The Impact of Online Graduate Programs

Today’s post by Linda Zabriske touches on an issue important to IBS and all other learning institutions providing advanced degrees—online graduate programs . Her article will discuss the potential drawbacks of these programs and what still needs to be done to bring them up to par with traditional learning environments. Zabriske currently collaborates on a site for people interested in learning about graduate degree programs.

As online education rises worldwide and more students get additional certifications and complete doctorate programs remotely, many economists speculate the massive influx of e-learners will have a continuous impact on the global market, though not necessarily in a positive way. In theory, web-based learning should provide much-needed opportunities for students. But many employers posit that traditional college is still the most effective channel by which to receive education – and they note the rise of online programs is merely over-saturating the job market with under-qualified applicants.

Yet, online college education is now a worldwide phenomenon.

Some countries have seen massive growth in online college education in recent years. The 2011 Sloan Consortium reported that more than 6 million American students – or roughly one-third — were enrolled in at least one online class. Over the past decade, the United Kingdom also recorded a 28% increase in the overall number of undergraduate and graduate students – and the advent of online learning is partially credited. While enrollment numbers in India are still low, the nation recently launched the National Knowledge Network, a one billion dollar project that virtually connects more than 1,500 colleges and universities across the nation. And though only 384,000 Canadian students, or 11%, enrolled in at least one online class last year, the nation’s largest web-based academic provider, Canadian Virtual University, has reported a steady rise over the past decade.

But to many, the online college spike is not a good thing. Compared to ‘traditional’ college, web-based higher education presents a number of challenges that are problematic to graduates-turned-job applicants. Some critics have posited that online university courses are overall inferior to campus-based courses, citing inexperienced faculty and insufficient course materials. Others argue that online curricula vary nation-to-nation, and this subjectivity goes against the universality that is crucial to global economic progress. Currently, many online programs are only practical if the graduate plans to work in his or her home country. Finally, critics have also voiced concern about the lack of standardized material, a deficiency that hinders development on a global scale.

Many groups and organizations are hard at work to mitigate these challenges. For instance, in November 2011, panelists for the World Innovation Summit for Education agreed that online education should be subjected to universal standards in order to benefit the global economy. Significant aspects of this system would include a standardized curriculum, faculty orientation and training and a strong system of student and peer support that students can utilize throughout their online program. The panel also identified contextual challenges that might hinder a universal system, such as cultural/language misunderstandings, varied learning styles/academic standards and public perceptions of e-learning as a viable educational outlet.

Despite these efforts, public perception of online learning programs remains speculative. “Presently, the job market is more willing to hire an entry-level online graduate in accounting than a high-level marketing executive with an online graduate degree,” wrote Global Economic Intersection contributor Brooke Folliot. She noted the overall economic impact of these programs would be significant – and ostensibly quite positive – if online academics were held in the same high regard as traditional college. But most online graduates are currently unable to find work, and the increased number of unemployed and underemployed individuals – many of whom are forced to default on their student loans — has merely hurt the economy.

The rising number of online students heralds a new, digital age of global education. However, the transition will not be complete until web-based programs are in equal standing with campus-based academics. In order for online education to benefit the global economy, employers must begin to consider graduates of these programs for positions that might otherwise be awarded to traditional degree-holders.

Authored by Linda Zabriske.

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