How Much Is an Online Degree Worth?
by Emily Wengert
In a time not so long ago, online degrees were questionable, frowned upon, even considered worthless. Could someone really sit at home, stare at a screen, and learn as much as someone sitting in a classroom?
Many educators doubted it. It seemed the lazy man's way of learning. But new research suggests that stigma is not only fading, but transforming into eLearning accolades. Recently, an in-depth study from Sloan Consortium, a group supporting online education, confirmed what advocates of cyber-academics had been saying for years: Online learning can be just as good as -- if not better than -- a classroom degree.
"A majority of academic leaders (57 percent) believe learning outcomes for online education are equal to or superior to those of face-to-face instruction," proclaims the Sloan study.
Leading online schools:
University of Phoenix Online
One of those academic leaders -- James Sherwood, Ph.D., dean of University Extension, the continuing education branch of The University of California at Berkeley -- elaborates. "Coming out of World War II and getting into the '60s and '70s, there was a kind of stigma associated with distance education. That has certainly changed," says Sherwood. "Because of video streaming, chat rooms, and all the other kinds of technological advances, traditional faculty is becoming more comfortable."
Both Sides of the Coin
Dr. Michael Otaigbe has had the unique chance to compare both types of learning. A classroom professor for 15 years, Otaigbe began teaching online two years ago through Strayer University. And, this semester, he's teaching the same course -- Sociology of Comparative Religions -- both online and in a classroom at Strayer's Woodbridge, Va., campus.
Though he initially struggled to adjust to not having face-to-face time with his students, he has found that his online class generates a level of motivation he hadn't expected.
"Online, I have the freedom to require contributions. Every week, my students have to submit essays and participate in group discussions," Otaigbe says. "I get a better sense of the learning process."
Whereas in a classroom setting, students must respond instantly during discussions, he explains, the online students have more time to research an answer and reflect on what to say before posting a response.
"In fact, what I have learned from the online class, I have used to improve my class teaching," Otaigbe says.
Otaigbe has also found inspiration from his online students, some of whom -- unlike his classroom students -- come from all over the world, which benefits the other online students as well.
"I have students from Japan, from China," says Otaigbe. "I know my student from India contributed a lot when we were talking about Hinduism."
The online degree may get respect from educators now, but that's not enough if the rest of the world doesn't follow suit. In some ways, a degree is only as good as the opportunities it affords. Fortunately, recruiters have already begun to recognize the value of an online degree, says John Dooney, manager of strategic research for the Society for Human Resource Management, an association of HR professionals.
"Typically, a person with an online degree is someone who is also working in an organization, so they have experience," says Dooney. "You're getting someone who has the total package."
Formerly an employment manager for 15 years, Dooney admits that online degrees weren't always looked upon positively. "Ten years ago, people just weren't sure," Dooney says. "But now, I don't think people say 'Oh, they're not working hard.'"
As corporations have started using distance learning in their continuing education offerings, it has become more and more accepted as a way to earn a degree as well, he says. Sherwood, who has 20 years of experience running distance learning programs, however, does caution that not all programs are equal.
"One factor is the institution itself," Sherwood says. "If the institution offers on-site degrees and those degrees aren't worth anything, then obviously their distance degrees aren't either." He also advises a level examination of an academic discipline. "Some fields lend themselves to distance education, and some are more difficult to do at a distance." For example, advanced degrees with a serious lab work component might be a struggle to complete through an exclusively online format, he says.
As online learning continues to evolve into a well-respected educational option, perhaps the Sloan Consortium was on to something when it stated that almost one-third of academic leaders "expect that learning outcomes for online education will be superior to face-to-face instruction in three years." Perhaps your online degree will be worth even more than you think!