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Online Degree Programs Face Barriers to Success

FILE - Nathaly Ordonez studies the home page for the tuition-free, online University of the People, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Online Degree Programs Face Barriers to Success
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Last week, we talked about Americans taking college classes and completing study programs online – that is, with the help of computers and over the Internet.

The United States Department of Education has noted the growing popularity of online degree programs, what it called ‘distance education.’ It reported that 14 percent of all students at American colleges and universities studied through such programs in 2014.

Leanne is one of those students.

Her goal was to earn a master’s degree in nursing from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She signed up for the university’s online program in 2014. She asked VOA not to share her last name because she has yet to complete her studies.

Leanne chose to study online for many of the same reasons that other students do. She was working full-time, and did not want to move away from her job and family to continue her education. Leanne liked that she was able to study whenever and however much she wanted.

But while the program met her needs at first, Leanne feels there are things she did not get from studying online. She earned her undergraduate degree from a traditional, face-to-face, study program at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In the end, there’s really no substitute for the exchanges that actually happen in a classroom.

Leanne says physically being in a classroom helps build a strong connection between students and their professors. She says in some ways she liked taking control and leading her own studies. But many times, she also felt lost without that special connection.

"In the end, there’s really no substitute for the exchanges that actually happen in a classroom. And I think that, to some extent, I missed out on that and I would have like to have had that experience. So if I were to do it again, I don’t know that I would have made the same decision. I think it maybe would have been worth making a little bit more sacrifice in terms of the convenience and the finances to have a more rich learning experience, where you really get to exchange with your professors … and develop your skills."

In addition, it may not be just a student’s learning that suffers in a distance learning program. There is some concern about what future employers think about an online degree.

Public Agenda is a nonprofit research organization in the United States. In 2013, the group reported on a study of over 600 people working for American companies. They were responsible for filling positions at these businesses. The study looked at what these employment specialists thought about online degree programs.

Fifty-six percent said they were more likely to offer jobs to people with a more traditional college experience, where students and teachers meet face-to-face. Forty-two percent said they thought students in online programs learned less than those in traditional programs. And 39 percent of those questioned said they thought online programs were easier to complete.

Alison Kadlec is a senior vice president of Public Agenda. She says the numbers may have changed a little over the past four years as online programs become more popular. But there are still strong critical opinions about what online programs can do for students.

"There is a kind of traditional bias about what education should be, and technology and life and work and everything show what’s problematic about that hundred year-old model of education. But it’s still something that’s so ingrained in who we are, in how we think about higher education."

Kadlec says it is hard for people to change their ideas about higher education from a professor teaching students in a classroom. Also, some employers may have limited understanding of what is possible through an online program. Many people think studying online just means watching videos of teachers talking. Yet technology is always changing. Computer programs may someday educate and test students in ways human teachers cannot.

However, Kadlec notes, until there are widely accepted standards for online programs as there are for traditional ones, critical opinions will likely remain. Students like Leanne choose online programs because their lives are already complex or difficult. And having employers value their degrees less than a traditional college education only makes things more difficult for them.

Also, there appears to be a barrier for online programs becoming more widely accepted. If more well-known, high quality schools start offering such programs, employers will likely consider the two methods as equal. But the high cost to create high quality online programs suggests this will not be easy.

The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies studies online learning. The group released a study on the cost of creating online programs in February. It asked administrators at 197 colleges to report on the costs of 21 different components needed to operate the two programs. This included the cost of paying professors to design materials and testing.

At all the colleges, administrators noted that nine of the components generally cost more than for traditional programs. Twelve of the components cost the about same. Nothing in any online program cost less.

Russ Poulin helped create the study. He says the reason costs are so high for online programs is all the extra steps they require. In a traditional program, the main cost is the professor, who designs the study materials, and the building where the class is taught. But if many professors take turns teaching in the same rooms, the cost of the building is shared by all the students in those classes. While online programs may not require a classroom, there are other requirements.

We’re starting to hear the pain being expressed by the students in terms of they can’t pay back loans or they can’t afford even to come in.

Online programs require computer engineers to design programs to present the lesson materials. Online programs can often reach more students than a class taught in a building. But this means professors need more teaching assistants than they normally would. Also, physical universities can offer support services like study aids, libraries and other research centers. Many online programs have not yet found ways to offer such services at a lesser or equal cost, Poulin says.

The study found that costs for students in online programs were lower at only about 6 percent of the schools. And Poulin adds that schools cannot simply pass these costs on to students.

"We really have reached a point, whether it’s distance education or in the face-to-face education, where you can raise the price to the student so long that they’re able to absorb it up to a point. And really we’re starting to hear the pain being expressed by the students in terms of they can’t pay back loans or they can’t afford even to come in."

Poulin and Kadlec agree that as technology changes and becomes less costly, some of these problems may solve themselves. More students are choosing online college programs over traditional programs every year. But there is still a ways to go before online and traditional programs operate on the same level.

I’m Pete Musto.

Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. What other problems do you think there might be with online education? How might schools solve these problems? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

degreen. an official document and title that is given to someone who has successfully completed a series of classes at a college or university

master’sn. an official document and title that is given to someone who has successfully completed a series of classes at a college or university

sign(ed) upp.v.

undergraduateadj. used to describe a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after four years of study

substituten. a person or thing that takes the place of someone or something else

extentn. used to indicate the amount or level at which something exists, happens, or is true

miss(ed) out (on) – p.v. to not use or to not have a chance to experience something good

conveniencen. a quality or situation that makes something easy or useful for someone by reducing the amount of work or time required to do something

financesn. matters relating to money and how it is spent or saved

biasn. a quality that it likely for people to believe that some people or ideas are better than others that usually results in treating some people unfairly

ingrainedadj. existing for a long time and very difficult to change

standard(s) – n. a level of quality or achievement that is considered acceptable or desirable

component(s) – n. an important piece of something

absorbv. to accept or deal with something that is difficult or harmful

affordv. to be able to pay for something