Global colleges and universities are competing for the title of "Ivy League virtual university." But debate rages as to whether online education -- also called distance learning -- can deliver the same quality of degree as traditional schooling.
In 2007, a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education determined that 12.2 million students were enrolled in 11,200 college-level distance learning programs. Of these students, 77 percent completed their programs either away from campus or away from their instructors.
The study found that universities offer online courses for a variety of reasons: to increase enrollment (45 percent); to meet demand for flexibility (68 percent); to improve access to students (67 percent); and to increase available course offerings (46 percent).
In May 2006, I received my MS in marketing through a private on-land college in New Jersey that is not regarded as an online university. However, without my program's relatively high percentage (roughly 25 percent) of online offerings, I could not have completed the degree within the tight one-year timeframe of available funding. Not only did the program meet my needs for swift completion, but the relevant content facilitated my employment in the areas of search and social marketing following graduation.
I have also spoken with several people -- a student, an instructor, a course developer, and a university representative -- about their online experiences and views:
- Student Dee Ann Westman Yancho completed all coursework toward her doctorate in audiology through Central Michigan University online. She was able to complete doctorate-level coursework while still employed as a practicing audiologist. Although the program content and reputation met her needs, she has still to complete the final dissertation. Online courses don't offer the face-to-face interactions with professors that are required.
- An adjunct professor at Baruch College in New York City, Cynthia Clark, says, "The biggest challenge of developing online courses is [offering] content that is engaging and interesting, while providing an opportunity for students to properly absorb, retain, and use the... content." Clark advocates adult learning theory, which states that adults learn through problem-solving, practice, and interaction. Many online programs lack this interactive element and thus only highly self-motivated students will achieve success in them, Clark says.
- Online corporate course developer and trainer Bill Cupuro, who works for a multinational company, says that factors in good online programs include synchronous learning sessions, technically astute instructors, real-time learning management software (LMS) that allows peer-to-peer and peer-to-instructor interaction, and a method to capture and display real-time images of each individual as they speak. However, he has yet to find an appropriate program that includes all these elements.
- Ruth Archer, Director of graduate business programs at the School of Business and Economics at Michigan Technological University, said a fully online MBA cohort program for Fall 2010 will duplicate the college's traditional MBA program and share its accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. Content delivery will be through a standard LMS along with a range of online activities. The university hopes the accreditation gives credibility to a fully online program that will attract students.
Generally, the individuals with whom I spoke believe that if technology is able to deliver a real-time learning experience in a 100 percent online university, the professors or institutions have yet to adopt it.
That is not to say that what is currently offered is not working. The "U.S. Department of Education's Digest of Education Statistics: 2008" showed that an online college, Phoenix University, was the nation's largest degree-granting college or university with an enrollment of 165,373, over three times that of second-place Ohio State.
In conclusion, online learning that provides valuable, relevant content can work for students who have an intrinsic love of learning, along with self-motivation and discipline to work through and assimilate the subject matter. That is what creates value, not whether the program is offered online or on land.
Postscript: If you are a highly self-motivated adult learner interested in an online degree or training, a range of sites match student to program, including ADEC.edu/virtual, CollegeBoard.com, Collegeinfo.com, College-pages.com, CUnet.com, Directoryofonlineschools.com, Education.com, GetEducated.com, Lern.org, or NelNet.com, and Onlinelearning.net.
— Janine Yancho Swenson has more than 20 years of management and marketing experience.