Distance learning has come a long way since correspondence courses first offered students the chance to pursue a college education from home. Today, online degree programs take advantage of the latest in telecommunications technology to beam virtual classrooms directly to laptops around the world. And just as their delivery methods have evolved in recent years, so has the public’s perception of online degrees. Now that many of the most prestigious names in higher learning offer online options, the line between an on-campus and a virtual education has slowly begun to fade.
We asked faculty members from five prominent universities how they’ve seen online degrees progress in recent years. Their answers not only highlight the technological advancements these programs have experienced, but also the growing acceptance of distance learning among schools and students.
How has the perception of online college degrees evolved?
Lisa L. Templeton, Executive Director of Oregon State University Extended Campus (Ecampus)
The misperception that an online education is an inferior education is disproven more and more each year. Oregon State has witnessed a stark increase in the number of programs and courses we deliver online in recent years. We attribute this growth partly to students and faculty realizing that the online delivery method does a fantastic job of meeting learner needs and preparing them for rewarding careers.
A Babson study from this year shows that 74 percent of academic leaders rate the learning outcomes in online courses as the same or superior to those in face-to-face courses. Ten years ago, that figure was only 57 percent. The rise in acceptance will only help to improve the quality of the educational opportunities delivered online.
William Andrew McCollough, Associate Provost and Professor of Finance at the University of Florida
A major evolution in perception is underway but not yet complete — From the notion of “buying a degree online” associated with the early for profit players to obtaining the highest quality content from the best teachers of the best universities (Coursera, edX), public and professional perception of the possibility of excellent learning opportunities online has changed dramatically.
Moreover, the summation of online courses into degree certification is also evolving but at a much slower pace. Public perception of the college degree outcome includes not only the demonstration of competence in content acquisition, but also the social maturation that, it is believed, is the natural outcome of the resident experience. The proliferation of online courses in resident degree programs can be seen as an attempt to experience the best of both worlds. To a certain extent, the outcome of the online college degree perception is dependent on the relative importance of content acquisition and social maturation. Ideally degree certification would incorporate the possibility of both, but at times it appears we are in a conundrum of choosing one or the other. Current calls for increased vocational, job-oriented curriculum suggests an ascendancy of content over maturity which should accelerate online degree acceptance.
Timothy W. Spannaus, Program Coordinator for Instructional Technology at Wayne State University
Employers, students and accrediting agencies have taken a more nuanced view of online degrees in the past few years. At one time, all online programs were lumped together and characterized as substandard, based on some poor experiences. Now we see a variety of online degree programs that range from very high quality to not so good. And there is a perception that different programs serve different needs. Students may elect to take a MOOC (massive open online course) to learn some specific skill or content area. The same student may be pursuing an accredited online degree from another institution, seeking a complete, well-designed curriculum and the credential only available from such a program.
Mary Oriol, Associate Professor and Interim Director of School of Nursing at Loyola University New Orleans
Loyola University New Orleans is no stranger to online and distance learning. We were actually among the first universities to step into this technology in the early 90s when we were looking for a way to help nurses in Baton Rouge earn their BSN’s while they couldn’t attend scheduled class times in our New Orleans’ based physical classrooms. At that time, we were able to deliver distance, adult learning courses by using VHS tapes as our technology.
Today, online courses are much more dynamic virtual classrooms often consisting of live lectures, video components, discussion rooms, virtual libraries and resource centers — even integrating video conferencing using tools like Skype and Adobe Connect that are recorded for those not able to attend in real-time. The online environment has morphed into a tool that makes learning convenient, accessible and more importantly, realistic for anyone to pursue. Students are able to engage in course-work at a time when it is convenient for them to focus on learning.
Renata Engel, Associate Vice Provost for Online Programs, and Karen Pollack, Assistant Vice Provost for Undergraduate Online and Blended Programs at Penn State University
The biggest change that I have seen over the last 15 years is that people no longer doubt the efficacy of online learning. It works. Students learn, in contexts that are rich and meaningful and with learning outcomes that are equal and sometimes even better to traditional approaches. While the quality and reputation of online degrees vary, we all know now that it can be done and it can be done in ways that inspire and amaze and bring education and opportunities to billions of prospective students who would not otherwise have that chance. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t want to be a part of that transformation.