Sunday, January 27, 2019

Online degrees and physical presence

Online degrees are still not even recognised in many countries and even when they are, they are generally viewed with a degree of suspicion. The reasons for this suspicion are understandable. The whole field of online education is still evolving and so there is a much higher degree of experimentation and remodeling, with subsequent successes and failures, than in traditional campus education. Online courses over the years have been largely based on self-study with very little interaction or teacher presence and this model still dominates the public perception. Online education tends to be part-time, home-based and in combination with work and family and students do not benefit from the many advantages of being on campus: developing contacts, social interaction, strong student identity, academic community. The courses may cover the same topics and have equally high demands but the campus version still has higher status because of the added value of these intangible elements.

The question of whether online degrees will ever be seen as equivalent to campus degrees is examined in an article by Eric Stoller in Inside Higher Ed, Online Degrees: Prestige, Acceptance, and the Big Picture. Even if there are excellent examples of collaborative and engaging online education, the value of a course or degree is closely tied to the reputation of the awarding institution.

Online degree prestige at present is directly connected to the perceived prestige of the brick-and-mortar institution that's offering the program.

This argument is particularly true for MOOCs, where courses from high-status universities attract the most attention, even if that particular institution has never previously been recognised as a provider of quality online education. The global ranking systems that focus on research funding and citation impact do not always correspond to pedagogical excellence but prestige is still what counts when assessing the value of a course or degree. So a MOOC or online course from the likes of Harvard or Stanford will always attract more learners and have a higher perceived value than one from an obscure college, even if the actual course at the smaller institution is better designed and more engaging.

Perception is everything when it comes to prestige and certain institutions have an almost insurmountable amount of prestige.

Place and tradition are extremely important in human society. A university needs a physical presence and a long history to instill trust and credibility, even if it offers online degrees. This physical footprint creates a sense of permanence and a demonstration of its commitment. You can go there to see the staff, researchers and students going about their daily work. The more online an institution, the more invisible it becomes and the harder it gets to visualise what goes on there. We still tend to value online courses from well-known physical institutions with a long history higher than virtual institutions with little physical presence and a very short history. Association with a physical footprint makes a difference.

The key to the future of online degrees is that they are subject to the same rigorous quality assurance as all degrees and that this is communicated clearly to the public. Online education is unlikely to match the prestige of a campus education, even in the future, but Stoller stresses the need for accreditation to ensure that your online degree will allow you to pursue your chosen career.

If you get an online-based degree twenty years from now, I would hope that as long as it comes from a reputable institution (regardless of its perceived prestige) that's been accredited by a legitimate accreditor that your credential allows you to do whatever you hope to do with it regardless of the crest atop the gate at XYZ university.

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