Online education is a burgeoning area of education that is a viable alternative to traditional on-campus institutions. However, while there are many upsides to virtual education, there is still a lingering prejudice among employers and academics alike that online education cannot provide the same level of education as traditional universities. Yet, are such arguments still valid?
In the U.S., the education crisis has exploded in terms of rising tuition costs, student loan debt, and the lack of available jobs for graduates with four-year degrees. More than 60 percent of the 20 million students graduating annually with bachelor’s degrees accrue an average of $20,000 in debt.
The Associated Press has reported that the average tuition at a four-year public university has risen 15 percent between 2008 and 2010. According to Bloomberg, the cost of a college degree in the U.S. has increased an astounding 1,120 percent since 1977. Even at my alma mater Smith College, basic tuition with room and board now costs $55,050, a 27 percent increase in only six years.
The intrinsic question to this problem should not be “who is to blame?” but “what is to be done?” A reasonable answer could be online education. It is becoming more available at colleges and universities across the U.S. The American Council on Higher Education is considering whether or not to give free accredited online courses.
Universities, such as Northwestern, Wake Forest, and Notre Dame are offering online courses by fall 2013 for a fee. Additionally, MIT and Harvard are planning an online computer science course for two Massachusetts community colleges through their MOOC, or massive open online courses, called edX.
Additionally, companies and institutions such as Stanford’s Coursera and Udacity, OER University from New Zealand and Australia, and iTunes U have all created their own MOOCs.
While these MOOCs are often free and generally do not give credits, online education is growing and expanding in response to the high overhead cost of traditional education. If we seriously consider online education as an alternative, costs like transportation, housing, and high tuition become irrelevant. This is because the cost of an online degree is a fraction of what it would at a traditional university.
For example, a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from the University of Wyoming costs only $16,080 as opposed to a substantially higher yearly tuition of $26,862 for a non-resident student. While the University of Wyoming is certainly not Harvard or Yale, it is arguable that online education could be a more feasible option.
Since the economic crisis, there has been over a 65 percent increase in demand for existing and new online courses and programs. Over 4.6 million students took at least one online course during the fall 2008 semester. This number is indicative of the 17 percent growth for online enrollment that has superseded traditional higher education’s 1.2 percent growth rate.
Online education expert Herbert Thomas from the University of Canterbury suggests, “We can’t possibly conceive what kind of environment will evolve. A lot of the literature suggests there might be a 20:80 split, with 20% of students wanting a full on-campus lifestyle experience at a top university and 80% of students studying online because it’s cost-effective.”
Not only is online education more cost effective but many argue that it is just as valuable as traditional higher education. The University of Otago’s Director of Distance Learning Bill Anderson attests that eLearning may be as effective as traditional learning with the condition that faculty must be trained to teach these courses properly.
However, there are many problems preventing the standardization of college-level online courses. According to a 2009 study by I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman titled “Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States, 2009,” there are many determining factors.
Many of these have little to do with education quality but more with approaches and perceptions of online education. It is indicated that 19 percent of universities with online education provide no faculty training. For those institutions offering training, half provide initial training courses while the other half provides only informal mentoring. It is clear that some specific training for all online educators should be mandatory in order to increase its overall effectiveness.
Yet, the biggest attack against online learning comes from faculty. Less than one-third of chief academic officers concur that their faculty accepts the legitimacy of online education. These numbers have insubstantially increased. Faculty acceptance of online education has only increased 3.3 percent from 2002 to 2009.
Furthermore when asked if “online education is critical to the long-term strategy of my institution,” 73.6 percent of public undergraduate institutions and half of private nonprofit and private for profit educational institutions agreed. In conjunction, only 11 percent of undergraduate faculty accepted the legitimacy of online education. Among universities offering online education, nearly 90 percent believed that online education was equal or better to traditional education.
This starkly contrasts to the 40 percent of institutions not providing online education who view online learning as an acceptable educational medium. Yet student acceptance of online education has steadily increased to 53 percent as of 2009. Student acceptance is growing while faculty acceptance is stagnating.
Academia is not alone in its skepticism of online education. HR managers and companies in different industries also question the legitimacy of online degrees. According to a paper titled “Employer Perceptions of Online Degrees: A Literature Review” by Norina Columbaro PhD and Catherine Monaghan PhD from Cleveland State University, prejudice against online education permeates the job market.
A study written by E.G. Chaney in 2002 investigated hiring practices among eight Midwest pharmaceutical companies. While representatives ostensibly had no preference between online or traditional degrees, it was still considered a significant hiring factor.
Columbaro and Monaghan refer to HR managers or receptionists handling resumes as “gatekeepers.” Among the gatekeepers, there was a significant 95 percent preference for people with four-year degrees from traditional universities. Even in the insurance, finance, rental, or telecommunications industries, a study by K.N. Seibold found pervasive prejudice against online degrees.
Another article by J. Mulrean from 2004 suggested that while most employers are modifying their previous views on online degrees, a preference still favors those with traditional degrees. The article also asserts that people with online degrees should not freely mention that their degrees were acquired through online courses.
Another study from Vault.com showed that 55 percent of 107 employers would take an interviewee with a traditional degree over one with an online degree while 41 percent viewed them as equal.
Common concerns that were additionally addressed in articles from 2005 and 2006 by D. Carnevale against online education include the lack of challenge, personal interaction, student commitment, and retention.
Cheating and an association with diploma mills also caused apprehension. But it should be noted that these factors apply to traditional universities as well. Additionally, academic dishonesty can be largely curtailed with plagiarism-checking software like TurnItIn or PlagTracker.
While online education may become the education of the future due to substantially rising education costs, the stigma against it remains. However, with record numbers of young 20-somethings in serious college loan debt, online education may be the answer. In online education, there is no need to pay high tuition costs for building upkeep, manicured lawns, or flashy new centers. No need to impress perspective students with the splendor and ambiance of a college that will ultimately require them to pay big for their education.
If the age-old adage that education is a right and not a privilege remains part of our ethos, then online education is a democratic and equalizing force. Public and academic perception of online education must improve before it will ever be taken seriously.
Applied sciences, medical education, and other types of hands-on educations must also be considered. But in lieu of high education costs, undergraduate education should be strongly considered for online consolidation in light of the necessity of bachelor’s degrees in today’s competitive job market.