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Feb. 5, 2010

Pro/Con: Is online post-secondary education the more viable option in today's job market?

by Natalie Rutsch, Page Editor and Vicky Lai, Managing Op-Ed and Design Editor
With the recession and rising college tuition costs, more and more people are turning to cheaper education venues, particularly online ones. But educational experts have questioned the quality of online postsecondary education since it first began, and students must decide whether they are willing to give up a traditional education for a cheaper online alternative.

Natalie Rutsch says yes: Online education is a practical substitute for traditional college.

College has a major complication: finances. But with the recent boom of flexible, generally affordable online education, students can compromise between work and school without compromising their education.

Online education grew by 12.9 percent between 2006 and 2007, according to the Sloan Consortium, an online education organization, and continues to spread rapidly, particularly in developing countries. A significant reason behind the growing popularity of online education is its adaptability to individual lifestyles. Online education fits the demanding schedules of a wide variety of people - most commonly people with full time employment, but also members of the military and individuals with physical and mental disabilities, among others. Online students can complete coursework whenever, from wherever, as long as they have Internet access.

"Wherever" is an important considerations in favor of online education. Individuals sometimes require very specialized courses to advance their career, and local schools may not offer certain courses, which can be problematic for people constrained to one area. In these situations, the best, simplest solution is to take the course online.

Online classes can often be not only the most readily available solution, but also the fastest route to a degree. Because online programs often offer a more structured set of classes from which to choose, students subsequently earn a degree faster, without wasting money or time in unnecessary classes.

But when something is "simple" and "fast," any cautious person's next step is to question quality. And, admittedly, not all online universities are flawless. Their reputation is clouded by "diploma mills," such as infamous Ashwood University, that churn out degrees with insubstantial academic study and without accreditation from educational accreditation organizations (groups that review the legitimacy of colleges and universities). Like traditional colleges, online universities vary in quality, but many accredited online universities do provide an equal education to on-campus universities.

For some students, online education's methodology is actually more helpful than that of some on-campus classes. For instance, shy students who don't fully participate in classes may be more comfortable participating online and less able to hide in the back of the classroom. In fact, a 2009 U.S. Department of Education publication found that in recent experimental and quasi-experimental studies comparing the outcomes of hybrid classes and conventional on-campus classes, hybrid instruction was more effective. When used individually, online learning appeared to offer a slight advantage over traditional classes.

Skeptics of online education question not only the quality of online degrees, but how cheaper online degrees fare in the competitive job market. But a 2006 report from Vault.com, a website that provides career and education information, showed that 81 percent of employers surveyed believed online degrees were more credible than five years ago, and 86 percent said they would hire someone with an online degree.

But is an online degree really less expensive? An online degree doesn't come cheap, but online education is generally a more affordable option than on-campus education. For example, according to 2009-2010 rates from College Board, a private four-year college costs an average of $26,273 a year and a public four-year college costs an average of $7,020. In comparison, according to fall 2009 rates, in-state tuition at University of Maryland's online college, University College, costs $5,820.

Online students also do not have to pay for dorms, meal plans, parking, commuting, textbooks and other costs that many on-campus students accrue.

Online education is not only a workable alternative for individuals who cannot afford traditional college due to conflicts with work and costs, but the fast-growing industry is also a large part of the future of higher education. Everyone benefits: Students can hold jobs while taking courses and employers can choose from a wider pool of college-educated professionals or improve their existing employees' skills without sacrificing time to attend a traditional college or paying exorbitant tuition. When circumstances dictate a non-traditional education, logging on is the best compromise.

Vicky Lai says no: The traditional classroom is a more valid form of education than online colleges.

Stores, books and snail mail. E-commerce, e-books and e-mail. Many societal essentials have gone from offline to online, but education's transition has not been so smooth. Though diploma scams set online postsecondary education off to a rocky start, a U.S. Department of Education report said that online learning is growing quickly. Yet now that legitimate institutions are receiving more students, they're still not anywhere near the level of traditional schooling in academic integrity, quality and support.

Think of traditional college as an investment for the future: Traditional college translates to a more complete, meaningful education and a better job, while online education is still far behind its classroom counterpart and employer beliefs reflect that disadvantage.

In a competitive job market, people want to impress employers with degrees, but more affordable online education is not the best way to get a job. A 2008 survey by Vault.com, which provides career information, found that only 19 percent of hiring managers surveyed have actually hired a candidate with an online degree, and a whopping 63 percent said they favor candidates with traditional degrees. The relative effectiveness of online education doesn't matter when employers hesitate to hire online graduates.

Sure, employer prejudice is unfair, but it is based on facts. If employers know that it's easier to cheat online, it makes sense that they would be less likely to hire the graduate. While studies like the U.S. Department of Education's review of online learning found that online students performed better than classroom students, the review stated that online and face-to-face conditions varied in multiple respects, including amount of time spent on tasks. Moreover, the difference in media and thus ease of cheating is an essential factor in comparing quantitative values such as grades.

A paper in the Online Journal of Distance Learning said that countermeasures against online cheating are insufficient, and some of the most serious problems include getting test answers in advance, unfair retaking of assessments due to poorly designed software and unauthorized help during tests, such as hiring another student to take tests. With so many weaknesses in the online system, academic dishonesty is much easier and more common. "There are just more ways to cheat, and I would say that younger students are more tempted to beat the system and do it," said Buddy Muse, the distance learning associate director at Montgomery College.

And face it, many of us don't enjoy the work part of school - we enjoy socializing. Part of the school experience is talking to people, getting help, asking your friend to explain what the teacher just taught. Without seeing or interacting in real-time with anyone, students and instructors can feel isolated, Muse said. The online medium also discourages collaborative learning, and an online discussion is not really a discussion when there can be days between posts. Think of the times when students generate a heated debate - that sort of heat dies down when it's stretched over a week.

Basically, you don't see your classmates or your teacher. Some online programs ensure timeliness by requiring teachers to respond to questions in 24 hours, but that's not the same as getting an immediate answer.

This lack of face-to-face instruction will always be missing from online education, but what characterizes online education now is that it's still in transition mode - some places don't even have training programs for faculty who have never taught online. There may be innovative educational technologies, but they are also useless technologies if faculty don't know how to use them or adjust to the virtual classroom.

Many issues are simply because online education is still too new - it takes time to develop trained faculty, socially interactive technology and countermeasures to academic dishonesty. Instructors need more support to make the transition from brick-and-mortar to the virtual classroom, and institutions need to apply more stringent testing policies. There's no doubt that online postsecondary education has a growing fan base and will continue to expand, but right now it still has a lot to learn before it gets to a level comparable to traditional education and earns a better grade in the job market.



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