Categorized | Education

Getting the Third Degree

Posted on 17 March 2009

Does online education really measure up?

Why sit in a classroom when you can boot up your PC in the comfort of your home and participate in anything from a single course to a full degree-bound academic program?

Michael Fortier will attest to that. Fortier, 38, has been enrolled in online degree programs since 1999 via Champlain College‘s Online Program. The Burlington, VT-based college has been offering online courses since 1993.

By day, Fortier is a sales/cost-estimating manager at Meriden Manufacturing, a jet engine parts manufacturer in Connecticut. But nights and weekends, he’s hunched over his computer working toward his second online associate’s degree. Fortier puts in 20-40 hours a week working for his degree.

Most employers see no difference between a virtual degree program and a traditional one.

Is it worth the effort? “You bet it is,” says Fortier. He doesn’t have the time or financial resources to take a full curriculum at a traditional brick-and-mortar school. With a demanding job, he needs the flexibility to set his own learning schedule.

Invisibly Educated
Fortier is part of a growing body of students enrolled in online degree programs. According to the United States Distance Learning Association, 2.2 million students are taking online courses now compared to 1 million five years ago. And, the number of online learning institutions has jumped from 800 to 1,700 in the same period. At Champlain College alone, the number of students enrolled in online courses catapulted from 15 to 3,500 this year. Meanwhile, blue chip schools like Columbia, Stanford, the University of Chicago, New York University, and Temple are among those offering online degree programs.

Online courses’ delivery methods continue to improve. Initially, an online degree program consisted of a series of CD-ROM discs. Students downloaded lectures and notes and e-mailed tests and reports back to the instructor.

The Dog Deleted My Homework
The newest technology is more interactive and lectures are even presented in real time. Students log into the class and watch and hear teachers deliver lectures. “Each online program works differently,” says Fortier. Champlain’s program varies from day to day. “Some time is spent in chat and other times in ‘live’ forums,” Fortier explains. “Occasionally, a professor gives a class and we interact with him via phone or e-mail. Other times, assignments or lectures are posted. We do the assignment and post our thoughts to the discussion forum, reply to others’ comments, and upload homework by the assigned due date and time. When distance education first became popular a decade ago, many employers had doubts about hiring candidates with online degrees. Many institutions were not accredited, teachers were barely qualified, the quality of teaching was second rate, and often anyone who could pay for the program could get a degree. There were also online diploma mills that sold degrees as fast as they could print them.

But that’s changed. Although some shady operations still exist, most online degrees are being offered by reputable institutions. And, most employers see no difference between a virtual degree program and a traditional one.

Bob Lambert, managing director of technology and new ventures practice at executive search firm Christian & Timbers in Irvine, CA, says he’d be more impressed with a candidate with an online degree than a candidate with a traditional degree. “Most of the people I’ve met who are working toward an online degree are working at full-time jobs, which tells me the candidates are highly motivated, resourceful and determined,” he says. “These are all highly desirable traits.”

On the other hand, Franklin Loew, president of Becker College in Wooster, MA, and former dean at Tufts University in Boston, has concerns about the lack of human contact in online degree programs. He would have concerns about hiring someone with an online degree. “I know that’s unfair, but I question the quality of the educational experience,” he says. Other educators also agree with Loew, but they’re in the minority.

Is Online Education for You?
Nonetheless, online education is here to stay. More educational institutions will be launching new programs, which makes the selection process harder. Before you pick a program, get answers to these questions:

  • What is the reputation of the institution, especially a lesser-known school?
  • How will your skills and knowledge be evaluated? The testing process should be as rigorous as that of a traditional college.
  • What are faculty members’ credentials?
  • Is the school accredited by one of the accepted accrediting associations (Middle States, New England, North Central, Northwest, Southern and Western)?

Finally, ask yourself if you have the personality and work habits to study online. The answers to the following questions will tell you whether you’re a good fit.

  • Are you motivated enough to work on your own?
  • Are you self-directed?
  • Do you have the necessary technology and are you comfortable
    with it?

If the answers to all of the above questions are not affirmative, I’d think twice about enrolling in an online degree program.

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