Worcester Business Journal - Traditional Colleges Eye Online-Only Degrees
By Amanda Roberge
The typical university classroom of 2010 has just gotten a makeover, and it may look familiar. In fact, it bears an uncanny resemblance to your home office, living room or local library.
With online learning gaining popularity at a steady pace, earning a college degree is a reality to anyone who can log on from home.
The virtual classroom is fast becoming a way for eager students to obtain an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree or even a doctorate, and local colleges are beginning to offer online-only degrees, in part to compete with online-only schools like the University of Phoenix.
UMassOnline, which is based in Shrewsbury and oversees online programming at each of the University of Massachusetts’ five campuses, and Assumption College in Worcester, are two of the local pioneers in fully online degree programs.
“There is online learning happening everywhere,” said Ken Udas, CEO of UMassOnline, which provides more than 100 fully online degree programs through the five Massachusetts campuses. “But not at this scale.”
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Unlike so-called virtual universities that have no home in the physical world and are offered solely online, both UMass and Assumption say the appeal of their online degree programs is the fact that the programs are anchored to the strong reputations of their Massachusetts institutions of higher learning.
“Assumption has a long tradition of delivering a quality education,” said Lee Pearson, director of graduate programs at Assumption, which is currently offering only one program online — a master’s degree program in rehabilitation counseling.
“We have found that the quality of the education we are offering is as good — if not better — than what people have access to in on-campus classes,” he said.
With the success of the initial master’s degree, Pearson said the college is considering adding other online degree programs.
While online learning is being integrated into all levels of the education system, there’s still a fair amount of skepticism in the marketplace as to the quality of the education.
However, at least one national study found online learning is as powerful as the traditional classroom.
A May 2009 analysis of online learning by the U.S. Department of Education found that “students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.”
“Online learning is not for everyone, but it’s been very successful for the people who have been involved in the process here,” said Bob Bureau, the associate coordinator for the program at Assumption College.
So who is logging on?
Distance learning, said Udas of UMass Online, is an appealing option for people who require flexibility in the ways they find the time to study and participate. And by all accounts, a successful candidate for online learning has more self-motivation than the average student.
He added that he does not believe that online learning will ever replace the experience of face-to-face education.
“There are always going to be people who seek a traditional campus-based experience,” he said.
Pearson explained that the vast majority of the students enrolled in the online degree program at Assumption work full-time, and the remainder of the students are either parents or students with a special set of circumstances.
The flexibility of online learning helped UMass-Amherst graduate Sarah Swaitlowski, who started the coursework toward her MBA through the online program while working at Monster in Maynard.
She enjoyed the flexibility of participating in the virtual classroom according to her own schedule, even when she was relocated to Georgia in the middle of the school year.
“Because I was taking classes online I was able to complete the coursework even though I moved — something I wouldn’t have been able to do with a traditional program,” she said.
“I liked that I was able to set my schedule for school around what I had going on personally.”
While the overall cost of running an online degree program has not yet been fully analyzed, Udas suggests that some of the costs saved in physical space trickle down to providing more training and support for the students.
“There are different expectations around online learners,” he said, adding that they require a 24-hour call center and more sophisticated career services. Additionally, faculty members continually need to learn and master new skills in order to keep pace with the changing technology.
He explains that college tuitions have increased disproportionately to the average increase in household income over the past decade.
Therefore, while universities generally charge the same tuition for online and traditional coursework, students have the added advantage and flexibility to sustain full-time work outside of their schooling — adding to the appeal of online degrees.
Perhaps the biggest concern of graduates is that their degree will not be well-regarded in the real world.
According to some professionals, while your degree — online or traditional — will get you in the door for an interview, work experience and overall personality is more of a determinant for landing a job or receiving a promotion.
For her part, Swaitlowski said she’s had a positive experience since earning her degree online.
“I feel like most people are so used to e-communication that it doesn’t seem strange anymore,” she said.
According to Udas, new lines are continually being drawn as universities contemplate the implications of online learning.
“We are all in transition,” he said. “Online learning is no longer considered non-traditional.”