ways, this is the result of both distance education's inauspicious history and the unprecedented popularity it has recently received as online technologies become available to more and more people. For employers, distance education's past is undesirable, its present is changing rapidly, and its future is uncertain.

There are actions you can take, however, to ensure that your online degree helps, rather than hinders, your career advancement. First of all, choose where you get your online degree from carefully. You should choose a school that is accredited. In some states, it is even illegal to list a degree from unaccredited university or college on your resume. Secondly, choose a school that has a reputation as a strong center for education. In many cases, you can enroll in online degree programs from well established universities that have good reputations on campus as well as online.

For example, you can enroll in a degree program from your community college, your state institution, and in many cases, revered ivy leagues. Your online education will seem more reliable and credible if completed at a college or university that is known for its campus-based credentials. In many instances, an employer won't look twice at a degree or coursework taken from an institution that offers traditional, bricks and mortars degrees alongside its online programs. Yet most employers will assume right away that a degree from, for example, The University of Phoenix, is an online degree.

When completing your resume and your job letter, even if your degree is from a known online institution, focus on the skill sets you have acquired and mastered as part of your education. For many employers, experience, motivation, and qualification are far more central to getting the job than the piece of paper that is a college degree. Consider listing your job experience and qualifications before you list your degrees on your resume. Focus on how your own experiences both inside and outside of the classroom have prepared you for advancement or a new career.

You might even consider explaining briefly in your cover letter or on your resume what your online education entailed. If you describe your coursework and the projects you completed as part of your online education, you implicitly help convince your potential employer that your education was legitimate and hard earned. You validate both yourself and your degree in the process. For example, consider focusing on how your technological communication skills improved as a result of your online education, or how completing your online education demonstrates your drive, motivation, and ability to multitask in a fast paced learning environment.

How to Make the Most of Your Online Degree

What it's important to realize is that employers are looking for more than just a degree when they look at your job materials. They want to know what skills, experiences, and unique perspectives you can bring to your new career. In order to combat the stereotypically negative response to an online degree, it's important to highlight your qualifications and experiences in your application materials. You need to emphasize the valuable process of your education both online and in other jobs, not just the end product of your degree.

At the same time, take time to explain to your employer what your online education entailed - they might be surprised to find some of their old stereotypes about online education aren't true anymore and that your degree was hard earned and well deserved from a respected institution. Who knows, you might even be able to convince your employer to pay for more online education that will help you climb even higher on the career ladder.

Finally, statistics show that the best way to use an online degree to enhance your career is to combine it with hands-on experiences. If you want to be a veterinarian, an online degree in animal science won't help you get very far if it isn't paired with real-life experience working with and around animals. Similarly, an online degree in English literature won't help you get that promotion from bookkeeper to senior accountant. Use common sense when choosing online courses and programs and don't put all your eggs in your online degree basket.