People are sometimes unpleasantly surprised that it’s not easier,” says Kathleen Moore, executive director of the University of South Florida’s (USF) ECampus. ECampus supports more than 84,000 enrollments in 2,000-plus distance learning sections each year, and since “regular faculty are teaching both online and face-to-face courses, there’s probably 100% comparability in terms of students’ workloads and the demands,” she adds.
“A graduate course is a graduate course, whether you take it online or in the classroom,” says Ellen Waterman, associate dean for distance education at Regis University in Denver.
“I have heard online courses are even more challenging than in person,” notes Waterman, a frequent presenter at education technology conferences whose division in the College for Professional Studies helps faculty design and develop courses for online delivery. When online courses are developed, everything is thought through beforehand and all the learning activities are built to fit the course objectives, she explains. While classroom environments can be more free flowing, that’s a little less possible online, where professors use the same course template.
Myth 2: I won’t be interacting much with the instructor and other students.
This misconception “pretty much goes away as soon as a person engages with an online course,” Moore says. From chat rooms and discussion boards to class discussions held in real time (sometimes even in-person, for “hybrid” courses or in instances where the instructor likes to have everyone possible meet at least once in the beginning), there are lots of chances to interact. At USF, where many online learning students are local, it’s common for instructors to have students come in for the first day of class, she notes.
At USF and other institutions, instructors get special training in strategies for building a feeling of community in online courses. “Active learning strategies are specifically set up to create an atmosphere where students can participate in dialogue with each other and with faculty, Waterman says.
“Some of the best learning you do is through the groups you study with,” points out Waterman. She hopes students seeking online programs look for ones where interaction is key.
Participation is generally key to getting a good grade. “It is much harder to ‘hide’ in an online course than in a classroom. I am reviewing every post by each student. I can tell who is contributing and who is not,” says Patricia Carroll, an alumna of the nursing school at Excelsior College (N.Y.), where she is now an adjunct faculty member in the School of Health Sciences who teaches online courses only. A registered nurse and founder of the consumer health resource website Nurse’s Notebook, Carroll explains that contributions to online discussions count as class “attendance.”
Luckily for those who tend to be shy, online course interaction is often easier than speaking up in front of a class. “If you’re participating in a message board, you can compose your message before you send it, think about it without having to be so spontaneous,” says Moore.
Myth 3: I’m not tech-savvy enough to enroll.
Carroll puts it this way: “I’m pretty geeky, but many of my students are not.” Students need a reliable internet service provider, ideally with a broadband connection, knowledge of Microsoft Office, basic e-mail skills, and virus protection software, she says.
Her students can turn to Excelsior’s tech support team or troubleshooting resources that are part of the learning management system Blackboard. “‘I couldn’t upload my paper’ is the new ‘dog ate my homework’ and it doesn’t work any better as an excuse,” Carroll says.
Students at Regis, which also uses Blackboard, tend to turn to faculty as the “first line of tech support,” Waterman says, adding that Regis has 24-hour tech support available.
At USF, “We try to make sure that instructors are conversant with all the functionality of the technology so they can help the students and model the online behavior,” Moore says. Pre-course training on using Blackboard is also available.
Myth 4: My degree won’t be respected by employers.
Moore sees this as a real concern both for students and faculty not yet involved in online learning. “The bottom line is that online is a delivery mode. We’re basically delivering the same programs and courses that we deliver in the face-to-face mode on campus, or face-to-face at off-campus locations,” she says. “There are clearly online programs that are not accredited and not of quality, but there are also face-to face programs that are not accredited and not of good quality. Online delivery doesn’t say anything about the quality of the program.”
But do employers know that? An article in the spring 2009 issue of the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration that reviewed seven years of studies and articles about how potential employers perceive online degrees concluded that there may still be a “marked stigma attached to online degrees throughout the hiring process” within the industries studied. Studies have shown that they may perceive these degrees as lacking rigor and face-to-face interaction, associated with diploma mills, having increased potential for academic dishonesty, and indicating concern about students’ true commitment.
Yet some themes emerged in the review, namely that certain conditions can influence online degrees acceptance, including reputation of the institution and accreditation. In addition, there seems to be a perception that online graduates must be more self-directed and disciplined.
“There are diploma mills out there, which hurt us all,” says Carroll. “But the characteristics of a successful online student – takes personal responsibility, reliable, computer literate, able to express self in writing, goal-oriented – those are the characteristics I want in a professional employee.”
When Waterman checked in with two people from well-known technology companies to get a sense for what they thought about online degrees, they both pointed out that their companies had supported and even paid for master’s degrees earned online. They also noted that most of the training done at their companies is delivered online.
Still, the fear of people looking down on a degree earned online may be a reason some people seek online programs offered by traditional institutions. As Waterman says, “The degree looks the same. It doesn’t say how you did the work.”
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