Marlborough, MA, June 3, 2008
Online education has grown vastly over the last decade. Not only have online universities aggressively marketed their programs in ad campaigns, but ground universities from Harvard to your local community college have started distance education programs that offer courses and degrees online. A recent study found that nearly 3.5 million people are taking courses online. In many cases, advertising campaigns and the fast growth of distance learning programs make online education seem too good to be true.
You may think that online education is for people who can't make the grade in a classroom, and that online courses have fewer requirements and more lenient professors. Or you may think that online education is little more than padding on a resume. Or you may hope that an online degree will open up innumerable career doors for you. You may suspect that online courses are just a way for universities to make a profit. Like all stereotypes, these are only partly true. In many cases, the stereotypes about online education are outdated and no longer apply.
Stereotype #1: Online Education is Easier than Regular College Classes
Many people assume that the convenience of online classes, with their flexible time lines and the idea that you can do the work anywhere anytime, translates into easier assignments and tests. Not surprisingly then, some think that people with online courses on their resumes or transcripts are people who couldn't, or wouldn't, do well in a traditional university setting.
I. Ellain Allen and Jeff Seaman have found, however, that academic leaders do not believe this. In other words, academics know that online courses don't exist in a vacuum outside of the university. In most cases, online courses are designed and taught by scholars and teachers who have advanced degrees and classroom experience, and they are as rigorous as the classes taught on campus. Online courses are subject to the same kinds of standards and assessments as the university's classroom based courses.
Furthermore, Rosemary Reigle has found that the perception that online students receive higher grades than classroom students is an "educational myth." About 26% of students taking online courses expected to receive a higher grade than they would have in the classroom. However, these students felt this was not because they perceived online courses to be "easier." Rather, they thought that extra flexibility built into online education would allow them to study at their own pace, thereby increasing their potential for success.
But in fact, a comparison study of grades assigned in the same class taught both online and in the classroom found that no difference existed between the grades the students earned. Many have even found that online courses can be both harder and more rewarding than those set in traditional classrooms. When instructors can't meet face to face with their students, they often outline clearer expectations, assignments, learning outcomes, and assessment standards than they do in the classroom. Online education also requires more self motivation than many classroom based courses.
Stereotype #2: Online Education Only Pads a Resume
While many academic leaders do not view online education as easier than classroom based education, many professionals who make hiring decisions do. If you thought that an online degree would open up innumerable career opportunities for you, you're going to be disappointed. One survey found that when given a choice between hiring a candidate with a degree from a bricks and mortar college versus a candidate with an online degree, 96% of companies would hire the candidate with the traditional education.
Many companies think of an online degree as a bought degree, one you paid for with money rather than hard work. Others worry that online education doesn't establish crucial communication skills. In an interview for the Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, Silvia Guzman from ProTec Building Services said that online degrees don't teach students "that real-life, problem-solving, pressure's-on type of experience."
On the other hand, some online education can help boost your career profile. Increasingly, having some coursework or even an advanced degree from an online program can help improve your candidacy for a job or promotion, especially if your online coursework demonstrates your commitment to building on more traditional work experience and education. Companies like Johnson and Johnson are even working with online universities to offer tuition discounts for employers who would like to continue their education and develop their skill sets.
Stereotype #3: Online Education is About University Profit
In another recent study, researchers surveyed universities that were growing their online course and program offerings. They found that lowering costs and increasing profits were the least cited reasons universities gave for increasing their online education programs. Most universities claimed that they now offer more online courses in response to student demand.
Increasingly, campus based students elect to take courses online, creating a hybrid education based on distance and classroom learning. Online classes help students negotiate their schedules. For the student who works an afternoon job, that 4pm section of Algebra may not be an option. So they like having the option to take it online. Not surprisingly then, universities offer online courses and programs in order to improve students' access to education.
Furthermore, many universities are seeing online education as a way to help students complete degrees. In other words, online course offerings are appealing to students who may drop out of college before they finish because of personal circumstances. For many universities, the desire to provide more opportunities for education to nontraditional students fuels their creation of online programs. Many are tailoring their online education programs to meet the needs of students who are looking to pick up where they left off, or earn an advanced degree. Online courses can provide educational opportunities for students who are unable to come to the classroom because of jobs, families, disabilities, and financial circumstances.
Combating These Stereotypes to Get More from Online Education
There are certain things you can do to combat these stereotypes and make sure you get the most out of your online education. First, carefully choose your online education program. Compare the cost of different online education centers and thoroughly explore the universities' online education websites. Find out who designs and teaches the courses and what their credentials are. Make sure you understand before you enroll what the requirements will be and how the course will appear on your transcripts. In many case, you'll find that online courses will be indistinguishable on your transcripts from classroom based courses. Additionally, don't hesitate to contact the professor of the course or the university and ask about students' previous experiences with their online courses. Ask about student achievements and work promotions that resulted from completing their online courses or degrees. Finally, make sure that the university is accredited through one of the Regional Accreditation Agencies.
Most employers and academics recommend getting an online education from a university whose name you recognize and whose reputation has a long history. This doesn't mean you choose the university you've heard the most about from an advertising campaign. Instead, look at what kinds of online courses and programs are offered through universities that have reputable campus based programs. Large state institutions are a good place to start. For example, if you currently have a job in Michigan, but your online Master's degree is from a university in Arizona, potential employers might question your degree. But if your online degree is from a university in Michigan, your resume is less likely to raise a red flag that signals your education is from an online university.
If you're looking to use an online education to boost your career profile, consider asking your employer if online courses or degrees can be used to gain a promotion. You might even see if your employer will help with the cost of education. Additionally, try concentrating on the skill sets you develop. While your transcript may show that you took a business writing class online, you should show your employer that the course really helped you become a better business writer. List your skills on your resume as part of your coursework, rather than just the coursework itself. This helps your employers realize that your online education resulted in more than just a degree, it gave you the experience and the skills necessary to excel in your career.
Most importantly, make sure you're committed to the course or program you take. This means that you understand that you're taking classes that could be taken on a college campus ֠only online courses require more self motivation. Your professors and peers will expect you to put in the effort, do the work, master the course concepts, and complete the assignments. Professors cite a lack of student preparation and commitment as one of the most frequent barriers to effective online education. The best way to combat the stereotypes of online education may be to avoid being a stereotype yourself.