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Rise of the Online Degrees: A Silver Lining of the Pandemic?

rise of the online degrees

Today almost everyone learns online – whether they have planned to or not. Will this contribute to the legitimization of online courses and raise the prestige of degrees earned online?

For working people who want to advance their careers, distant learning offers a much-needed alternative to traditional on-campus education. However, many are reluctant to benefit from this opportunity because of the stigma attached to a degree earned online. Some might see it as something of a lesser value than a traditional four-year on-campus experience.

Employers might question your qualifications and teamwork skills. Peers might accuse you of shortcutting and seeking the easier way. The same peers might see employing papers writers or googling during tests as an acceptable leeway, but only if you are on campus. Go figure.

Online Never Meant "Easier"

However, the reasons why people choose online programs over brick-and-mortar are often the reverse. Some students report that they didn't find traditional courses challenging enough. That is why they have opted for competency-based online programs allowing them to study at a faster pace.

Moreover, by paying on a monthly basis and taking many courses at once, students can spend less time and money toward their degree. For example, a motivated student taking up to 12 credits at a time and adding new ones as they finish courses can end up spending threefold less time and money than it would take them on campus.

Indeed, to take advantage of online learning, you must be motivated, self-directed, and comfortable with learning at your own pace. With this level of commitment and self-management, it's only fair that an online degree should weigh at least as much as the traditional one.

Even more, it should signal to employers that the candidate is determined and capable. The reason behind such a point of view is that a person who has enhanced his or her knowledge in their own time, while possibly being employed elsewhere, showcases outstanding self-drive for improvement, which can only be viewed positively.

As it turns out, the majority of HR leaders agree. According to a Northeastern University survey, over 60% of HR specialists firmly believe that online education is as good as or better than traditional learning. Likewise, over 70% say they have hired an applicant with an online degree in the last 12 months.

Not everyone is so open-minded, though. Some employers would still hesitate to hire an online degree holder. At the very least, they would want to learn more about it. For example, prejudice persists about for-profit online programs due to questionable practices of diploma mills in the past. Employers might also ask you about your reasons for choosing to pursue a degree online.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic that shook things up in all spheres of our lives might further the acceptance of online education.

Shifting Public Perception

First of all, the lockdown has radically equalized things by pushing all learning online. Even students enrolled traditionally have no other option but to study remotely for the third semester straight – or longer, depending on the arrival of the vaccine. This means that all graduates in the near future will have at least some courses taken online under their belts. As Fiona Hollands, a senior researcher from Columbia University, puts it, individuals who never thought about getting into the online game are literally forced to do so by current circumstances.

Second, online programs have a significant advantage over the traditional courses hurriedly moved online. They were designed to be online, and as such, they are much more effective at engaging students distantly and tracking their progress. Compared to what traditional programs can offer today, online courses have superior quality.

Third, according to Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of online learning platform Coursera, the pandemic has driven people to online education. The numbers are unprecedented: "Since mid-March, we've had 24 million individuals register for the first time. That's about 320% up from the same period a year ago."

Finally, after being forced headfirst into online, many schools will appreciate this new growth opportunity and reconsider their policies for the future. After all, by branching out online, they can reach students who wouldn't attend in person. This will blur the line between online and on-campus. The central focus will be the school's brand itself.

Some schools have already made tentative steps in this direction even before the pandemic. "Three or four years ago, you saw a lot of things like an ‘i' or an ‘e' before the degree – an iMBA or an eMasters," says Adam Medros, CEO of edX, an online degree-granting platform jointly created by Harvard and MIT. Now, this distinction becomes less pronounced, as schools drop the once-exotic-now-redundant prefixes. For example, last year, Harvard Business School changed the name of its online program from "HBX" to straightforward "Harvard Business School Online."

"Selling" Your Degree to Employers

As we see, many experts are optimistic about the future of online degrees. However, since we live here and now, you might use some tips on changing the mind of your prospective employer about a diploma obtained online:

  • The first thing you should stress is the brand and reputation of the school. According to the NU survey mentioned above, as many as 83% of top managers say that online degrees have the same value as traditional degrees if obtained from a well-known prestigious school.
  • Even if the school isn't very big and famous, it must have an industry-accepted accreditation level. Flaunt it.
  • List the skills you have learned and back them up with hands-on experiences, such as capstone projects.
  • Highlight the positive things that make an online degree different: motivation, tech literacy, time management, communication skills required for collaboration in the digital environment, etc.
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