Popularity of Online Degrees Increases

With more students heading back to school to gain new skills for a tough job market, online degree programs are becoming increasingly popular.

But are they a good investment?

Last month, a Zogby poll asked chief executive officers this question: Are online degrees as credible as a traditional degree?

Fifty percent agreed they were and 50 percent disagreed, according to the poll.

There are some challenges with online degrees, such as a perception that online degrees have limited quality, but a lot of employers are hiring graduates of online programs, said Bruce Chaloux, director of student access programs and services and the electronic campus for the Southern Regional Education Board.

With more students falling into the nontraditional category — having families or working a part-time or full-time job to pay for rising higher education costs — the flexible schedules of online programs look attractive, Chaloux said.

“We need to reach them where they need to be reached, rather than come to campus,” Chaloux said. “There is a lot of renewed attention at the state and national level, and I think this will be an exciting time in the next few years and online will be a significant player for success toward degree completion.”

Nationally, industry research has shown that 37.2 percent of individuals age 25 to 64 have completed an associate degree, which speaks to the growing challenge of students unable to finish their degrees, Chaloux said.

Texas and other southern states are well below that national average, he said.

“There are more adults coming back to school in these challenging economic times,” he said. “There is a huge adult population with some college and no degree, leaving them without credentials. There is a growing emphasis to get students to return and get degrees.”

A large portion of the enrollment growth is occurring in distance education, which has become so popular at universities that online classes have grown 20 percent annually during the last five years, Chaloux said.

“It has now become a commonly accepted way of delivering instruction,” he said.

A move toward the Web

As the University of North Texas, Texas Woman’s University and North Central Texas College expand their online classes and degrees, they are competing against online institutions like the University of Phoenix.

Texas Woman’s University, like other universities across the nation, is moving toward offering programs with an online component, said Dr. Ann Stuart, president and chancellor of TWU.

“We’re looking at the proper mix [of online and campus education] for our school. It will be a mix, that’s a given, and the students want it,” Stuart said. “The physical campus will always be important.”

Officials with the nearly 107-year-old university are having discussions about how to compete for local students online, she said.

The University of North Texas has redesigned several of its classes, putting together multimedia courses for undergraduate students in core classes to engage them, said Philip Turner, a professor of library and information sciences.

“I hope we will see a move toward classes that utilize these emerging technologies,” Turner said. “For certain classes, it makes sense to move online, such as the lower-level content classes.”

The hope is to move toward a blend of instructional approaches that have some content online mixed with large-group lectures, he said.

About 75 percent of UNT students want the “next-gen” approach, he said.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution; the majority of students want to thrive in this challenging environment,” Turner said.

Online classes are a necessity for North Central Texas College, as the school’s Corinth campus reaches capacity, said Dr. Lee Ann Nutt, vice president of instruction for the college.

“Our enrollment growth and demand for courses has increased each semester, and we have limited space,” she said. “The growth in our traditional classes is leveling off because there are no more seats. That’s why online is so important right now — that’s where our growth is.”

The college will have 160 online sections this fall — a number that has increased tenfold from 2003, when there were 16 online sections, Nutt said.

On campus

For TWU sophomore Alicia Thornton, online courses were never meant to replace her hands-on fashion merchandising program, but she tried the concept out on a core class.

Thornton took an online fundamental math class at the university last semester, but the 19-year-old didn’t perform as well in the online environment compared with the traditional classroom setting.

“I’ll never do it again,” she said. “It might be more convenient, but it depends on what type of person you are. Me, I know I couldn’t do it.”

The interactive dialogue that develops in the classroom is part of university learning, said Vanessa Macedo, an occupational therapy master’s student at TWU in a hybrid class that meets once a week.

“Online classes are not as interactive as campus classes; you don’t get a sense of other people’s perspectives,” she said. “I’m sure you could benefit from an online class if you work full-time and can’t be on campus, but I personally think the quality [in an online class] is lacking.”

UNT student Philip Hausmann also was concerned about the interaction with professors and other students lacking in online courses.

“I don’t think you would get the same experience as we have on campus,” he said. “You’d be book-smart, but you’d miss the interaction and how to deal with people.”

Misconceptions about online degrees abound, but a degree isn’t inherently good or bad based on the medium of instruction, said Dr. Mariela Nuñez-Janes, UNT professor of anthropology.

Nuñez-Janes taught her first online anthropology master’s class recently and was apprehensive about the experience, she said, but it all came together for a quality class.

The key to having a good online learning experience could be the student’s maturity, said Dr. Karen Dunlap, professor of teacher education at TWU.

Dunlap teaches undergraduate lecture classes and online master’s courses.

The undergraduate students benefit from the face-to-face time of a traditional classroom, while Dunlap’s master’s students are disciplined and appreciate the schedule flexibility of an online course, she said.

For teachers, there are benefits to online teaching, such as the flexibility it allows with grading, which can be done virtually anywhere, she said. However, online courses tend to create a lot of work on the front end for professors, she added.

Although there are differences between the two teaching formats, it comes down to good teaching by teachers, she said, “Good teaching is good teaching.”

Others in the academic field disagree.

UNT history teaching fellow Bryan Garrett believes online classes provide less value to the student, while universities churn out a profit.

“It’s a financially driven decision [by the universities],” said the graduate student. “It’s about providing the most service to as many individuals as possible. Online classes are a weaker product from my standpoint.”

In the workplace

When UNT history teaching fellow Simone de Santiago Ramos was hiring employees in her former life as a hospitality manager, she wouldn’t hire anyone with an online degree.

“I wouldn’t hire someone with a degree from the University of Phoenix; it’s worthless to me,” she said.

Several of Denton’s top private-sector employers have hired employees who have taken online courses or have online degrees.

The degree might be weighed differently, but getting a degree from an accredited institution or a reputable school can win you a job, employers said.

A reputable technical degree is important at James Wood Auto Park, but the degree is only one qualification among several considered in the hiring process, said general manager Denny Aldridge.

“I think it [an online degree] would be weighed, but it’s not a deal breaker as far as hiring,” Aldridge said.

The accreditation is a key issue to consider when picking an online degree program, said Blake Crenshaw of Guidestar Consulting, an information technology consulting company.

“There are some ‘Betty Crocker universities’ that pump out the ‘just add water and stir degrees,’ so because of that I would look into it if [I were] making a hiring decision,” he said. “As long as it was legit, I’d weigh it just the same as a traditional degree.”

There are a number of good online programs and known bad ones, but those in charge of hiring tend to do their research and evaluate the degrees, said Stan Morton, chief executive officer at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Denton.

“More and more candidates are moving in that direction — they [hiring managers] look for the accreditation and reputation of the schools,” Morton said.

If all skills needed for a job come with a degree, it doesn’t matter if the degree was earned online or on campus, said Keith Wheeler, plant president for Flowers Baking Co.

“The reality is the degree gets the door open, and your interview and work experience secures the job,” he said. (dentonrc.com)

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