Online Education: Challenges of Being Employable in a "Traditional" Global Economy"

Colorful pencil crayons on a sheet of lined paper, Education background

Dr. Purushothaman
November 29, 2013

It stands out online degrees even from legitimately accredited universities are treated as a novelty or a contradiction. Online degrees may be gaining acceptance today, (again, depending on the university), but the trend to online learning does follow that of "online dating" – i.e., it still remains to be questioned, because it isn't real life and people can lie on the Internet with ease: false personas and plagiarized data created with just a few taps on the keypad. Online education is yet to be fully integrated into the traditional global economy. Dan Carnevale did make a point of this in an article posted in the Chronicle of Higher Education that ‘employers often distrust online degrees', preferring applicants who earned diplomas the old-fashioned way. Here is the reasoning: a degree from online institutions like DeVry or University of Phoenix which pay their sales representatives and advisors top dollars to sell the school, do not conform to the more stringent standards of a traditional university, give the impression that the candidate who received the degree did not work as hard for that education. (This may not be true in reality, but perception is everything when you are trying to get a coveted job in a highly competitive job market). But online education is hardly novel these days. In any case, most traditional universities (the bricks and mortar themselves) today are offering online degrees (though often not identified as such on students' final transcripts).

The recent surge in online education is undeniably the expediency and flexibility of schedule that these programs offer. Some online degree programs, for example, are 100% online, allowing the freedom and ease to take classes from learners' own living rooms, allowing learners to maintain their current employment status. With online-enable education programs, learners are able to participate in lectures anytime that is convenient, or there might be scheduled lectures that require learners to tune in. A number of other online degree programs are hybrid programs, which comprise of a blend of online learning and designated on-campus days, where learners have the occasion to convene with instructors and classmates face-to-face. Online education is now an integral module of higher education in the United States and the world in general.

Yet, some principled, absolutist opponents of online education argue there is no way one can do a Ph.D. online, for instance, working on the program hundreds of miles away from one's major professors and dissertation chair as well as committee members and have the same quality of education as a traditional Ph.D. student working on campus. Monte Johnson, a philosophy professor at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) whose field is Aristotle, and one of those principled, absolutist opponents of online education maintains while "he could abide the use of hybrid models and online resources to supplement the classroom experience, he thought it was "absurd" to pretend that a degree granted entirely online could possibly approach the quality of one in the traditional classroom. Opponents like Monte Johnson trivialize and dismiss "education by CD-ROM and Internet" out of motives that include inherent conservativism and fear of losing one's own job and respected position in society. For them open educational resources don't equal education. Access to a video of a lecture is not the same as access to a class. Rather, content is infrastructure—the first step". Having covered that, the few online graduates with teaching jobs in universities are often derided to have acquired "poor education" meaning "poor job performance". Wrong! And, the fact that many traditional institutions take great care to hide whether the awarded degree was obtained online or traditionally, by ensuring that the transcript of an online graduate could not be discerned form a traditional student transcript—because of the possible employer—traditional/online graduate prejudice, should also speak to the inadequacies of an online degree, which, again, is simply unwarranted and naive.

While varied caliber of online graduates from known providers of online education such as Capella, Walden, and University of Phoenix are an enduring testament to how common such graduates of higher learning were; the farce of employers being distrustful of online degrees was necessary to keep the lie of the traditional supremacy of the "bricks and mortar university" alive. What's novel are the growing number of online graduates trained in reputable providers of education online, where the caliber of graduates are seen no more contradictory to the stringent quality control and academic standards these institutions submit these graduates to.

History of the Modern University

Not sounding like too much of an advocate of online education, it can be explained that people just are not very well grounded in the history of the modern university. Scholarship has existed for thousands of years, and universities have existed for hundreds. But people who see themselves as custodians of an ostentatious and glorious intellectual tradition enduring thousands of years, and as people whose sacrosanct obligation is to espouse the highest values of civilization, make the mistake in assuming that the way universities are structured today are the way people have always taught things, and by implication the way people will always teach things.

In fact, most of the elements of today's universities are very recent. The design of a professional non-denominational establishment of learning started in the mid 19th Century. If the Enlightenment was a movement which began among a small elite of scholars and gradually broaden to make its influence felt throughout society, Romanticism was more pervasive both in its origins and influence. No other intellectual/artistic movement has had such an analogous variety, reach, and resilience since the end of the Middle Ages. Beginning in the last decades of the 18th century, Romanticism had transformed poetry, the novel, drama, painting, sculpture, all forms of concert music (especially opera), and ballet. It was profoundly associated with the politics of the time, echoing people's fears, hopes, and aspirations. It was the voice of revolution at the beginning of the 19th century and the voice of the Establishment at the end of it.

The elective system in collegiate education started in the late 19th or early 20th with Charles William Elliot who traced the inspiration for his elective system to the essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson; as was John Dewey with his progressive education. The current admissions system first emerged in the 1920s as an academic innovation designed to protect White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) privilege against the claims of the bright but socially marginal children of Jewish immigrants. By the time these anti-Semitic admissions policies ended, administrators had discovered the institutional efficacy of non-academic admissions standards. Jerome Karabel shows in provocative and confrontational detail in his stimulating study, "The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton" how for decades the very university executives who have moralized about equal opportunity have extended special advantages to the children of wealthy alumni.

Karabel also speaks to the first major endeavor to diversify student bodies in the 1960s and appraise the multifarious effects of affirmative-action policies. The preponderance in college applications on balancing grades and extracurricular activities appears tolerantly positive at first peek. Yet, as Karabel explains, the top Ivy League schools engendered this formula in the 1920s because they were uneasy with the number of Jewish students accepted when applicants were judged solely on their grades. The search for prospective freshmen with "character" was, with anecdotal perceptibility, an effort to maintain the slowly declining Protestant establishment. As such, the phenomenal surge in enrollment in which people were projected to go to university is a product of World War II and the Cold War.

What's astonishingly liberalizing is to reflect on the mid-19th century and read works by the highly regarded gurus of the time, such as William Barton Rogers and Charles William Elliot, and to reflect on how they were taking the remarkable novel technologies of their day—the steam engine, the telegraph, the factory—and trying to apply those technologies to build on educational systems that meet the social challenges of their time; and the possibilities brought about by massive immigration and the transformation of the United States from a rural and agronomical nation to an urban industrial one. "The New England colonists were the most urban and educated of all the colonists and had many skilled farmers as well as tradesmen and skilled craftsmen among them. They started the first English colonial university in the Americas, Harvard, in 1635 to train their ministers. They mostly settled in small villages for mutual support (nearly all had their own militias) and common religious activity. Shipbuilding, commerce, agriculture and fisheries were their main income sources".

So whatever the cynics are doing, they are not rationalizing for quality and they certainly are not sticking up for tradition. It is therefore not clear what these prophets of doom against online education are doing. And it is hard to imagine in this age of technological supremacy of a world where people are judged by the method of delivery of their education rather than the strengths of their academic competence drawing employers into a daily pathological ritual in which online graduates are treated with distrust. It is not clear whether there is any correlation between the educational background of the hiring managers and their approval of online degrees. Many may have no clue about online education, and maybe there are probably some issues of personal and/or professional insecurities about making hiring decisions based on people's educational background, by screening candidates out based on what is described as the "red flag" of online degrees, and failing to appreciate how much effort and self discipline it takes to learn online.

Seizing the Opportunity

It is no exaggeration, therefore, to say public institutions need to seize the opportunity to relevantly define online education or it will continue to be defined for them by a set of institutions with very different agendas. For-profit schools like the fiercely advertised University of Phoenix are a growing piece of the field—accounting for about a quarter of the online education market, estimated at 350,000 to 1.

Though in "reality a privileged few will continue to enjoy the personal and economic benefits of face-to-face instruction at schools like Stanford, UC Berkeley, and M.I.T.", online-enabled higher education does not have to be inferior or dehumanizing. It can represent the best of what education has to offer today. But there's a danger that accusations of inferiority or dehumanizing standards of online-enabled higher education will turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, if people who care about both quality and equality in higher education do not get deeply involved in the use of technology to stretch the resources available in order to educate everyone at best. Through sustained development of research-supported, best practice-based quality standards and appropriate evaluation tools and procedures, quality of online-enabled higher education can be defined from a systemic perspective that encompasses society as a whole which grants the right to use these principles for public education.

Thus far, it is pretty, pretty doggone interesting to see the United States President Obama already taking the bold step to support technological innovation in learning, laying out a plan to invest $500 million over ten years in an Online Skills Initiative designed to produce free and open online courses that contribute to post-secondary success. These courses can be used by students, schools, and self-directed learners; and they also will be freely available to commercial publishers. The federal government's investment in education technology is an opportunity for the publishing industry, which must respond by creating more engaging content that is relevant for today's tech-savvy students, as explained by Education Secretary Arne Duncan who was speaking before the Association of American Publishers on March 4, 2010. The Education Secretary had correctly talked about the need to bridge the gap between many students' learning experiences and the reality outside school. In order to adequately prepare them for the future that awaits them and the skills the world will require of them. And, true to it that the do-it-yourself university (D.I.Y. U) future can allow even community college students anywhere in the United States to access the same number of library books, the same lectures and course materials as are available at M.I.T. and Stanford. It can also allow students to collaborate across institutions and form networks of peers and mentors outside the state and city where they happen to live and go to school. In this way there's a potential to overcome old hierarchies. The reality today is that students with the fewest resources are at the institutions with the fewest resources, and that those who are accessing online-only educational programs are doing so largely because they have to work while they go to school.

Though difficult to codify exactly what might be lost in the transition from online to in-person learning, it pays to look at what goes on in the classroom really, really closely so those experts in online education quality assurance and evaluation can either replicate it or enhance it in the online environment, or supplement it with real-world experience in hybrid models; and with teaching through video conference, which also involves a form of eye contact; and with platforms like Moodle ( - (a free web-based Course Management System (CMS), also known as a Learning Management System (LMS) or a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), educators can use to create effective online learning sites) that allows for plenty of either real-time text-based chat or posting on a Facebook-like wall, which seems like a fine way to discuss study modules -- not too different in fact from the promulgation of ideas through a series of written papers in dialogue with each other, like at a symposium, for example, typical in a "bricks and mortar" traditional setting of learning.

It's important though, not to read too much into the rising relevance of online education in a global economy. The traditional/online divide in America, and the world at large, remains a salient one, not just in matters of quality and relevance of education, but of employability as well. For the Washington Higher Education Roundtable, the visions of education "without bricks and mortar," of education by CD-ROM and internet by 2020, is an indicator of relevance and upward mobility for online learners.

A world where online graduates still command the least respect among employers is not one that seems to just jettison its de facto "traditional" beliefs too quickly. Instead, the world of the future of higher education—with visions of education "without bricks and mortar," of education by CD-ROM and internet, dominating—is more likely to be one with an expanded definition of technological excellence, one that includes the relevance of online education that has begun to be accepted as, and even identified, as the trend of the future. Online degrees are valuable. And even though accreditation (i.e. the process by which higher education institutions are validated in order to ensure a high level of educational quality) is key in validating a provider of online education, employers should do more to appreciate the value of online degrees in contributing to the global economy. Within every graduate from any institution of learning lies the institution's hope for a better future, but the hope for an online graduate is very specific: that they can be fully integrated in the traditional global economy. In some ways, online graduates are already delivering. And advocates of online learning models believe with a rapidly changing world, the students of tomorrow will not be educated with chalkboards and overheads, no matter how much the absolutist opponents of online education wish to relish the glory days of their own college past.

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