Seriously Considering Online Education?
Thinking About Non-Traditional Study?
This article is one of many I am writing to help adults who may be taking this time in life to consider studying or obtaining a degree or some type of certification through non-traditional educational channels, such as online or other forms of “distance” education. I am a career educator/trainer, and while I obtained my first two degrees through traditional brick-and-mortar universities, I obtained my final degree, a doctorate in business administration and management with a specialization in marketing, through distance education.
My journey into distance and online study has not waned since I completed my doctorate. More than twenty years ago, while I was studying at Walden University, my interests led me to the conducting of a national survey of more than 800 adult distance education students as the foundation of research for my doctoral dissertation. Since I completed my PhD, I have become even more aware of the need many adult students have for answers to crucial personal and non-personal questions they have when considering non-traditional study and learning.
Insight from Insiders ...
Back when I was still considering whether or not to do it, of course I could have gone online and to the schools’ websites to learn about their programs, but I wanted unbiased, objective information.
I wanted to hear from people who had studied from a distance, who had actually obtained a degree through non-traditional study. Now that it is twenty-plus years since I completed my doctorate, I can see that what I needed prior to enrolling in a non-traditional degree program was a sympathetic guide who could take me through and beyond the processes and procedures I needed to become enrolled in a program. I needed to talk to people who had done what I was thinking about doing; people who could tell me what non-traditional education and study was really like. Would I make a good “distance learner?” Would I be able to manage my time well, study, and complete my work without face-to-face, in-class instruction? How would I be as an independent learner? Would I love it, or would I hate it?
Before I began my doctoral study, I engaged in an exhaustive search for information about non-traditional educational choices. Thankfully, I was able to find a few books providing general information about non-traditional study, and about schools providing distance education. But non-traditional education was fairly new in this country at that time, so I was never able to find any resource with answers to all the different kinds of questions I needed answers to before deciding whether or not to pursue my last degree through non-traditional channels.
I had earned both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from traditional brick and mortar institutions, so I was a bit skeptical about straying from the traditional path for my doctorate. I had a lot of questions about this thing that was called “distance education,” and I wasn't able to find many answers. Now, looking back, I realize that what I needed was a sort of “non-traditional education advisor.” I never found any book or any online reference source that met my needs, but I took the plunge into non-traditional study anyway, and today, I'm glad I did it.
Meeting of Expectations ...
While distance education is more accepted today than it was when I became a non-traditional student, it still has, to some degree, problems related to image when it comes to the perceived quality and respectability of degrees that are obtained through online or other distance modes of learning. With the social distancing challenges that were ushered into our world in 2020, distance education has become more than an alternative mode of study. For some, it has become the preferred mode of study for grade school, as well as for advanced education and study.
Back when I conducted my research study (in 1996), I spoke with a number of adult distance education students who said they felt there was an “image” problem associated with distance education. The students I surveyed attributed some of the problem to non-traditional schools that had been found to be “diploma mills.” In other words, the practices of a few or several unscrupulous external degree-granting institutions, many of my respondents said, were still tainting the image of all non-traditional colleges and universities, whether or not they were “accredited” institutions of higher learning (I discussed accreditation and what it means in another of my “Non-Traditional Education” articles).
Since the “diploma-mill-image-tarnishing” was largely based on acts perpetrated by schools that were unaccredited, "so-called" schools that basically sold mail-order degrees, the students I surveyed in my research study said they felt that it was not fair that regionally accredited, technologically advanced, quality distance education providers were still being “stigmatized” by the practices of disreputable institutions.
Now, as someone who enjoyed experiencing non-traditional study by attending Walden University for my doctorate, I know that the undeserved tarnished image for many non-traditional schools can be compared to a "stink bug" that crawling on a rose petal. It might be there for a reason, but thankfully, it is temporary, and not a lasting part of the rose. Good, high quality, non-traditional education is out there, and it is possible to get the education/learning you need and desire through non-traditional study.
As long as schools prepare and present strong curricula and qualified professionals/professors to administer programs and teach classes, then there are endless opportunities for students to get what they need in terms of education and learning, from distance education programs. Still, this mode of study might not be for everyone, and it is up to each and every person considering non-traditional study to make sure they are prepared to give it all they've got. Because, with this or any mode of study, you will get out of it what you are willing to put into it.
Pandemic considerations aside, today, there is a lot more interest in non-traditional education alternatives as more and more traditional colleges and universities have added distance components to their repertoire of offerings. And, as more students earn their degrees through non-traditional institutions, the image of online and other distance alternatives is also becoming updated. Schools such as Kaplan University, the University of Phoenix, and Walden University (my doctoral alma mater), for example, have gained prominence and notoriety through the years based on the caliber/quality and proven capabilities of their product (their graduates).
Research Study, Key Findings ...
In general, online education is growing fast. In fact, its growth is outpacing the rate of enrollment in traditional “classroom-based” educational offerings, according to the Babson College Distance Education Enrollment Report 2017, conducted by the new Digital Learning Compass organization. The study reports that non-profit, private institutions saw their distance education enrollment grow by 11.4 percent while for-profit private educational institutions saw a 9.4 percent decline in their distance education enrollments. The report also shows growing year-to-year enrollment for fully online programs.
Other “key findings” of the report include:
- When it comes to for-profit institutions of higher learning, a few of the largest institutions drove the large enrollment drops while most of the for-profit institutions saw an increase in their distance enrollments
- More than one in four (29.7 percent) of students now take at least one online course (a total of 6,022,105 students).
- The number of distance education students has seen a 3.9 percent year-to-year increase of 226,375 students when compared to rates recorded over the previous two years.
Although the previously mentioned study found that many academic leaders now feel the level of student satisfaction is the same for online as for face-to-face instruction, distance learning is now seen as "essential" to adult students' ability to achieve academic success. Some leaders might still have concerns about the quality of online instruction and might see it as “less than” the overall quality achieved by those taking courses that are delivered face-to-face, using traditional classroom instructional methods. Thankfully, however, students obtaining degrees through non-traditional study are finding more success in the job market as employers seem to be realizing the quality of their educational preparation and/or training. (See links below for more of my articles on distance education/learning.)
© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD