Online degrees gaining esteem in increasingly digital age

Ian Maitland, a 63-year-old Carlson School of Management professor, said he’s been teaching for 25 years.

He teaches courses in business ethics and said the link between moral rights and wrongs and legal ones have always intrigued him.

“I had thought about law school every now and then,” Maitland said. “But my family and professional circumstances ruled it out.”

But he came across a less-traditional route to a juris doctorate. Maitland earned his law degree about four years ago from Concord Law School, an online law school, part of the Internet-based Kaplan University.

Online schools and courses are increasingly more present today.

Nearly 20 percent of all U.S. higher education students were taking at least one online course in fall 2006, according to the Sloan Consortium, a group that studies and works to improve online education.

The group also reported the proportion of Midwestern institutions with fully online programs has risen steadily as institution size increases, and two-thirds of the largest institutions have fully online programs.

“Even classes which are on campus have been affected by this online trend,” said Billie Wahlstrom, vice provost for distributed education and institutional technology.

In the University system, there are four degrees offered entirely online, she said, including bachelor’s degrees in applied health, manufacturing management and business, and a master’s in public health.

The University has 300 online courses available, Wahlstrom said, noting that Internet courses have flourished since five years ago, when there were only 15 to 25 courses.

But with technology and more frequent use of distance-based learning, online education still faces obstacles.

Louis Huether, a program supervisor with the Employment Action Center, said there is a stigma that an online degree isn’t as good as one from a traditional institution.

“You might get the same kind of learning,” Huether said. “But given the choice, I think employers would go with the traditional one.”

He said cheaper costs and convenience attract people to online schools.

“I don’t know when the magic year is,” he said. “But at some point, they’ll be equal.”

Dr. Gary Burkholder, vice president for the College of Health Sciences at Walden University, said he thinks employers aren’t as concerned with what type of institution the degree came from, as long as it’s accredited.

Walden is a Minneapolis-based online school. Both Walden and Kaplan are accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, which also accredits the University of Minnesota.

Convenience is the biggest benefit to distance learning, Wahlstrom said, since getting to class can be a challenge for students that don’t live near the Twin Cities.

Nora Paul, director of the Institute of New Media Studies, said she teaches a “hybrid” journalism course – meaning some content is online while the rest is classroom-based.

Today’s students are “digital natives,” she said, so adapting isn’t hard.

Live Internet discussions and a cheaper online textbook are advantages, Paul said.

The online text was half the price of what the printed resources would’ve cost, she said, adding that there haven’t been any technological glitches with the course.

Paul said an entirely online version of the course will be offered this summer. It will be interesting to see whether the subtraction of the physical lectures changes how well people learn, she said.

Despite the less-taken, computer-driven path, Maitland said the flexibility of online courses fit smoothly into his life.

“Not only are fixed facilities generally more expensive, but you basically have to take a leave of absence Ö from your profession,” he said.

Michael Lambert, executive director of the Distance Education and Training Council, said Internet learning obviously “isn’t a panacea.”

“If you don’t have the ability to organize yourself to study on your own,” he said. “You’re not going to do well.”

While the notion that an online degree is inferior may still be around, Huether had an optimistic view.

“An Internet degree is better than no degree,” he said.