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Degrees by mail
look what you can buy for only $499!

By Lisa Neal / January 2004

TYPE: OPINION
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It's not as bad as receiving email about herbal supplements, but I get a fair number of emails informing me of quick and easy ways to obtain a degree. I read these much more carefully than other unsolicited emails to find out how much the degree costs, how long it takes to "earn" it, and what the plausible-sounding name of the institution is. I assume that somebody answers these ads, but never gave much thought to who might take them seriously. I was very surprised and rather amused to have this question answered recently when The Boston Globe ran a front-page article about the purchase of just such a degree by the chief of the state Department of Public Health laboratory.

According to the Globe, "Ralph Timperi began signing state emails in recent weeks with a notation indicating he held a doctorate." His web page listed a 2003 degree from Trinity Southern University—see what I mean about plausible sounding names? Timperi told the Globe that "he pursued the degree after receiving an e-mail from the university while he was on a research mission last summer in Cambodia." Was he, perhaps, swayed by persuasive wording? Did he want to be called Dr. Timperi? How else to explain someone in his position, and not, apparently, in need of a degree to advance professionally, suffering such a lapse in judgment? And what about all the people who need a degree for employment or who may not understand the time, effort, and financial commitment typically required for a degree?

The British Open University and other excellent and reputable online programs have done a lot to move public perception of online programs away from the déclassé correspondence schools that used to be so common—remember the matchbooks advertising "Be a graphic artist"? Even with high-quality programs, prospective students are concerned about employer perception: Is an online degree as valuable as a "bricks and mortar" degree? Jeff Papows, former president of Lotus, claimed he held a Ph.D. from Pepperdine University when he actually held a master's degree from Pepperdine and a Ph.D. from a "correspondence school." He wasn't embarrassed to enroll, but he was apparently embarrassed to acknowledge the granting institution.

If prospective students are to distinguish legitimate and accredited online degree-granting programs from the bogus ones advertised through spam, we need better and more explicit measures of quality. Reputation is an important measure, as are rankings. Accreditation agencies in the U.S. are set up to provide an external measure of quality, but many people don't know about or understand the accreditation review process, especially as regards e-learning programs. For example, I have a vague idea that the square footage of library space is important to receiving bricks-and-mortar accreditation, but I have no idea how this might translate to the online world.

Everyone benefits if prospective students understand accreditation and can evaluate the suitability of an online program before they enroll—everyone except those "schools" with something to hide. If someone of Timperi's stature can be duped, anyone can. As for Papows, he clearly knew the difference between a worthwhile degree and a sham, yet distorted the truth. If he cared so much about the source of his degree, he should have been more careful in selecting an institution—as, I would imagine, Timperi wishes he had.



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ADDITIONAL READING

    Lisa Neal
  1. "Spot Learning"
  2. When will e-learning reach a tipping point?
  3. Q&A with Saul Carliner
  4. "Deep" thoughts
  5. The stripper and the bogus online degree
  6. Five questions...for Tom Carey
  7. Learner on the Orient Express
  8. Five (or six) questions...for Irene McAra-McWilliam
  9. How to get students to show up and learn
  10. Blended conferences
  11. Predictions for 2002
  12. Learning from e-learning
  13. Q&A with Don Norman
  14. In search of simplicity
  15. Five Questions...for Christopher Dede
  16. Want better courses?
  17. Designing usable, self-paced e-learning courses
  18. Just "DO IT"
  19. Senior service
  20. Formative evaluation
  21. Blogging to learn and learning to blog
  22. Predictions for 2007
  23. Not all the world's a stage
  24. Five questions...for Seb Schmoller
  25. Do distance and location matter in e-learning?
  26. Why do our K-12 schools remain technology-free?
  27. The Value of Voice
  28. Predictions for 2006
  29. Five questions...for Shigeru Miyagawi
  30. Five questions...
  31. Five questions...for Larry Prusack
  32. Five questions...for Karl M. Kapp
  33. Music lessons
  34. Learn to apologize for fun and profit
  35. Advertising or education?
  36. Of web hits and Britney Spears
  37. Predictions for 2008
  38. Serious games for serious topics
  39. Back to the future
  40. Predictions For 2003
  41. Q&A
  42. Storytelling at a distance
  43. Talk to me
  44. Q&A with Diana Laurillard
  45. Online learning and fun
  46. Everything in moderation
  47. eLearning and fun
  48. The basics of e-learning
  49. Is it live or is it Memorex?
  50. Five Questions... for John Seely Brown
  51. 5 questions... for Richard E. Mayer
  52. My life as a Wikipedian
  53. Five questions...for Elliott Masie
  54. Five questions...for Lynn Johnston
  55. Five questions…for Matt DuPlessie
  56. Do it yourself
  57. Predictions for 2004