February 26, 2014

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Experts Discuss Value, Future of Online Education

By Rachel Madison

February 26, 2014

When it comes to higher education, does it matter to a hiring manager if someone got a degree through a traditional college or an online program? The answer is no, according to three of Utah’s online education experts.

Sally Johnstone, vice president of academic advancement at Western Governors University; Jonathon Nichols, associate director for online programs at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business; and Claire Peterson, professor and eLearning task force member at Salt Lake Community College, made up the panel of online education experts at the Women Tech Council’s monthly Tech Talk meeting Tuesday, where they discussed several facets of online education, including costs, class sizes, types of online education and the value of online education to hiring companies.

Nichols said about two-thirds of hiring managers see no difference between an online education and an in-class education.

“In the hiring world it’s a concern, but [online education] is becoming more accepted,” he said. “Even with a traditional institution, you can come across an education that doesn’t provide the rigor and quality you’d expect, and I think the same thing exists online. It’s important [as a hiring manager] to do your due diligence and legwork to make sure you’re getting [someone with] a quality education experience.”

Over time, Nichols expects online education to become more accepted as more people get their educations online and perform well in the workplace.

“Our students are walking away with the same degree,” he said. “[The diploma] doesn’t say they got an MBA online. If you look at students, their perception of online education is that it’s equal to or even exceeds [a traditional college experience] when it comes to the online experience.”

Johnstone said WGU conducts a poll annually with employers of the university’s graduates to see how they feel about their employees. According to the most recent poll, 99 percent said WGU graduates meet or exceed their expectations; 97 percent rate WGU graduates’ job performance as good as or better than graduates from other institutions; and 98 percent said they’d hire another WGU graduate.

“Our graduates don’t run into any trouble when it comes to finding a job,” Johnstone said.

Peterson said ultimately, a college degree is a qualification that’s not typically specified.

“It’s typically not specified where or how [a student got their degree],” she said. “In that instance, there’s not a lot of difference as long as they have that skill, qualification and credit.”

As online education continues to gain popularity, Johnstone said it’ll be important for higher education officials to maintain a balance between technology and the real world.

“I believe we’re going to be moving into a framework in not too many years where higher education won’t have a monopoly on education,” she said. “The likelihood that we’ll see financial aid funds opening up to non-institutional providers is also on the verge of happening. As soon as that happens, we’ll see a spike of commercial products that will allow students to work individually and be successful, such as an artificial intelligence host that helps you master a set of materials. But that can’t be by itself because it’s not enough.”

Johnstone said students will still need the mentor and coaching aspect that is inherent in a faculty member, because professors are the people who know their field, not just the course they’re teaching.

“We have to find ways to blend resources coming our way that will be profoundly more effective, but we also have to figure out how to keep that piece of real export mentor in the mix,” she said.

Peterson agreed and said it would be a shame for the world to get to a place where educators are substituted with facilitators.

“That would be a poor reflection as to how society views education and skills—the development of a person,” she said. “We need to look at the whole package or else we’re going to dumb [online education] down a little too much.”

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