Online Education Gains Momentum

Consider this. Two equally-qualified candidates interview for the same position. Both are experienced and interview strongly. One holds an MBA from Wharton, the other an online MBA from the University of Phoenix.

Who gets the job?

While many employers have for years viewed degrees earned online less favorably than those earned traditionally, times might be changing with many employers increasingly appreciating the fact that online students are completing their degrees while balancing work and family responsibilities.

A study by the Sloan Consortium revealed that more than six million students were taking at least one of their courses online in 2010 — an eye-popping jump of more than half a million students from the previous year. In fact, nearly 70 percent of higher education institutions indicated that online learning is a critical part of their long-term strategy.

“It takes outstanding time management skills and a lot of dedication to complete a degree entirely online, and employers are quickly realizing that when done well, online education is as good or better than traditional face-to-face learning environments,” said Frank Mulgrew, president of the Online Education Institute at Post University in Waterbury.

“In addition, many companies have embraced the power and convenience of eLearning in their own organizations. So, there is growing appreciation for the quality of well-designed online education. When all is said and done, the most powerful testament for employers is the quality of the work and the work ethic of graduates of online programs.”

Post offers a host of undergraduate and graduate degrees online. Since it launched in the fall of 2007, nearly 800 students have enrolled in the online MBA program — the fourth largest in the state — which offers concentrations in corporate innovation, entrepreneurship, leadership, finance, marketing and project management.

Mulgrew said the many advances in technology are making online programs even stronger, including the introduction of social media. In fact, Post is looking to develop smartphone apps that would provide up-to-date learning and training materials for its faculty.

“For our adult learners, in particular, we want to provide the education tools and resources they need to tackle real-world work challenges and opportunities in their workplaces,” Mulgrew said.

“Current and earlier versions of learning management systems were designed for faculty and administrators; the new systems for the upcoming year have a very different design model based on student learning and interaction that incorporates social media. Our master of education students, for example, are tweeting and following education leaders to broaden their networks and expand their education resources.”

“There is no doubt that online learning will play an increasingly important role in how we support lifelong learners and keep pace with rapidly changing business models that require people to constantly update their skills. We are seeing this every day.”

Susan McTiernan, associate dean for graduate programs and associate professor of management at Quinnipiac University’s School of Business in Hamden, agrees.

“There is still some misunderstanding among our corporate partners about online education, but this is being resolved as we continue to work with these important stakeholders toward developing a better understanding and set of insights into the challenges of online education and the reality that it is ‘just as good’ as more traditional forms of delivery and, in some ways, maybe even better,” McTiernan said.

Quinnipiac has a graduate population of about 500 — half of whom are online.

“All of the metrics that we have show that the future of learning at the graduate level is online,” McTiernan said.

“Quality online programs offer students flexibility to work as much as they need to at their profession/job and schedule their coursework when it is most convenient for them — a big advantage for busy professionals who have demanding business and travel schedules.”

Some argue that faculty can’t develop as strong a relationship with their online students as they can with their traditional students in a classroom.
Don Mroz, provost and dean of Post’s School of Business, says that while there are certainly variations among colleges and universities, Post prides itself on the deep engagement not only between its faculty and online students, but also between the students themselves.

Post requires faculty members to interact with students in consistent and continuous ways throughout each online course, providing regular feedback and answering questions from students within 24 hours.

“As we like to say, when it comes to online education, ‘there is no sitting in the back row,’” Mroz said.

“We find this kind of continuous engagement provides a much more robust, rewarding and successful learning experience for students. As a result, our online students are forming relationships with faculty and fellow students that last through a course and in many cases throughout their entire degree program and beyond. This is one of the surprises our online students and new faculty members often comment upon.”

Mroz said Post places a special emphasis on developing its faculty’s “e-personality,” a term coined by the school’s legal students academic program manager, Peter Chepya. E-personality is the ability to project a friendly, accessible, collaborative and academically supportive relationship with students in an online learning environment.

But, do hiring managers really see a difference between online and traditional degrees when considering candidates?

Sara Bell, human resource director at BlumShapiro in West Hartford, says that while a traditional degree from the Whartons, NYU’s and Columbia’s of the world should and does certainly carry some weight, it’s not always about where candidates earn their degrees, but more about the candidates themselves.

“Beyond a few basic credentials, it’s all about the candidate,” Bell said. “I think at one time there was a perception around online programs. These days I think employers are more open to this type of degree understanding that busy professionals need a more flexible option for learning.”

“I only see it increasing. With the active lifestyles professionals live, it is really about the convenience that I envision would keep this trend growing.”

HARTFORD BUSINESS

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