Online College Programs: Educational Panacea or Pandemic?

Online education has increased its presence from nonentity in the 1980s to a visible part of everyday life. Now everything from supplemental online certifications to online graduate degrees are available. For-profit programs, such as University of Phoenix, DeVry University, Everest University, and Kaplan University advertise heavily to recruit students to their programs, and conventional universities are increasingly relying on Internet-based tools to offer courses that are either entirely or partially online. However, as education moves further in this direction, many look at the transformation taking place and wonder whether or not this is a good thing.

One of the obvious advantages of an online university education is the matter of scalability. A university designed to host 30,000 students can never enroll more than that without investing in an expansion. An online university, however, faces relatively little additional structural cost when its numbers grow. This scalability makes online education very attractive to those who want to lower education costs and make education available to everyone. However, by making education more readily available, online methodologies create new problems. Like most of its competitors, University of Phoenix, the world’s largest online university (and one of the world’s largest universities in terms of enrollment) sets a very low qualification bar for enrollment. To enroll, students only need a high school diploma or GED, which makes many question the real value of an online degree.

Another related problem results from the fact that many online universities are not properly accredited. They can offer courses, issue grades and diplomas, but when they do not abide by the standards commonly accepted by governments, businesses, and other educational institutions, their degrees mean very little.

This perceived lack of value has led to a mixed and hesitant receptiveness to online programs among established universities. While program developers acknowledge the benefits of online education, they also fear that diving head-first into the online movement will lower the reputation of their programs. Despite this hesitance, however, conventional universities for the most part are moving forward with the adoption of online tools. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with its CourseWare and subsequent MITx ventures, is making the content of its courses available to the entire world for free. Initially, the viewing of these online course materials did not result in a credential for students. However, for the sake of propagating knowledge and protecting the value of its conventional programs, MIT is making plans to offer separate credentials based on its free online courses.

Many established universities have become willing to offer associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees for completion of online courses but refuse to issue advanced degrees without old fashioned, brick-and-mortar classrooms. This is due to a perception that lower-level degrees tend to require more “book learning”—which is conducive to online education platforms—while upper-level degrees tend to require more “hands-on learning.” Projects, discussion, and research become the focus of graduate-level coursework, which cannot be properly conducted online.

Proponents of online education feel that conventional universities offer this boundary in the attempt to stay relevant and control quality. However, as long as employers feel that MBAs and PhDs from conventional universities have more value than their online counterparts, these programs will still face an uphill battle towards gaining a foothold on being a part of the academic status quo. Thus, online educational opportunities may not reach advanced-level programs, but they do enable higher education to reach more people than ever before. Even if online degrees are not given the same recognition, they have increased the accessibility of education. By having this access to education, America will foster the growth of a more educated populace.

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