Are online degrees easy?
In 2009, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on Chester Ludlow. That year, Ludlow earned his Master of Business Administration degree online, which caused a scandal for one reason: Chester Ludlow was a dog.
Are online degrees easy to complete? Chester the Dog's online program appears to have been very easy. Whereas a traditional MBA program takes two years, Chester's required no class or coursework at all, just a payment. The degree was awarded on the basis of his "life and career experience."
But just as Chester was far from a typical student, the online "university" that granted his degree was far from a typical school. It is what is often referred to as a diploma mill, a breed of organizations that have muddied the waters for all online schools. These organizations, the Department of Education (ED) warns, are "more interested in taking your money than providing you with a quality education." Though ED notes that "with the increase in the availability of online degrees, there has been an increase in diploma mills," ED also stresses that "not all online degree programs are diploma mills."
In fact, legitimate online degree programs can be highly regarded programs where the difficulty level is comparable to that of any traditional university. To determine the level of difficulty of a particular online degree program, it's necessary to do some research and ask the right questions.
What kind of coursework is associated with online degrees?
Accreditation by an ED-recognized accrediting body is a good baseline indicator for the quality of an online school's curricula. A school's accreditation and reputation alone, however, does not necessarily reveal how easy or hard its classes may be.
For example, consider the testimony of a teaching assistant employed by an online university with two ED-recognized accreditations. Speaking anonymously, she said that she is troubled by how little work is required in the online class for which she assists. The online university's class runs five weeks, and the assignment sequence comprises three essays of two to three paragraphs each. She says the online class is much easier than the nine week traditional writing class she taught at a research university. There, the two major assignments were essays of six to ten pages each, with significant research components.
Yet this source did acknowledge that "not all [online] universities are run like this." Just as course rigor can vary from one class to another at any and all campus-based school, so too can online courses run the gamut from easy to hard.
Eileen G'Sell, another writing instructor who has experience working for a traditional university, its online continuing education school and an independent online university, says that she taught very demanding classes online, including a course in which students had six weeks to write a thoroughly researched essay. And substantial research backs up the assertion that many online degree programs offer classes in technical and scientific disciplines that are every bit as rigorous as their face-to-face equivalents. A paper published by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) describes some examples of high-quality online classes, including a computer programming class and an upper-level tissue biology course.
The CCRC paper describes the computer science class as a full semester long and includes lab assignments, midterm exams, programming assignments and a final exam. The online biology course includes "web-based versions" of the lectures and lab sessions associated with a traditional version of the class, and also features strong student support in the form of "instructor-led synchronous discussions and voluntary learner-led online review sessions."
So to determine how easy or difficult an online degree program may be, it's essential to get specific information about what is on the syllabi of the core courses of the major, either by talking to current or former students, faculty or advisers. But the coursework associated with an online program is only one component of what makes it "easy" or "hard"; the online format itself can't be ignored as a factor in how a student experiences a program's level of difficulty.
Does working by computer make earning online degrees easier or harder?
Because online courses often allow students to review materials and complete assignments at their own pace, it may be easier for many people to earn a degree via the Internet than in a traditional program, both because of their personal learning style and because online classes help remove obstacles to education such as child care or commuting costs. However, that same flexibility may make online classes harder for a student who needs a rigid structure to stay on pace.
G'Sell says that some students "who are comfortable making their point in class find it a challenge to communicate in writing" on an online course's discussion board. The difficulty of an online degree program is therefore dependent not only on the nature of course materials, but on how proficient a student is with the technology delivering them.
Hybrid programs can offer best of both worlds
Some students may benefit most from hybrid classes that involve both web-based and in-person learning. Jamie Bercaw Anzano is Director of Communication and Research for Project Dragonfly, which partners with online education programs to bring master's students together for on-site fieldwork in such far-flung locales as Africa and Australia. Anzano says, "The classes begin online, and then during summer months the students do the face-to-face experience. They finish the work in the web-based learning community."
Anzano describes the class work as rigorous. She says, "In large part, the workload can be very typical to a face-to-face classroom. There are papers and writing assignments." In addition to providing exciting, hands-on learning, she says the fieldwork experience helps students develop "a comfort and closeness to their colleagues" that students in a web-only program may not fully experience. Overall, Anzano says that online programs should be held to the same standard as traditional programs. Prospective students need to ask about the details of how online programs are run, but also think about the kind of program that would suit them best. "Decide what kind of person and learner you are," she says.
As online degree programs continue to become more popular, it may become easier for prospective students to judge the levels of difficulty as well. In April of 2011, the Sloan Consortium endorsed a "quality scorecard" developed by 43 administrators of online programs. The scorecard measures quality across nine categories, so students in the future might be able to judge the quality of a school by seeing how it rates in discrete areas like technology and student support. With the aid of such ratings, students can select programs that are neither shockingly easy nor prohibitively difficult, but appropriately challenging.