Is Distance Learning Right For You?

Because I have the experience of being a Dean of an online Texas university, I’m accustomed to dealing with the spectrum of issues related to online students, online professors, online courses, and their various interactions. For online students, this website provides help for students who are unsure about their online school choice or the important questions they need to answer before they can make that decision.  There are between 1,200 and 1,600 online universities that provide online degree programs.  Online students must be able to distinguish between “diploma mills” and institutions that provide accredited, quality online degree programs.  In addition to helping students find the right online university, I will also share some personal observations and best practice information about how to maximize your online learning experience.

Online learning is growing rapidly for three basic reasons.  First, it costs much less to obtain your degree from an online university than a traditional “brick and mortar” university.  The online schools do not have to pay for all those classrooms and other buildings, in addition to tenured professors who are often more interested in publishing research than teaching students.

The Value Argument for a College Degree

In November of 2008, the U.S. News and World Report estimated the average net present value of a four-year college degree is around $300,000.  Of course, graduates with career-related degrees like Business, Nursing, and Technology will find the value of their degrees will be much greater compared to graduates in Humanities or History.  On average, however, a $300,000 estimate is reasonable.  Now let’s look at the cost side of the equation.

The average cost of a four-degree for tuition, fees, and related expenses could easily reach $60,000.  But the range is quite wide from around $40,000 for in-state tuition, fees, and expenses at a public university to more than $100,000 for many private universities.  So even if you pay $75,000 to $100,000 for your degree, it is a very good investment.

The Cost of an Online Degree

But now let’s compare these costs to online learning.  First, tuition for online learning is less.  An online degree from a DETC-accredited school can be found for around $37,000.  I would estimate the average four-year online degree costs about 25% less than a traditional university – but that isn’t the whole economic story.

If you attend an online university, you can take courses and complete assignments on your schedule without those time-consuming trips to and from campus.  For many online students, this means you can work and earn while completing your degree.  Of course, you can also work while attending a traditional university, but you will be much more constrained due to your rigid schedule and travel time.  This means online students have more time and greater flexibility to earn more money while they pursue an online degree.  How much more can an online student earn?  You can easily make the case that an online student can earn an extra $7,000 to $8,000 a year more than a student at a traditional university for the reasons previously cited – more free time and schedule flexibility.  This amount is almost equal to the full-time tuition at some online universities.

Taking the work-while-studying scenario further, many online students work full-time and still complete 30 to 36 credit hours per year.  At this rate, many online students complete their undergraduate degrees in four years.  This possibility makes the economic argument in favor of online learning overwhelming.

The Effectiveness of Online Learning

Just as important as the cost argument that favors online learning, you will learn as much or more attending an online degree program.  Are you surprised by this statement?  Well, here is the proof that favors online learning.

An Indiana University study, just released in November 2008, found that online students reported deeper approaches to learning than classroom-based learners.  Deep learning, researchers said, is a type of learning that goes beyond rote memorization and focuses on reflection, integrative learning, and higher-order thinking–analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) , which was conducted by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, collected information from nearly 380,000 randomly selected first-year and senior students at 722 four-year colleges and universities across the United States. NSSE explored the experiences of online students through a set of additional questions given to more than 22,000 students from 47 institutions.

According to the survey results, 37 percent of first-year online students and 45 percent of seniors said they participated in course activities that challenged them intellectually “very often,” compared to only 24 percent of first-year classroom-based learners and 35 percent of seniors. The survey also found that online learners reported somewhat more deep approaches to learning in their coursework. Survey results showed that 58 percent of first-year students taking most of their classes online reported using higher-order thinking in their coursework, compared to 55 percent of classroom-based learners. Results also showed that 69 percent of first-year students taking most of their classes online reported using integrative thinking in their coursework, compared to 67 percent of classroom-based learners. Additionally, 62 percent of first-year students taking most of their classes online reported using reflective learning in their coursework, compared to 59 percent of classroom-based learners. The study also found that online courses stimulate more intellectual challenges and educational gains.

Bob Gonyea, Associate Director of the Center for Postsecondary Research, said the survey did not collect data that could concretely determine why online learners reported deeper approaches to learning.  Gonyea suggests, and I agree, that one explanation lies in the fact that online learners tend to be older students who are more motivated and responsible for what they learn.  Online students tend to have greater experience in the world of work which gives them a richer context in which to examine, analyze, and contemplate how what they are learning through their online courses is relevant to their jobs and career goals.

The other explanation for the research results relates to the design of online courses and how professors conduct them.   Online courses are rigorously designed to achieve documented learning objectives and to engage students through planned activities.  Gonyea also believes online professors also deserve some credit:   “I also think that people who teach online classes don’t take engagement for granted,” Gonyea said.

Is Distance Learning Right For You?

Distance learning can basically provide the same benefits as attending a traditional university, but it is much easier to work while participating in distance learning, you have much greater scheduling flexibility, and you will spend a great deal less earning an online degree.  For a rapidly growing number of adult students, the only real decision is their choice of an online school.  Online school choice can seem a bit overwhelming at first, but we will discuss the most important selection criteria so you can have confidence in your final decision.

The Case for Distance Learning

I thoroughly enjoyed my college experience immediately following high school graduation.  The opportunities for social development are an important part of a traditional “brick and mortar” university.  These universities are great places if you are a teenager who doesn’t really know what you want to do with your life yet and need to mature a bit more before getting serious about a career.  I can absolutely understand why online universities are not the best choice for everyone.

The best argument for online universities is really based on money. There is no doubt the choice of an online school will save you money.   If I were graduating from high school now, I definitely could not afford to attend a traditional university.  To be honest, I could not afford a traditional college education back when I did graduate from high school, but I was fortunate enough to earn a scholarship.  If distance learning was an option when I graduated from high school, my choice of an online school would have been a “no brainer.”

I have taught at both traditional and online universities so I can tell you that from a purely “knowledge acquisition” perspective, you can learn just as much online than you can at a traditional university.  So, if you want to get the most education for the money, distance learning is best.  If you need to work full-time while going to school, then your decision to go with distance education is a “no brainer.”

Are potential employers going to discount your academic qualifications because you graduated from an online university?  My candid opinion is, “maybe yes.”  There is a small minority of biased, ill-informed employers who give preference to those job candidates who graduated from a traditional university – but that number is rapidly shrinking.

Distance Learning Can be Better

We have seen study after study conclude that distance learning is just as effective as the traditional approach.  Recently, in fact, we are learning that online education is better. An Indiana University study released in November 2008, found that online learners reported deeper approaches to learning than classroom-based learners.  The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) http://www.nsse.iub.edu/index.cfm , which was conducted by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, collected information from nearly 380,000 randomly selected first-year and senior students at 722 four-year colleges and universities across the United States. NSSE explored the experiences of online learners through a set of additional questions given to more than 22,000 students from 47 institutions.

According to the study results, 37 percent of first-year online learners and 45 percent of seniors said they participated in course activities that challenged them intellectually “very often,” compared to only 24 percent of first-year classroom-based learners and 35 percent of seniors. The survey also found that online learners reported somewhat more deep approaches to learning in their coursework. Survey results showed that 58 percent of first-year students taking most of their classes online reported using higher-order thinking in their coursework, compared to 55 percent of classroom-based learners. Results also showed that 69 percent of first-year students taking most of their classes online reported using integrative thinking in their coursework, compared to 67 percent of classroom-based learners. Additionally, 62 percent of first-year students taking most of their classes online reported using reflective learning in their coursework, compared to 59 percent of classroom-based learners. The study also found that online courses stimulate more intellectual challenges and educational gains.

So, you should feel confident in your decision to attend an online university.  Next, we will examine the question of which online university is best for you.  I believe there are several very important criteria you should examine very carefully.

Accreditation of Online Universities

Think of accreditation as a quality review process conducted by an impartial third-party organization.  The importance of accreditation lies in the fact that if an online university is not properly accredited, your degree may be rejected by a majority of potential employers and you may have difficulty transferring the credits to an accredited university.

So should you never take a course from a school that is not accredited?  No, I would definitely not go that far.  Think of it like this.  Would you ever attend a lengthy seminar in order to learn about something that was very important to you?  Sure you might.  This is basically what you are doing if you attend a university or other educational institution that is not accredited.  You might learn a great deal about a subject that is important to you, but you will not have the same credential that comes with the educational courses and programs offered by accredited educational institutions.  The bottom line is this – if you want a degree to acquire knowledge and to obtain a credential to obtain a job or to transfer credit-hours to another university, then you should only consider an accredited online university.  This criterion is so important, I would say the issue of accreditation is a “deal-breaker.”

The accreditation issue is complicated a bit by the fact that there are many types of accreditation and accrediting bodies.  In my opinion, there are only two types of accreditation you should accept:  regional accreditation and DETC accreditation.  I’m not an accreditation expert and others who might argue with me, but that’s my opinion.

There are six regional accreditors (New England Association of Schools and Colleges, North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement, Southern Association of Schools and Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges).  These six regional accreditors are the “granddaddies” of accreditation and are considered the “gold standard.”  So, if this is clearly the highest standard of accreditation, why would you consider attending an online university that does not have regional accreditation?

You have to understand that obtaining regional accreditation is no small feat.  It takes years of effort, is quite administratively burdensome, and ultimately is quite expensive.  So, if you are a small online university, you might simply not have the resources to obtain regional accreditation.  What is a small, high-quality online university to do?  They can obtain DETC (the Distance Education Training Council) accreditation.

The DETC is a well-respected institution that deploys a rigorous, comprehensive review process.  While rigorous, it is not as administrative burdensome can be obtained much faster, and costs much less to obtain.  Both the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the United States Department of Education recognizes the DETC as a legitimate accrediting agency.  This recognition is extremely important and should be your cue that any online university with DETC accreditation is no “diploma mill.”

So, is DETC accreditation good enough?  I would say yes it is but with one important caveat – transferring credits.  Each university has its own transfer policies related to accepting credits for courses completed at another university.  Some universities with regional accreditation will simply reject any transcript from a DETC-accredited university.  Others will grant only partial credit.  Still, others will accept all of your credit-hours if you previously attended a DETC-accredited university.  How extensive is this transfer credit problem?  A recent study conducted by the DETC found that about two-thirds of students attempting to transferring credits from a DETC-accredited university to a regionally-accredited university had their transcripts accepted and received transfer credits.  Is this justified?  Look at the situation this way.  Is there a certain amount of snobbery on the part of some regionally accredited universities?  You bet there is.  Are some traditional universities facing declining enrollments because they just cost too much and are losing students to online universities?  Sure, that is definitely happening.

Is the fact you have a degree from a DETC-accredited university going to be a problem for you in terms of getting a job.  Not really, but individual companies so have many different hiring policies and practices.  Would I have an easier time getting a job I wanted if my Ph.D. was from Harvard rather than the University of Missouri?  Sure – sorry Mizzou but this is just a fact of life.  I really don’t think to have a degree from a DETC-accredited university is going to have that much of an impact on getting a great job that you are going to love.

You must decide for yourself how important this transfer credit issue is to you.  If you complete an undergraduate degree from a DETC-accredited online university and have no plans to go on for a Master’s degree, then the transfer credit issue is moot.  If you complete your MBA or other Master’s degree at a DETC-accredited university and you will not be going on for another degree – again it’s a moot point.  If the transfer issue is important to you, check out the Higher Education Transfer Alliance (http://www.chea.org/heta/default.asp).  Universities who are members of this alliance have agreed to be open to schools with DETC accreditation, or other types of accreditation approved by either the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the United States Department of Education.  If you have an idea now about where you might want to transfer credits, why not send them an email asking for them to provide you with information about their transfer credit policy.

Tuition, Fees and Expenses of Distance Education

For most students, the cost of their education has to be the second-most important decision criteria after considering the accreditation issue.  You will find the biggest differences in the cost of a college education are between traditional universities and online universities.  Much online technology and health care programs are a bit more expensive because universities have to pay higher levels of faculty compensation in these areas because of the relatively small supply and growing demand for qualified professors.  Graduate degree programs cost more because most universities pay their professors teaching graduate-level courses significantly higher rates of pay.

Some online universities include many mandatory online meetings in many or most of their courses.  This practice adds to the cost of their courses as does the practice of requiring professors to have regularly scheduled virtual office hours. While the online course meetings do provide excellent opportunities to exchange ideas with professors and students, but so do discussion forums that cost much less and do not create scheduling constraints for busy students who also have jobs.

Some universities that have both traditional classroom courses and online versions assign some of their overhead costs to their online programs and thus charge online students more.  The cost of acquiring and operating various learning platforms can also vary significantly.  Moodle, for example, is an excellent open-source learning platform that is quite economical.

Frankly, as long as an online degree program is regionally or DETC accredited, it is difficult to justify why some online universities should charge significantly more than others for courses in the same type of degree program.  Just be sure you compare total costs including, tuition, fees, and other expenses.  Some universities, for example, charge extra for textbooks while others do not.

By the way, one way you can reduce the cost of your textbooks is to request textbooks in ebook format.  These typically reduce the cost of textbooks by 30% to 50%.

Scheduling Flexibility of Distance Learning

Scheduling flexibility is an important factor that you should consider.  If you are planning to work while taking online courses make sure you will have the scheduling flexibility you need to meet the requirements of your job.  For example, some universities have a fixed schedule that gives you no extra time to complete courses.  For example, some online university courses are structured on an eight-week schedule and you will receive an “Incomplete” for the course and may have great difficulty getting a final grade unless you have an acceptable reason for not completing the course on time.  Other online universities will provide a 30-day extension if it is needed for any reason.

You will also find some online universities schedule weekly interactive sessions with groups of students, the schedule for which cannot be adjusted.  Some academic programs use group projects in many courses.  This will require you to schedule group meetings with your classmates.  If you have a job with a fixed schedule, then a highly structured academic schedule might work well for you.  But if your workload is variable and somewhat unpredictable, then you need as much flexibility in your academic program as possible.

Specialized Degree Programs in Distance Learning

Online universities are rapidly growing.  To complete more effectively, these universities are offering a much greater number of specialized degree programs and more flexibility so you can go a long way toward customizing your academic program.  You can get an MBA with a Health Care area of concentration, or a concentration in Business Intelligence, or a concentration in Sustainable Business.   If you know what kind of job and career path is best for you, be choosey about the academic program in which you enroll- get exactly the academic program you want or close to it.

Start with the work you want to be doing soon after graduation and five years after graduation.  Then, work backward to find the academic program that will best prepare you for that job and career path.  If the online university does not provide a degree program that is already structured in the area you want or does not offer the flexibility you need the design the program you want, then keep on looking.

Faculty Experience

Frankly, I don’t think you need to worry much about the academic background of the faculty working for the university you are considering.  If the university is fully accredited, they must follow strict guidelines pertaining to the qualifications of faculty.  What is typically not prescribed and varies greatly from university to university is the amount of professional experience possess by faculty.  If you are taking an Accounting course, will your professor have a Master’s degree in Accounting and no professional experience in the Accounting profession or will he/she have ten years of professional experience as a Manager of Accounting and Controller?  Imagine the difficult time an Accounting Professor will have leading a discussion forum related to Managerial Accounting if he or she has no relevant professional experience – only the required academic qualification.

You might ask to speak with the Dean or Department Head in the academic area in which you are interested in the professional experience issue.  During this discussion, find out about how courses are structured and the amounts of professional experience their faculty possesses. If you are not able to arrange an appointment, identify six or seven courses from the university’s curriculum and ask to see the resumes of the professors who teach those courses.

There are many other factors you might want to consider, but I think we have already covered the most important criteria for your selection decision.  Some less critical criteria you might want to consider are residency requirements, the frequency with which courses are typically offered, average class sizes, and the use/frequency of proctored examinations.

In my view, distance learning provides the best “value proposition.”  If time and money are not important factors, then a traditional university might be best for you.  The right choice of an online school will take some time and effort on your part.  Online school choice is not something you should rush or take lightly.  The most important factors you should consider to make your choice of an online school include:

  • Accreditation
  • Cost
  • Scheduling Flexibility
  • Faculty Experience

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