By Arunabh Satpathy
Northwest Asian Weekly
Here’s a question: What are the similarities between a mother keen on finishing her studies, a patient hungry to keep learning, and an older professional juggling family and work needing to expand his professional boundaries?
The answer: They are all candidates for online degree programs, the latest trend in higher education.
Now, many accredited schools offer online courses that can be used to flesh out requirements for undergraduate or graduate degrees. Courses can be taken from anywhere with an Internet connection, which makes it flexible for students who may have personal, health, or scheduling conflicts. Online portals make it easy for you to work on your course, do the recommended readings and interact with your teachers and peers.
The upsides can be great. The most obvious advantage that they offer is flexibility. If you have a schedule that makes it difficult to go to campus and attend hour-long lectures, then online courses are manna from heaven. Between your screaming children and your chiropractor, you can finish off your degree.
If you’re taking a single online course as an enrolled student at university such as the University of Washington or Seattle University, it often fits seamlessly into the credit structure. However, there are also accredited purely online universities such as Kaplan and Capella Universities.
A less tangible advantage is the opportunity to network. With the diversity of people on the roster, you might just run into someone running a firm in New York, a programmer in Sweden or a musician from Memphis whose interests align with yours.
Online courses are often viewed as a way to save money. However, these savings come more from a lack of commuting, housing, on-campus activities, and lab usage. The courses themselves may cost just as much in terms of tuition. At the University of Washington, a full online degree is comparable in price to a traditional degree because students are buying both the credits and the degree, along with possible additional fees. If however, a student takes a non-credit course, it may be cheaper.
There are notable exceptions, though. UW is now offering a new online degree completion program, which is cheaper and for those who cannot complete their degree for health or financial reasons. The degree program they are offering is a Bachelor in Early Childhood Studies.
However, while taking a few courses towards a degree might be OK, employers may not consider a completely online degree as valuable as a degree from a traditional university.
Although the stigma attached with online degrees is reducing dramatically given the number of people taking online courses — over 6.7 million students took at least one online course in Fall 2011 — there are still whiffs of odor hanging around the prospect of not having been taught in a traditional university. Some employers simply don’t accept an online degree, whether it comes from an accredited university or not.
Another issue that students may face is the lack of “richness” that is provided by direct interaction with teachers and peers. When a person is holed up in their home in front of a screen, they may miss out on the collaborative learning that happens in a collegiate atmosphere.
Ultimately, the largest problem students face is that they have to be self-regulated and motivated.
Procrastinators waiting until the final can kiss good grades goodbye. Unlike more rigid traditional classroom structures, which forces students to be on the ball, it’s very easy to slack off on education between work and play if you’re studying online. According to a Seattle Times article on Washington’s community colleges, students taking online courses dropped out more and passed less. Worse, there was also an increase in the educational gap; meaning students more likely to do worse in face-to-face classes fared even poorer in an online environment.
A relatively new system, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have received a lot of attention recently. Online courses aimed at large-scale interactive participation and open access via the web, MOOCs are distinct from the free YouTube lectures like Khan Academy or the more structured Open Yale courses. MOOCs, like Coursera, EduX and Udemy, offer free full-scale courses with instruction, portals, and participation of people from all over the world. Top universities such as MIT, Duke and UW offer introductory courses for free with their instructors online.
There’s a lot going for online courses and their MOOC and free YouTube counterparts, but their newness and legitimacy in a market dominated by traditional universities makes their acceptance a little bit difficult. But things are changing rapidly. More employers are coming on board, more major universities legitimizing them and more people are using them. You may look into these courses should they fit your requirements, but as always, caveat emptor. (end)
Arunabh Satpathy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.