Since the online degrees started becoming widely available in the mid-nineties, the benefits and disadvantages of online education have been widely debated — could someone learn as well behind their computer as they do in the classroom? Could the coursework ever be nearly as rigorous or dynamic?
In general, exclusively online degrees require high levels of discipline from those behind the keyboard, and offer an opportunity for prospective students supporting themselves with a side job or raising a family to change or set a career path.
But even with great strides made in online learning technology — just check out the incredible website for Michigan State's award-winning online class Surviving the Coming Zombie Apocalypse — online degrees are still widely stigmatized by both employers and the general public.
As of 2012, 96 percent of traditional universities offered online courses, and in 2013, 7.1 million students took at least one online course. However, employers and hiring managers are still skeptical when it comes to degrees earned entirely online.
A 2013 survey revealed that a majority of human resource professionals prefer a candidate with a traditional degree from an average university over a candidate with an online degree from a top university.
According to Theresa DeAngelis, a senior academic advisor at non-profit virtual university Excelsior College, the stigma against online education has lessened in recent years as technology has improved, but still exists to a certain extent.
"Many people were wary of online programs in the beginning years, believing that learning could only take place in a classroom; some individuals still question them," she said. "But more and more of the traditional, campus-based programs are putting their courses and/or programs online in an effort to compete with the online programs."
This current coming-of-age generation is one that has grown up on customizability, from personally tailored iPhones, Spotify playlists, and Netflix accounts. Traditionally, students have been able to pick their majors, arrange their schedules, and choose their classes. Being able to pick up some additional credits, or an entire degree, in a digital space only seems like a natural extension of a society moving towards personalization. According to DeAngelis, this level of customizability is something students are demanding.
"A large portion of the student population now has grown up in the technological age and want to be able to complete their courses in a more flexible manner," she said.
In the same way that meeting a significant other online might have been greeted with skepticism by friends ten years ago, as online learning continues to become a norm instead of an exception, it's likely that hiring managers and students will stop questioning if a degree earned plugged into a laptop in a coffee shop or home office is worth as much as one earned in the classroom.
Of course, there is something to be said for the social aspects of college — there's no way to digitally replicate the joys of living with your classmates — and in-person learning experiences probably makes more sense for certain fields of study, like food/hospitality and most of the fine arts. But when it comes to accredited online degrees with rigorous course loads, it's about time for the online learning stigma to evaporate.
Bidwell, Allie. "Employers, Students Remain Skeptical of Online Education." US News. U.S.News & World Report, 20 Sept. 2013. Web. 30 May 2014. Retrieved from U.S. News & World Report
Haynie, Devon. "What Employers Really Think About Your Online Bachelor’s Degree." NY Daily News. 1 July 2013. Web. 30 May 2014. Retrieved from Daily News
Lebrun, Krista, and Margaret Rice. "Logging off: Attrition in online community college courses ." International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning 10: 3. Web. 30 May 2014.