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Evaluating E-Degrees

There's considerable debate over whether candidates with online degrees are as qualified as those who lug breifcases full of books across a real campus.

January 31, 2001
Related Topics: Training Technology
In many ways, Alex Zai is your typicalonline learner. As vice president of store operations and internationaldevelopment for PakMail Centers of America, Inc., Zai’s job is too demanding for a traditional classroom education. Seeking anMBA program that could accommodate his extensive foreign travel schedule andgive him a greater understanding of international business, Zai enrolled in theUniversity of Phoenix Global MBA Program. The courses, which were offeredentirely online, allowed him to complete his coursework after his kids wereasleep, while waiting in airports, or while conducting business in othercountries.

    How does he describe the quality ofeducation received? “Mediocre at best,” he admits. Zai rarely receivedfeedback on his work, there was no interaction with the other students, and heoften felt that his writing skills were better than those of his instructors.“The only thing I gained from the online courses was a better understandingand use of the Internet,” he explains.

    Across the country, there are countlessother working professionals just like Alex Zai. Pressed for time but faced withthe need for ongoing education, more and more adults are choosing to enroll inonline degree programs. According to a study conducted by Merrill Lynch, morethan 2.2 million college students will be taking courses online by 2002, a hugejump from the 710,000 enrolled in 1998. Many if not most of these students arethe working adults who now make up over 50 percent of post-secondary students.

    In response to the growing demand foronline education, colleges and universities are rushing headlong into thee-learning marketplace. There are currently more than 6,000 accredited collegecourses offered on the Web, and 84 percent of four-year colleges will beoffering distance-learning courses in the next two years. In addition to thestandard books-and-classroom universities, there are also a handful ofuniversities that were born on the Web. These include Jones InternationalUniversity, based in Englewood, Colorado, and Capella University, inMinneapolis. The willingness of educators to embrace the Internet means it isnow easier than ever to obtain a college degree without ever setting foot on acollege campus.

    But does the growing enrollment inonline degree programs mean that they are as effective as a traditionalclassroom education, or is Zai’s disappointing experience the norm? How shouldHR professionals who make hiring decisions regard online degrees? Are thecandidates as qualified as those who lug briefcases full of books across campus?

    As you might expect, in a new industrywhere the financial stakes are high but the experience level low, there arevigorous disagreements as to the effectiveness of online degree programs.

Online versus the classroom: whichis more effective?
   A glance at some of the researchindicates  no significant differencebetween distance education - of any sort - and classroom-based instruction. Inhis book The No Significant Difference Phenomenon (North Carolina StateUniversity, 1999), Thomas L. Russell of North Carolina State University detailsresults from 365 distance-education studies that show little if any differencein the quality of education received through distance learning versus theclassroom.

    “If you believe this research, whichI do, there is no doubt that with very few exceptions, students in online degreeprograms are at least as good as comparable students in traditional courses,”he says. “If I was doing the hiring, I would definitely give preference to theperson with an online degree. They have to be more disciplined and work harderto achieve their goals.”

    John Losak, vice president of researchand planning at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, agrees withRussell. Over the past six years, his department has conducted more than 24studies comparing student performance in online courses with that of theirclassroom counterparts. The research analyzed rate of graduation, time tograduation, and knowledge acquisition, among other things. “Overall, studentsperform as well or better in online courses,” he says.

    But critics of such favorable reportsemphasize that these studies are comparing online education with classroom-basedinstruction that was never very good to begin with. Roger Schank, chairman ofCognitive Arts Corporation, based in New York, is one of the most outspokendetractors. “You shouldn’t be comparing online education with existingeducation because existing education is not that good,” he says. “A lecturehall crammed with 1,000 students is not good education. Lectures themselves arenot good education. People learn best by doing.”

    Schank, whose company is helpingColumbia create its online university, is not a critic of online educationoverall, only of the way that most online courses are currently being offered.As he explains, in their zeal to create online offerings, most universities aresimply slapping lecture notes and readings online, making what was a badeducation to begin with even worse.

    “It’s like filming plays,” heexplains. “When movies came out in the 1920s, the first thought was to filmplays because that was how people were used to delivering entertainment. Youlook at movies today, and they don’t look anything like plays. As timeevolved, people began to understand that the medium was different and thus whatwe could do with it was different. The same is true with education and theInternet.”

    So how should online education beevolving? Because adults learn best through interaction and experience, Schanksays, online courses must be developed in such a way that learners can applytheir new knowledge to real-life experiences as well as interact and seekfeedback from others.

    To be fair, there are some pioneers whoare bringing together experts in subject matter, adult learning theory, andtechnology to design courses specifically for the Internet that are radicallydifferent from any you’d find in a classroom. These include CapellaUniversity, an accredited online institution that offers 12 degree programs, andCardean University, a spin-off of that has partnered with educationalheavyweights such as Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, and Stanford. The most advancedcourses being created by these universities use movie-like presentations,student-driven simulations, and asynchronous communication to facilitateinteraction and experiential learning.

    Because courses like this are designedfrom the ground up with technology, interaction, and simulation in mind, theyare time-consuming and expensive to develop. In fact, some courses take as longas 18 months and cost as much as $1 million to create. By comparison, currentdevelopment costs for most distance-education courses average less than $10,000,according to a report by, Inc. 

    For instance, the University ofPhoenix Online creates courses for less than $5,000. Because of the enormoustime and cost involved in putting more experiential courses online, it is likelyto be some time before the overall quality of online education improves.“There are great courses online now,” Schank insists, “but it will be awhile before there are great online degrees.” 

But what about today’s jobcandidates?
   Does the fact that e-learning is stillin its infancy mean that all graduates of online degree programs are receivingsubstandard education? Should HR professionals stay away from current onlinegrads in favor of employees with traditional degrees? Not necessarily. As withall hiring decisions, it depends on what you are looking for.

    “Certain subjects are very conduciveto online delivery,” explains Jeff Creighton, founder and chairman of EduPointInc., which manages a Web site that provides centralized access to informationabout online education. “Information technology courses, for example, areideally suited to the Web,” he says.

    HR professionals at high-tech companiesappear to be in agreement with Creighton. According to a recent survey of hiringmanagers by, the three industries most likely to hire candidates withonline degrees are Internet and new media, technology, and high tech.

    Aside from technical skills, the othercompetencies that online graduates typically demonstrate are discipline,motivation, good writing skills, the ability to work independently, and a highdegree of comfort with the Internet. Why? Because all these characteristics arerequired in order to successfully complete an online program.

    But in today’s highly collaborativeworkplace, where joint decisions have to be made quickly, the best-preparedapplicants might still be those who have acquired their abilities throughtraditional classroom programs.

    “Measurable skills, such as whetheror not a candidate can read a balance sheet or create a strategic plan, cantypically be taught effectively both online and in the classroom,” Creightonsays. “But when it comes to qualitative abilities such as interpersonalskills, leadership qualities, and problem-solving, e-learning is not yetdelivering because it doesn’t provide the immersion and interaction requiredto change a student’s paradigm. These attributes are still best developedthrough more traditional classroom-based education.”

    Alex Zai agrees. As a result of hisdisappointing experience with an online MBA program, Zai says if he were facedwith the decision to hire an employee with an online degree versus an employeewith a classroom education, he would choose the latter. “The interactionbetween students in a classroom is invaluable,” he says.

    Of course, when it comes to learning,it’s important to keep in mind that adults do have different learning styles.Some adults like the social interaction of a classroom. Still others may thriveonline because the medium is highly democratic - issues of age, race, gender,physical disabilities, and appearance rarely play a role. 

    Online courses alsoallow introverts time to formulate responses and contribute to classdiscussions. Such differences in learning style mean that people will be drawnto the learning modes that best fit their personalities and natural aptitudes.“As a result,” Losak explains, “HR people might want to consider placingpeople into positions based on how the learning occurred.”

    But in the end, when it comes toevaluating a particular job candidate, it’s important to remember that thedegree itself is just one characteristic. A person’s experience, enthusiasm,ideas, ability, and organization fit are equally - if not more - important.

E-learning resources
Provides centralized access to information on online courses and degree programs at more than 4,000 colleges and universities.
Offers an online quiz to help potential students determine if online learning fits their individual learning styles.

Workforce, February 2001, Vol80, No 2, pp. 44-48  SubscribeNow!

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