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Online Education: Facts and Fallacies

Nov 20, 2013   |   General
Online Education: Facts and Fallacies

Online degree programs are revolutionizing higher education. It’s a revolution based on access to information, but a lot of misinformation has sprung up around it. As believers in “plugged-in education,” we passionately refute these often simplistic or anachronistic ideas. Here are six of the most commonly repeated myths about online education.

1.   “Online education is impersonal.”

Personal is as personal does. We’ve all had classroom educators who take no real interest in students and who all but disappear outside of class. Online educators and programs build their reputations on personally relevant content and high levels of interaction. The best gauge of how personal online education can be is what students themselves have to say. Comments on the LinkedIn page for Colorado Technical University suggest that online resources enrich the college experience:

I liked the weekly lectures where you could directly interact with the professor and other students...No questions went unanswered, and it was a good time to get to know others in your field of study.

Amanda C.

I enjoyed the on-line learning experience, you get to interact more with the instructor.

Elliot V.

The online experience let me go back to school and still not miss out on any of my two children's lives. This allowed me to be a great role model for my kids to show them that not only did they have to study, but that their mother did too! I would not trade my online training for anything, LOVED IT, LOVED IT, LOVED IT!

Angela T.

That last comment reflects another “personal” aspect of online learning: the way students integrate education into their lives. Many students emphasize that online education is for the self-motivated, and that the experience is literally what you make it. If you want a personal education experience online, you'll get it—because you'll have helped to create it.

2.  “Students can hide in an online class, never participating or taking risks.”

In online education, there’s a record of every class. Click by click, comment by comment, instructors monitor participation as it happens and can review it after the fact, not having to rely on memory or a general sense of a student’s engagement.

3.   “Respected brick-and-mortar schools don’t offer online programs.”

According to data compiled at Classes and Careers, by 2010 more than half of the 4500 brick-and-mortar colleges and universities in the U.S. were offering their degree programs online, and 96% offered at least one online-only class. The numbers go up every year, as more schools adapt to the needs of students for flexibility, mobility, and career-oriented content.

It’s true that some online programs are more highly respected than others, just as some brick-and-mortar schools rise to the top in various measures. Schools with years of experience in creating online learning environments have an edge. We’ve had time to discover what works; how to create an online experience that feels alive, dynamic, and personal. There’s a learning curve for institutions, as there is for students. Another big difference: technical expertise and investment. Schools that develop proprietary software can create and support a vastly different user experience than the usual, off-the-shelf models provide. Experience matters, and so does infrastructure.

4.    “Online degrees are easier to earn.”

This is a myth about standards, and has been widely debunked, both by educators and employers. Anecdotal evidence from online educators suggests that when there’s any difference, it tends to be the opposite. As one university director of academic services writes, “An online course, if it’s from a reputable institution, generally takes more time, energy, and self-discipline” than its on-campus equivalent. Employers understand this, too: in a recent survey, 82% of hiring managers disagreed with the idea that online learning is easier. The self-motivation needed to complete an online degree is an excellent indicator of that quality of character employers prize: a bona fide work ethic.

5.    “Face-to-face teaching produces better learning outcomes.”

Apart from redefining what “face-to-face” means, new technology expands the range of research and learning methods. Online courses can offer a rich environment for discovery and integration of theory and “real-world” application. In a 2012 Babson survey, 77% of academic leaders reported that online education delivers the same, or superior, learning outcomes.

6.    “Online, you don’t develop a network of contacts the way you do on campus.”

With the rise of online resources dedicated to forming networks and establishing connections, this statement is clearly out-of-date and out of touch. Online education is networking. One of the things a good online degree program will emphasize is connecting students to faculty, other students, real-world experts, mentors, and enriching resources. Creating connections to a powerful, professional network is one of the things online education does best.

The goal, always, is to meet students where they are and help them get where they want to go, offering them a wide horizon of opportunities, and equipping them for a fast-changing world.

What have you heard about online education? Are there other myths or misunderstandings out there? Let us know, and we’ll take them on.

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