The reputation of online education has come a long ways in a short amount of time. It was not too many years ago that getting your degree online signified a second rate degree, but those days are long gone. Nowadays virtually every major university has developed or is developing an online educational offering that offers the same quality education, or better, than is available in the traditional on campus only setting.
The largest of the for-profit schools in the U.S., the University of Phoenix, which was founded in 1976 to target working adult students in the Phoenix area who did not fit the traditional student profile. Within a few years, additional campuses were added, and in 1980, the school was an early launcher of online education. Ten years after its beginning, the University of Phoenix had more than 100,000 students enrolled, and was growing at a rate of more than 25% a year. By 2012, an estimated 700,000 students had graduated from the degree program. However, the school was facing mounting criticism for its low graduation rates, which some claim to be as low as 16%, and the aggressive help the University offered students in applying for student loans. In 2008, the university was the top recipient of student financial aid funds, totaling nearly $2.48 billion. In recent years, the school has closed many of its campuses, but still has 112 learning centers around the country. The University of Phoenix currently has an enrollment of more than 300,000 students.
The combination of low graduation rates and the criticism of some of its business practices, led many Americans to conclude that a degree from the University of Phoenix was not as valuable as a degree from a traditional on campus institution. For a number of years the University of Phoenix, perhaps unfairly, was the unfortunate poster child for what was wrong with online education.
Fortunately, those perceptions have changed as online learning has now become very mainstream. By 2011, more than 6.7 million students were taking at least one online course, a number that continues to increase at a rapid rate.
According to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management undertaken in 2010, more than half of the HR managers surveyed reported that it made no difference in their hiring decision of two equally qualified candidates if one had a degree from an online school and one from a traditional on campus school. However, the study also revealed some concerns that the quality of online schools was not uniform.
That perception has likely changed in the intervening four years since that study was done as now virtually all of the major prestigious universities have embraced online offerings. School like Harvard, USC, MIT, Stanford, Princeton, and many others have a solid and growing reputation for their online classes being of the same quality as their on-campus offerings.
Some of these schools, while increasingly offering online degrees, are very active in developing and offering MOOC courses, which is still an unknown term to many. However, that is rapidly changing, as MOOCs have generated a lot of positive press over the past year. As managers become aware than an employee can take a course from Harvard or Stanford on some unique aspect of their business, and at no cost, it is reasonable to assume that expectations for employees to take advantage of these offerings will increase, as will the reward for those that do so.
The changes being forced upon the nation’s colleges and universities by the increasing popularity of online education have been described as an example of Disruptive Innovation Theory. This theory holds that when something new replaces something old because the new way is more accessible and useful, that then leads to an entirely new business or industry. This change to the new business of distant education is clearly now happening in the field of higher education.
There are winner and losers in this scenario. The losers are the traditional brick and mortar institutions that are unwilling or unable to adapt to the rapidly changing attitudes in higher education and the public towards online education. Another key group that is a potential loser is university faculties, who have to adapt to an entirely new teaching model that calls for teaching thousands of students in a class instead of dozens. Some professors will make the switch while other will not. The nature of the tenure system in American schools may allow some of the more reluctant and entrenched opponents of online education to slow down this process of change, but they cannot stop it.
A Gallup survey in 2013 revealed that Americans see online education as a positive development. Online education gets high marks for providing a wide range of learning options at a good value point. There was some concern expressed about testing standards, but the only category where online school fared worse than on campus schools was in having a degree that will be viewed positively by employers. 49% of the respondents felt that the online degree was viewed less positively than a traditional degree while 46% felt that an online degree was better or equal in value.
No doubt, debate will continue over the value of online education versus traditional on campus education, but the mere fact that there is now such controversy is a substantial step forward for online education proponents.