Unresolved Obstacles to the Credibility of Online Degrees

By Craig Howard / February 2010

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"This is too much work for an online class."

For the last two years I've heard that comment repeatedly from students. I've been teaching since 1995, but about two years ago, I started teaching online.

The "too much work" these students refer to is actually the exact same amount of work as in the face-to-face equivalent course. So what's behind what these students are saying?

These comments hint at a public expectation, an image that challenges the online instructor in a unique way. From my own vantage point, teaching asynchronous university-required education courses, I don't see this phenomenon going away very soon. The economic downturn has been opportune for universities to move classes online. Delivering courses online, they believe, is simply more cost effective, and in this climate, the public is more than open to cost-cutting measures.

However, universities are large institutions where one hand may not know what the other hand is doing. Those who promote online learning are not the ones questioning how it is done. Educators know that the effective delivery of online courses requires sophisticated approaches and designs (Hara, 2000; Motteram & Forrester, 2005). But while universities strive to offer more and more online courses, I still find that my colleagues in hiring positions look unfavorably on those who have degrees from online institutions. Four contributors strike me as playing a part in creating this image.

1. Degree Mills
Parodies such as Saturday Night Live's Westfield College Online skit should open our eyes to how pervasive scandals can be. The spoof is a mock advertisement that one can easily mask a bogus institution's identity and be hired on par with legitimate degree holders after a few payments and three months of waiting. SNL found rich material in poking fun at online degrees' credibility, not because of the absurdity, but because of the plausibility.

America is home to 810 bogus universities, accordingly to Business Weekly (2010). Although scandalized, the duped employer is not the only victim. Everyone involved in online education feels the pain from negative publicity related to online learning. While a recent study found that the credibility of online degrees is now stronger than five years ago and that 90 percent of organizations now would recognize the credential, it also said that 63 percent of employers would, everything else being equal, hire someone who went to a traditional college over someone with an online degree (Narisi2009). That these bogus institutions even attempt to "accredit" themselves can only make it harder for the public to accept online degrees (Armour, 2003; Brendler, 2010). But there are real challenges less bogus than the degree mills.

2. Cheating's Too Easy (At Least They Think It Is)
Issues surrounding the "On the internet, no one knows you're a dog" theme continue (Steiner, 1993). We all too often forget that the socio-technical context of sitting behind a screen still allows for a breakdown in trust. Even if institutions have taken steps to increase security, a secure image may not be out there.

There has been plenty of research into keeping out those who want to get in. Kling and Courtright (2003), for example, outlined the different access-limiting designs used by different genres of websites ranging from financial institutions with "electronic locks" to academic forums that require institutional email addresses—but this is only half the issue.

While we've known for a long time that online communities become suspect if what they see online doesn't fit the stated identity of those they are speaking to (Burkhalter, 1999; Wallace, 1999), we haven't yet solved the issues surrounding a planned deception (Rowe, 2004).

In 2001-2002, the Educational Testing Service (the corporation that sponsors standardized tests, such as SAT, TOEFL, and GRE) sent out letters and lawsuits to other organizations that were paying test-takers to copy and collect their test questions (Mooney, 2005). Universities reacted by requiring entrance interviews for students coming from countries ETS identified as likely to have fraudulent scores (Bollag, 2005).

While traditional schools have well known methods to prevent and deal with cheating, the public trust in online measures to stop cheating is not mature enough to settle our nerves. I heard of practices being dramatically re-evaluated after a distance student who, in defending her online master's portfolio, was determined by instructors to have not completed her own work. The same re-evaluation would likely not have taken place if the case was on-site. The issue is not that is it easier to cheat online; it's that cheating in online coursework still appears easier. While we have tools to combat plagiarism for both on and offline coursework, such as TurnItIn, they have not become widespread enough to affect general trust that what is learned online is on par (Thompson, 2006). Unique approaches to the credibility of online coursework have not gone far enough to become widespread and well known.

3. Convenience Sends Distrust Signals
We want our degrees to be rigorous. The perception that online coursework is truly on-demand (when you want it, from where you want it), sends a signal in the opposite direction.

While we have studies that indicate online courses can be as successful as traditional ones in terms of learning outcomes (Lohr, 2009; Swan, 2003), within-group trust in online relations is made on assessment signals—not data. Within-group trust is the trust between learners that those they are working with are earnest about study. Regardless of learning outcomes, not being physically present sends an assessment signal that study is a lower priority than at least one other commitment, even if the learner is just as committed as the next.

It does not matter that the online coursework is equal in rigor if identities are assessed as having less investment in study for other reasons. Assessment signals are features which are so costly to fake that they can be reliable indicators of another characteristic, and participants in online spaces are uniquely aware of these signals (Donath, 1999; 2007). In this case, studying at a distance signals that something else is more important than being a student. Even if the student is earnest, the public image they start from does not assume it. Being attentive and asking a question in the physical space would be an assessment signal that one is serious about study, even if one is actually not.

A signal that is easier to fake would be a conventional one—being logged into the learning management system for several hours. In classrooms we take attendance, but online we require x number of words by date y. Online, we require something be said, even if one does not really have something substantial to add. Empty remarks run the potential of strengthening the perception that this online person really isn't that interested in being a student.

Spot checks for comprehension abound in classroom settings, but we need different ones online. One can sit and listen in class and emit all positive signals that one is on task. But online, the media works against that trust.

I'm not talking about reality; I'm talking about the perception of reality. Online, especially in asynchronous settings, we need extra proof that one is following the content because it is so easy to hide. Lack of physical presence carries with it this suspicious dynamic, whether we like it or not.

4. Talk is More Than Spoken Text
Those studying online to advance in a profession are in a very different context than those studying to get into one. Nevertheless, face-to-face learning provides access to a set of cues that online learning does not, and this notion affects the image of online learning.

The public image of an education is more than the sum total of learning outcomes in coursework and credits. The give and take of face-to-face discussions develop discourse styles we recognize (Gee, 1996). In the same sense that these discourse styles do not necessarily carry over to written work, attuned interlocutors online may not have the discourses they need to participate in face-to-face settings. Perhaps this point is more obvious from the other side; how many online educators have not seen remarkably vague or overly informal communications from beginning online learners?

In my own teaching, I find I fill in tones and cues in messages from students from my face-to-face courses, but I cannot do the same for my online students. Surely the public has picked up on the distinction between the channels. How do we assume that those learning completely online are getting enough exposure to the discourses they need in face-to-face settings?

I don't believe we really do assume this.

Part of these discourses are paralinguistic cues, which for online learners, are limited. One cannot expect to enter into the social network of the educated without the full package of tones, turns of speech, and behaviors associated with that group. Asynchronous media, in the majority of instances we experience it, is cues-filtered-out, and learners recognize what they are missing (An & Frick, 2006; Daft & Lengel, 1984).

What we may not fully recognize is how much this notion of education as communicative competence compared to learning outcome is impacting our perceptions of online learning. This notion may be behind the comments I hear calling for less work. Mirroring growth in discourse may be more taxing online, and the discourses learned in online discussion may be of a different sort altogether. Parallel or not, students and the public are aware that what we learn online is only part of the package.

Hara's (2000) case study points to an indicator of the distinction. She illuminates some of the factors behind communicative ambiguity, namely that novice online teachers are ill prepared for instructing online and end up giving vague instructions; however, her data hints at another, subtler, unresolved learning issue. A student writes, "You don't know how to interpret what they say because you don't know the personality" (Hara, 2000, p. 569). We can infer the student means not personality per se, but nuances of communication that do not come through online as they do in person. The student recognizes the instruction as missing crucial communicative face-to-face cues.

I expect that the vast majority of cultures to which learners hope to gain entrance are defined by face-to-face interactions, not online ones. Consequently, it may make little difference if one becomes good at being an online learner, for what good is deep understanding, greater skill development, and the construction of knowledge if the learners cannot pick up the cultural communicative norms of the target group (Motteram & Forrester, 2005, p. 283)?

The formation of group communicative norms are "biological imperatives," and the culture of groups simultaneously set frameworks of "communication and interpretation," effectively keeping people out as well as in (Shaules, 2007, pp. 60, 38). Regardless of their content learning, those who have learned exclusively online must invariably find the communication norms of the group they want entrance to, elsewhere. While this may seem a subtle point now, as we move more and more students into primarily online degrees, I would predict it to become more of an issue in the days to come. The student who identified "learning the personality" may be onto something larger than they imagine.

Indecently, turn this argument around and it is rational for why all programs should include an online component. There are skills to online paralinguistics just as there are in face-to-face ones (Aoki & Woodruff, 2005). As we move to more and more online communication and work experiences, we know those skills are gaining importance.

Looking for Buy-In
While we find some programs moving toward accreditation, the practices that they are using to combat these barriers to public trust of their online degrees are surely not general public knowledge. If we are to believe that our financial security is at stake in our educational system (O'Sullivan & Palaskas, 2007), we must assume the perceived value of the online degree has an extreme importance, especially now, as the digital divide is turning the tables on the average student.

We don't buy what we don't believe in, and if we do not takes steps to practice new strategies to face barriers to public trust of online degrees, the pessimism about online learning will cost us a lot.

References Below

About the Author
Craig D. Howard is a PhD candidate at Indiana University in Instructional Systems Technology. He holds an MA from Teachers College Columbia University and has taught at the City University of New York and Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. His research focuses on online communication and developing online pedagogy. Samples of his work can be found on his Indiana University page.


An, Y. J., & Frick, T. (2006). Student perceptions of asynchronous computer-mediated communication in face-to-face courses. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(2), article 5.

Aoki, P. M., & Woodruff, A. (2005). Making space for stories: ambiguity in the design of personal communication systems. Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems.

Armour, S. (September 28, 2003). Diploma mills insert degree of fraud into job market. USA Today, from http://www.usatoday.com/money/workplace/2003-09-28-fakedegrees_x.htm.

Bollag, B. (October 7, 2005). New test of English as a foreign language puts an emphasis on speaking. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 52, A49.

Brendler, B. (January 23, 2010). Bogus online degrees may be more widespread than you think. AOL Money and Finance, from http://www.walletpop.com/blog/2010/01/23/bogus-online-degrees-may-be-more-widespread-than-you-think.

Burkhalter, B. (1999). Reading race online: Discovering racial identity in usenet discussions. In M. A. Smith & P. Kollock (Eds.), Communities in Cyberspace (pp. 63-69). London: Routledge.

BusinessWeekly (Friday, 22 January 2010). East of England report finds UK is European capital for bogus universities. BusinessWeekly.co.uk, from http://www.businessweekly.co.uk/2010012236073/academia/research/east-of-england-report-finds-uk-is-european-capital-for-bogus-universities.html.

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Donath, J. (2007). Signals in social supernets. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), article 12.

Gee, J.P. (1996). Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses (2nd ed.). London: Taylor & Francis.

Hara, N. (2000). Students' distress with a Web-based distance education course: An ethnographic study of participants' experiences. Information, Communication, & Society, 3(4), 557-579.

Kling, R., & Courtright, C. (2003). Group behavior and learning in electronic forums: A sociotechnical approach. The Information Society, 19(3), 221-235.

Lohr, S. (August 19, 2009). Study finds that online education beats the classroom. New York Times.

Motteram, G., & Forrester, G. (2005). Becoming an online distance learner: What can be learned from students' experiences of induction to distance programmes? Distance Education, 26(3), 281-298.

Narisi, S. (October 13, 2009). How does HR feel about online education? HR Morning, retrieved October 29 fromhttp://www.hrrecruitingalert.com/how-does-hr-feel-about-online-degrees.

O'Sullivan, M. L., & Palaskas, T. (2007). The political economy of the "new" discourse of higher education. In J. Lockard & M. Pegrum (Eds.), Brave New Classrooms (pp. 35-51). New York: Peter Lang.

Rowe, D. M. (2004). Cheating in online student assessment: Beyond plagiarism. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 7(2), n.p. Retrieved January 28, 2010: http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/summer72/rowe72.html.

Shaules, J. (2007). Deep culture: The hidden challenges of global living. Buffalo, NY: Multilingual Matters.

Steiner, P. (1993). On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. Cartoon in The New Yorker http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_North_Carolina_at_Chapel_Hill - Title 17 U.S. Code. http://www.unc.edu/depts/jomc/academics/dri/idog.html. Retrieved October 2, 2007.

Swan, K. (2003). Learning effectiveness: What research tells us. In J. Bourne & J. C. Moore (Eds.), Elements of quality online education: Practice and direction (Vol. 4, pp. 13-45). Needham, MA: The Sloan Consortium.

Thompson, C. C. (2006). Unintended Lessons: Plagiarism and the University. Teachers College Record, 108(12), 2439-2449.

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  • Thu, 04 Mar 2010
    Post by Craig Howard

    Curious title for your post. I think what youre referring to are renowned brink and mortar institutions. The credibility of long standing universities works against the degree mills, but from my perspective that is a minor factor compared to the larger issues. What does Harvard (for example) putting a class online do for addressing issues surrounding a planned deception for credit, intergroup distrust and missed face-to-face cues in the learners entering professions after commencement? Did fine institutions like the ones you attended have tactics that I missed? In researching this article I did notice that buried in the descriptions of online programs, many have requirements for face-to-face meetings. As this becomes more general knowledge, I think such programs gain credibility. Thanks for the comment.

  • Sat, 27 Feb 2010
    Post by Muvaffak GOZAYDIN

    Sorry . I am Turkish. Educated at Caltech and Stanford and worked in a wonderful company in Silicon valley, 1965-1970. I have been working on ONLINE education since 1995. 1.- If ONLINE is done by Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA there is no question about credibility. Right. Nobody asks you whether or not it is ONLINE . So Brand name is most important. Who is doing. Would you by an Indian Car in USA? No . No brand name . So do not accuse ONLINE . It is BRAND NAME .

    2.- ONLINE is cost effective. But my American friends do not understand that it is cost effective if it is done for 1000 even 2-3-4.000 students. So you have to SHARE your ONLINE courses with other universities and particularly with community colleges. And charge them only $ 10-20 per semester, per person, per course. Even SHARE it with the world like Yale, Harvard, Princeton etc.

    A good ONLINE course development costs $ 500.000 . Do not cheat yourself.

    3.- Drexel is the best ONLINE University in the USA. They are very expensive. More expensive than f2f. Nonsense. They do not share . Shame on them .

    4.- It is said that there are 800 or so BOGUS Universities in the USA. Probably more in ONLINE Universities. So my American friends should be more careful. At least in Turkey we do not have to worry about bogus University.

    5. ONLINE is 10 times better than f2f and costs 1/10 of the f2f . Period. ONLINE is for thousands of students not for only 50-60 even 100 students .

    6.- ONLINE is future. Let us do not destroy it . Best regards. mgozaydin@hotmail.com from Turkey

  • Sat, 20 Feb 2010
    Post by evision


  • Wed, 17 Feb 2010
    Post by Craig Howard

    Thanks for the comment/question. When online learning is cheaper than the other options for whatever reason (travel to get to school, time commitments etc...), the digital divide has a new meaning; those with enough or the right resources (time, money, location) don't have to sit in front of a computer to learn. That's what I mean by the tables are turning. The digital divide will turn the tables on the average student. At one point in time it was a barrier from online learning, but I see the cost effectiveness of online learning, or the presupposition of online learning's cost effectiveness, to be the divide between those who get the cues-filtered-out, and those who get the cues-filtered-in. We're not that far away.

  • Wed, 17 Feb 2010
    Post by Andrew Barrett

    You raise valid issues that must be addressed in order for the credibility of online degrees to be increased.

    One part that I didn't understand was in second last paragraph. You state... "we must assume the perceived value of the online degree has an extreme importance, especially now, as the digital divide is turning the tables on the average student"

    My question is: How is the digital divide, the gap between those who have access to digital technology and those who do not, turning the tables on the average student?