The debate about the value of an online education rages on. While some college educators and potential employers question the value of the online degree, students are flocking to this alternative form of learning in record numbers. Meanwhile, mainstream colleges and universities are taking a “better safe than sorry approach,” which means that whether they are in favor of online degrees or not, they want to be in a position to compete for online tuition dollars.
The lure of online courses is based on several reasons. Many working adults don’t have time to pursue an education through traditional means. And working adults who are also juggling children and other responsibilities may find it nearly impossible to commit to a standard format of physically participating in brick-and-mortar classes. It’s a catch-22: they can’t take classes during the day because they’re working. However, evening and night classes pose other problems such as finding -- and paying -- babysitters, making time to help the kids with their homework or see that they’re properly fed, and even spending quality time with them.
Online classes also provide educational opportunities to students who live in areas where colleges don’t offer their desired majors and degrees. Otherwise, these students would be faced with the choice of relocating to another city or forgoing the opportunity to pursue the degree of their choice.
Cost is another factor that has increased the popularity of online degrees. These students don’t have to pay for room and board, and they don’t have transportation costs.
In short, pursuing an online degree provides the opportunity to study at your convenience - from anywhere you have an Internet connection – at a significant cost savings.
But is it a worthwhile investment, or are you wasting your time and money if you pursue an online degree? A 2013 survey of online education conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group and a comprehensive study by Learning Group and Aslanian Market Research shed light on this controversial educational trend.
If popularity is any indication of the value of an online education, the numbers are staggering. Out of the 21 million students enrolled in college, at least 7.1 million have taken at least one college online course. This represents a 6.1 percent growth rate, which means that over 400,000 more students have taken an online class this year than the past year. In addition the growth rate for online classes is larger than the growth rate for the overall student body, according to the survey. Over 60 percent of online student are married, 56 percent have at least one child, and 33 percent are between 18-24 years old.
Regarding their personal perceptions regarding the quality of online education, chief academic officers have changed their views over time. In 2003, when the Babson series of reports began, 43 percent of chief academic officers considered online learning to be “inferior,” or “somewhat inferior.” By 2012, this number had dropped to only 23 percent of chief academic officers. However, it is interesting to note that in 2013, the number crept up slightly to 26 percent.
The largest colleges and universities are more likely to offer online classes, and their chief academic officers are more likely to rate online learning positively. From among schools that offer online classes, almost 25 percent of their chief academic officers perceive online education to be “superior” to face-to-face instruction. Another 20 percent consider it “inferior,” and the rest think that the two delivery systems are similar.
The officers were not asked to explain why they thought online education was inferior, superior, or comparable. However, schools with large traditional enrollment numbers tend to have large classroom sizes, which, in turn, will limit the level of personal interaction between students and teachers. This may explain why some of those officers tend to think that online education is superior or similar to traditional learning.
Another question regarding online education is whether more discipline is needed to successfully engage in this type of study. Almost 70 percent of chief academic officers think that they do. This perception was highest among schools that offer online classes and among those who have a positive perception of it. However, by degree, the numbers are all over the board. When pursuing an associate’s degree, 77.3 percent think online students need more discipline. For a baccalaureate, the number drops down to 56 percent. It rises to 71 percent for a master’s degree, and then drops to 59 percent for a doctoral/research degree.
Among schools that offer online courses, student retention is a greater concern in this area than it is for students who take traditional classes, according to 41 percent of chief academic officers. The study’s authors speculate that is difficult to compare retention rates between the two formats. They also stated that it is difficult to pinpoint the cause of online students dropping out. These students are more likely to take online courses because of other obligations (work, family, etc.). So, if they drop out, is it because of family commitments, is it related to the course itself, or is it the nature of the student?
Among online education graduates, 65 percent felt that it was “completely” worth the financial investment, and 72 percent thought it was completely worth the time investment. Thirty-one percent thought it was “somewhat worth the financial investment, and 24 percent felt that it was somewhat worth the time investment. Only four percent of graduates responded “no, not at all,” when asked if it was worth the financial investment,” and 4 percent stated it was not at all worth the time investment.
In addition, 44 percent of online graduates felt that their online degree was responsible for either their first job or a new job. Fifty-eight percent of respondents contributed their raise to their online degree, and 47 percent thought they received a promotion as a result of their online studies.
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