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What Do College Faculty And Businesses Think About Online Education?

By Melissa Andrews / November 2018

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From 1994 to 1998, the number of distance education degree programs in United States colleges increased by seventy-two percent [1]. Distance education enrollment growth rates averaged seven percent per year and estimates suggested that U.S. companies spent as much as 18 billion dollars on IT-based delivery for online education in 2005 [2]. Fast forward to 2009-2010, the number of students taking at least one online class grew by ten percent [3]. As of four years ago, 14 percent of all higher education students were completing a degree solely online [4]. These trends and online enrollment numbers are only expected to rise. As colleges and businesses expand their use of e-learning, it becomes more and more important to find cost-effective ways to deliver instruction and training that will meet student and business needs. Some questions however have been raised as to the quality of an online education. How do businesses and college faculty really feel about the switch from traditional to online degree programs? And with increased opportunities to obtain online degrees and improved programs, is an online program viewed the same as a traditional program when trying to get a job?

Consider some of the following reasons that employers list as to why they do not like to hire an applicant with an online degree [5, 6, 7]:

  • Reduced face-to-face interaction between student and instructor.
  • Potential for academic dishonesty.
  • Legitimacy of diploma.
  • Concerns about student commitment if they didn't attend college in a physical location.
  • Lack of program rigor.

Common reasons employers list as to why they would hire an applicant with an online degree are just as varied [5, 6, 7]:

  • The reputation of the degree granting institution.
  • The appropriate level and type of credential.
  • Online students are perceived to be self-disciplined and self-directed.
  • Good time management skills.
  • Relevant work experience.
  • If the candidate was already an employee.
  • The number of students taking online classes.

Academic Perceptions of Online Programs

In academic settings, distance learning programs generally serve off-campus populations. These courses offer access to students who cannot attend traditional courses due to reasons such as employment, family obligations, distance and expenses [6]. Let's look at some common perceptions about online education. Seventy-three percent of online students say that career and employment goals were a major motivation for taking online classes. Thirty-five percent of students who took courses were changing jobs with 30 percent of the group signing up for classes to obtain some type of credential in their current field of work [8]. Seventy-six percent of college alumni thought that online education was better than or equal to on-campus education and five percent of employers agreed. Seventy-three percent of schools said that they were offering new online education programs as growth opportunities to increase overall student enrollment [8]. Additionally, 99 percent of online education program administrators confirm that demand has increased or stayed the same over the last few years with 40 percent of those surveyed saying that they were increasing their online instruction budgets for the next year [8].

Instructor and institutional attitudes seem to affect the success and quality of online programs. In 2006, Hannay and Newvine reported in a comparison study of instructor attitudes about distance education, instructors were willing to teach an online class but felt the quality was lower than traditional classes taught on campus [9]. Faculty may be reluctant to move toward online education due to a fear of change, concerns about the reliability of technology, increased workloads, and a general skepticism about student outcomes [10]. Instructors who favored online learning were ones that were very familiar with technology [9]. Additional research has shown that 70 percent of online faculty surveyed across the United States believed the learning outcomes for students in online classes were inferior to outcomes experienced by students in traditional classes, and 26 percent of faculty and 67 percent of administrators in a smaller study agreed that learning outcomes in online courses were less equal to face-to-face courses [10]. Despite some of these negative faculty attitudes, the growth rate of online classes has exceeded traditional enrollment with the number of online students enrolled in an online program at fourteen percent of all total college enrollment [11].

In 2003, chief academic officers rated online learning outcomes as compared to face-to-face courses at 57 percent. In 2013, the rate had increased to approximately 74 percent [11]. Academic officers felt faculty accepted the quality of online programs at 60 percent. In contrast, only 11 percent of academic officers at institutions with small or no distance learning programs feel their faculty accept the legitimacy of online education [11].

Schools with large distance education enrollments are the most positive about the quality of their programs. When institutional leaders were asked if faculty attitudes presented an obstacle for program growth, one third agreed that it did. In a national study published in 2004, Adams and DeFleur found seven percent of deans who were responsible for student admissions to graduate school, were reluctant to accept a student that had obtained an online bachelor's degree. In another related study, the Likert scale was used to determine if faculty candidates were more likely to be hired if they had an online doctoral degree for a full-time, tenure track position [12]. The findings concluded that a traditional degree candidate was more likely to be hired.

Corporate Perceptions of Online Programs

Switching gears to the corporate world, in the pharmaceutical industry, 87 percent of respondents in a related study indicated belief that there was no distinction between an online and traditional degree when considering an applicant for hiring [5]. In research conducted by Adams and DeFleur, multi-discipline hiring managers were given the choice of selecting hypothetical candidates with an online or traditional degree. Ninety-eight percent of employers surveyed preferred the traditional degree [13].Very little research has been done regarding online degree acceptance in the last 15 years to verify if perceptions have changed. In 2009, a survey of human resource managers concluded that there was a negative perception of online degrees. Some recruiters blamed the surge of online diploma mills as creating the negative image [6]. More than half of human-resource managers surveyed indicated that if equally qualified candidates applied for a job, it would not make a difference if the candidate's degree was obtained through an online or traditional program. Seventy-nine percent said they had hired an applicant with an online degree during the previous 12 months; 66 percent of these managers added however that candidates who obtained degrees online were not viewed as favorably as job applicants with traditional degrees [3]. Other reports suggest if the employee was already working for the organization, completing an online degree was not looked upon unfavorably [5]. In a different study, it was found job applicants were 22 percent less likely to receive a callback from an employer if they have an online, for-profit business bachelor's degree listed on their resume than if they did not specify traditional or online [7]. Truly, a wide variety of responses in academia and in corporate hiring.

As discussed, the demand for online career-related learning programs has substantially increased. Colleges will need to offer new programs that increase enrollment and meet business needs. Even though faculty and college administration believe that faculty perceive online education positively, the numbers still denote an undertone that the quality is not as high as traditional, face-to-face courses. It is also interesting that schools with successful and large programs viewed quality higher than schools with small or no online programs [11].As budgets and educational funding dry up, this contradiction between the need for the expansion of online programming to increase enrollment and provide more course availability versus decreasing programs due to the perception that online programs are lessor in quality and value will be an issue as schools try to rearrange priorities. Even though colleges have identified online learning as a strategic need and statistics prove that growth is occurring even though traditional program enrollments are declining, colleges have done little planning as they implement online programs [14]. Limited research done in the past fifteen years suggests that only approximately 30 percent of colleges have done formal planning for online programs [3]. Online courses have been taught for decades, but few studies have been done on the factors that influence the successful implementation of online programs. With the identification by administration that faculty perceptions of online quality are a barrier, a cultural shift will also need to occur. Institutions will need to provide training programs and involve online faculty in strategic budget and curriculum planning which will change perceptions about quality and the value that online courses can provide.

Teaching online imposes certain challenges for administration and faculty. Designing and developing online courses requires collaboration between many groups of people with expertise and experience in different areas of administration, technology and instruction [15]. Fear about the quality of an online curriculum may deter faculty from wanting to participate in planning or developing online courses. Helping faculty accept online delivery methods is crucial as institutions integrate online learning into strategic and future planning. Administrators will need to understand how faculty perceive and feel about teaching online to improve online quality initiatives [10]. Training to ensure the delivery of effective student and program outcomes needs to include information about pedagogy, technology, and design. Training instructors on how to use and incorporate technology into programs is also a way to drive organizational change especially as more programs move online [14]. As more courses are taught online, more faculty will teach online courses [12]. This infusion of online instructors will eventually reduce negative attitudes about online degrees because online education will have become normalized. A report conducted by Flowers and Baltzer in 2006 found faculty candidates with online degrees were more likely to be considered by administrators who also received their doctorate degrees from online programs [12].


So how does the quality of an online degree stack up in the business world? One factor seems to be the type of industry. Pharmacy employers have indicated that when evaluating candidates, there is little difference between the quality of an online or traditional degree. Human resources managers tended to be more negative and cautious. If the candidate already worked at the company, the degree was considered as improving their skill sets leading to a better chance of getting hired or promoted. If the candidate was an external applicant, a traditional degree was looked upon more favorably. Another factor was if the industry was private, large or small and even non-profit. The size of the applicant pool for each type of company may be a possible cause. Probably most telling are statistics like the previously mentioned Adams and DeFleur study that said 98 percent of hiring managers preferred a traditional degree [13]. and that hiring managers are more apt to accept an online degree if the institution has a good reputation [6].

Statistics and existing studies show that trending toward equally accepting an online degree is changing. The level of maturity or development of the distance program influences what barriers are perceived by faculty and administration [16]. Apprehension about the quality of online curriculums may deter faculty from effectively participating in planning, development and instruction of online courses, which is what is ironically needed to shift the perceptions of quality [2]. Technology is also an influencing factor is the success of online programs and the quality of how courses are developed delivered by instructors. Research supports that instructors feel more comfortable when they are familiar with technology and have received training on how to deliver online instruction yet training for online instructors varies by institution, full-time or part-time status and by program type. It seems to come down to a world of haves and have-nots as far as online programs go. The colleges that already have large programs view it as an area that should be grown while colleges that are struggling for enrollment and funding view online education as an area where they can save some money. It doesn't take much to assume that if an institution does not have a strong online reputation, hiring managers may not value the degree as much as other institutions.

Online education offers students who are not close to a college, students who work or are nontraditional, opportunities to earn degrees and to improve skillsets. It offers colleges a way to increase enrollment. Remember, 74 percent of schools say they are offering new online education programs as opportunities for growth to increase overall student enrollment [8]. Obtaining any degree whether online or traditional, is a ticket to future success. A job applicant does not have to disclose that the degree was obtained online. There has been a perception shift in acceptance over the last 10 years as the quality of programs improve. As technology becomes more of a pre-requisite for job performance and as more people understand the importance of technology in the workplace, the reality of online education as an available training medium is here to stay. Also, as college instructors are trained to implement better collaborative learning techniques for students into programs and the reputations of these programs are shared, hiring managers will continue to consider any credentialed online program as equal and considerations that there is anything different about the programs will be a thing of the past.


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About the Author

Melissa Andrews has a B.A. in political science, elementary education, a master of arts in organizational training and development, and is pursuing an Ed.D. in higher education/community college leadership. She has coaching, six sigma and online instructional certificates. She has been an instructional designer, corporate facilitator, speaker, learning management system administrator and currently works with career and technical education grants and professional development in community colleges. Andrews has developed and coordinated many women's leadership events/webinars and company training opportunities to help promote personal, professional growth and development for managers and a company developmental diversity blog site author. She is an online author of articles related to human resources and performance management, former project manager for a women's diversity resource council and received the recognition "Racial Harmony Phenomenal Women of Metropolitan St. Louis Area" for her work with diversity in the community. She has worked and consulted in education in many industries: government, healthcare, retail, pharmaceuticals, K-12, community education and universities.

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