Online learning finds its place among traditional universities

Advertisements for online degree programs are springing up everywhere. It's becoming more difficult to discern which programs provide a genuine education from those that let you print out your diploma after paying a small fee.


Generally, there are two perspectives on these programs. One camp views them as a legitimate and flexible method for more non-traditional students to begin or finish a bachelor's degree. Raising children, working 9-to-5 and dealing with debt often discourage would-be students from enrolling at a local university; online courses help to get around those hurdles.

Others might view these degrees as a sort of cop-out to the full college experience: attending classes, communicating and collaborating with professors and peers, getting lost in the student union " the defining moments of college education. But in the past decade, many universities have started to extend education opportunities to non-traditional students and those unable to make it to a physical campus.

"Online degrees are a response to a market demand as much as they are infrastructure for a new income model," said Andrew Schiller, a copywriter at Kansas City-based PlattForm Advertising, which specializes in the education industry. Schiller said online schools, such as the University of Phoenix, sprung up in response to the inflexibility of coursework at bricks-and-mortar universities. But for the most part, he said, those universities have caught up.

"The "¦ bigger schools are enjoying a huge renaissance of non-traditional student enrollment; part-time, returning students in their mid-30s and 40s are the fastest-growing demographic in all education markets."

So what can online courses offer non-traditional students looking to boost their education?

"Online classes are more convenient for the learner, and it's a great outreach for universities to get to students who can't get to campus," said John Curry, an assistant professor of educational technology at Oklahoma State University. On the other hand, "students sign up for (online) courses and don't self-regulate. They think, 'I'll take it; it'll be easy,' and don't stay on top of it."

Curry said students aren't entirely accountable for making online courses work " there's equal weight resting on professors, too. He said some might think posting class notes online is an easy way out of teaching a class, but students and faculty have to work together to get the most out of the material.

Although the process of learning has remained largely unchanged for years, Curry said, the focus has shifted to how the lesson is delivered rather than the quality of the education. Despite this, he said that, given two identical candidates for a job, he would prefer to hire the applicant with the traditional degree. "I have a better sense of that person's educational experience, but I don't know about the other's personal experience."

Linda Kallam, the director of online learning at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, said employers now view online degrees in a different light.

"When online degrees first became available, there was very little quality control, and employers were skeptical about graduates from those programs," she said. "As the standards for online programs have become more demanding, the respect for online degrees has improved."

Kallam also said universities that have to meet accreditation standards offer online degrees with the same quality as traditional degrees. Ultimately, it's best to research the university or institution before enrolling in online courses to make sure it's up to the proper academic standards.

Schiller said many schools have stepped up the quality of online courses, and degrees earned online should be taken more seriously today.

"If it were about 2002, I would be wary about an online degree's value. But now, there are tons of legitimate schools that have moved many programs online in a completely workable format."

In recent years, several prestigious universities started to offer full courses in areas such as physics, foreign language and science via free digital distribution. Perhaps the most well known is the OpenCourseWare program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. What started as a for-profit model in 2000 grew to an in-depth " and, worth stressing again, free " sampling of MIT's courses in 35 departments. Pretty revolutionary idea, especially coming from a university notorious for discerning acceptance practices and lofty tuition rates. Students who "enroll" in these courses are completely self-motivated and proceed through the course at their own pace. Of course, these classes won't count toward a degree " students won't earn course credit.

So OpenCourseWare likely won't give a for-profit university a run for its money, but there's something to be said about the free distribution of knowledge. Perhaps this innovation has a place in future iterations of the
e-degree model " time will tell.

Could online learning ever become a complete substitute for traditional on-campus courses? Will double-clicking become the future of raising a hand?

"(OSU) will always have a campus," Curry said. "We'll always have trees, the library and the football team. And the university is a business on top of everything else. Online classes are a great opportunity for those to access a quality education" that might otherwise be unavailable to them.

Kallam said traditional student enrollment will likely stay the same, while online enrollment rates will increase.

"The luxury of sitting in a classroom at a specific time for a specific amount of time isn't an option for many people," she said. "Online instruction provides flexibility and better meets the needs of busy individuals looking for an opportunity to earn a university degree." "Jake Dalton