Is an online degree as good as a traditional degree?
Over 5.6 million students enrolled in at least one online course during the fall 2009 term, according to a 2010 survey by the Sloan Consortium and the Babson Survey Research Group. Online education is a popular phenomenon, and it is growing fast. In fact, the survey found that between 2008 and 2009, enrollments online grew 21 percent--a rate nearly 11 times faster than traditional college enrollment growth.
Despite such substantial growth in the online learning community, some wonder if online degrees are just as good as traditional degrees. Take a look at what current research is saying about the value of online degrees, as well as ways you can judge the quality of online degree programs.
The effectiveness of online instruction
A 2009 report from the Department of Education evaluated a number of published studies on the effectiveness of online and distance education to find that, "Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction." Specifically, the report explains, the instruction itself isn't necessarily responsible for this difference. Instead, the format of online education which allows students flexibility and time to complete tasks may be the cause--and is a positive to consider for those who may prefer to take their time in examining and absorbing information.
Furthermore, the report explains the three main types of learning experiences--expository, active and interactive learning--may all be experienced online. "Typically, in expository instruction, the technology delivers the content. In active learning, the technology allows students to control digital artifacts to explore information or address problems. In interactive learning, technology mediates human interaction either synchronously or asynchronously; learning emerges through interactions with other students and the technology." In more simple terms, online education has been found to be able to support the various ways in which individuals learn.
Accreditation: setting standards across the board
The U.S. Department of Education helps set standards to ensure the quality of any institution--online or otherwise--through accreditation. All programs can seek accreditation, a process which involves a third-party agency reviewing a school on a number of factors including its admission policy, educational standards and objectives. Should the program fit the standards of the accreditation agency, accreditation is granted. Accreditation must be renewed every few years, making the school's status a good ongoing gauge of quality.
Students should be aware, however, that there are differences in accrediting agencies. Accrediting bodies can be regional or national and can accredit an entire institution or specific programs within a school. The U.S. Department of Education keeps a list of the accrediting bodies it recognizes, so in addition to verifying that a school is accredited, it's important for potential students to check the Department of Education's list to confirm that the accrediting body is also deemed official.
Of course, accreditation isn't the only standard by which students measure the quality of an institution's degree programs. Many students judge a school by how well it does or doesn't prepare them for employment.
Getting a degree that gets a job
Although online degrees are becoming more popular, some students are concerned they may still have a stigma in the workplace. For hands-on careers like nursing and engineering, fully online coursework isn't yet able to replace in-person laboratory experience. However, many hiring managers in the marketplace--and at high-tech firms in particular--are shifting to recognize online education as a credible, valuable source of training.
In a 2009 interview in Innovate, Microsoft Vice President Ralph Young said, "Employers know that technology has a pivotal role to play in ensuring that universities are responsive to today's global economy and fully deliver on their educational mission with high-quality, relevant instruction. The ubiquity of technology in today's workplace makes digital literacy a prerequisite for every professional field, not just explicitly technical ones."
While many employers see the benefits of hybrid and fully online programs, it's important to note that some hiring managers may see things differently. When evaluating any degree program, students should speak with potential employers in the area or industry sector and ask their opinion about specific degree programs.
Students create their own experiences
The education world is changing rapidly. Today, even traditional classrooms are going high-tech as online components are being included in more and more courses in order to prepare students for an increasingly tech-friendly working world. In fact, in a 2010 survey of traditional college students by InterCall, the majority of participants reported that their professors use Web streaming in their teaching methods. Students with jobs seem to benefit most from online course content, the survey found. These students report being able to work more hours when video and online lectures are at their disposal.
Big gains in online student enrollment point to a bigger responsibility for online education. Additionally, traditional schools are doing their part to offer hybrid coursework and greater access to the convenience of online training.
For the individual student, however, choosing the right education mode is still a matter of personal preference. A self-motivated learner may find online education to be ideal, while a learner who requires hands-on training could find traditional education to be more appealing. Ultimately, it is up to students to make an educated choice for themselves.