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The Improving Landscape of Online Universities | Ecology of Education

The Improving Landscape of Online Universities

Among the millions of pieces of spam e-mail that clutter our inboxes, there are always some from online universities. They promise the degree of our dreams for a fraction of the cost of brick-and-mortar schools, and often in half the time. Thus, the stock of online universities – both the legitimate ones and the fraudulent degree mills – has plummeted. But recently, some schools (like those that are part of PETAP) have tried to shed the image of being scams and a dead end for higher education and professional prospects.

Learning From Mistakes

Boston University was the first major school to realize that there were problems with adapting a virtual model. While other schools tried and failed to implement distance learning, the issues with keeping students engaged and faculty incentivized were not dealt with. In five years, BU went from not having an online system to offering Ph.Ds in seven of its programs.

The lessons BU learned from the mistakes of other schools is what makes the difference in an online university trying to go legitimate. BU understood that the only way to make virtual higher education successful was to completely revamp the process of teaching and learning. Starting from the ground up, courses were restructured to fit a new format, and everyone from students, teachers to software developers were involved in the process.

“No Significant Difference”

As the pendulum has shifted away from online universities being solely the purview of unscrupulous (and illegal), repeated studies suggest that there is “no significant difference” in the quality of education provided by a (legitimate) online university when held up against a tangible institution. So much work has been done on the subject that “No significant difference” has become more than just a phrase when answering questions to determine the validity of online education: the comparability between a course offered by a physical university and a virtual one; the media (and mediums) available to faculty teaching an online class; and whether the corresponding student populations (in-class vs. Internet) were comparable.

Further widening the gulf between the negative perceptions of distance education is that practically every reputable university now offers online portals to better serve the needs of non-traditional students, or to improve pre-existing (and “real world”) courses. Congruously, more employers are accepting degrees from online colleges, significantly validating not only their existences, but the contributions they can make to the academic and professional worlds.

Two-Way Streets

Mindful of the problems inherent in doing business online, some institutions still require face-to-face interviews and tests before they will accept a potential student. Naturally, such a move benefits both student and school: the school that goes to the length of ensuring their students are legitimate will develop a good reputation for harnessing and cultivating only the best students for their programs; and their students will be confident that their money, academic effort and professional futures are in good hands.