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Pursuing a University Degree Online

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
February 2008 Issue
January 7, 2008

Pursuing a University Degree Online

When a star high school student graduates in Tulare County, the difficult reality is that he or she most likely will leave to attend a four-year university. For an eighteen-year-old student, leaving the Central Valley, or at least Tulare County, is part of the educational experience.

But, after returning to Visalia some of us find out that our undergraduate educations are not quite enough. For those in education, Fresno State, Fresno Pacific University, Chapman University, and others have offered courses in Visalia for a number of years. This makes it possible to work and still complete a teaching credential or an advanced education-related degree.

I have been thankful for the options we have in the Central Valley. But, as others have learned, if you are interested in some fields you must commute to Fresno — or even further. With the drive to Fresno taking just under an hour, and gas at $3.50 or more per gallon, maybe another option makes sense: online degree programs.

Some people are justifiably skeptical of online degrees.

Online university degrees used to be synonymous with fraudulent credentials. Long before major, respected universities began to offer online courses, degree mills offered diplomas for a few hundred dollars.

These fake universities, and that’s what they are according to several states, still exist and still charge only a few hundred dollars for a degree. As I know from recent experience, even the California State University system charges roughly $200 per unit plus fees. You can’t “earn” a degree without paying a lot of money.

Your “life experiences” aren’t generally enough to have a master’s degree handed to you for a small “processing fee.”

A standard trick of these universities is to adopt a name easily confused with a real university. Cambridge University, Pacific University, and many others bet on either gullible consumers or, worse, assume their clients want to buy degrees that might be accepted by employers and others as legitimate.

One of the best lists of unaccredited universities is maintained by the state of Oregon (http://www.osac.state.or.us/oda/unaccredited.aspx). Only two other states, Maine and Texas, have similarly complete lists. Reading through these lists, it is astonishing how many of the “universities” are based in California.

With the preceding caveats in mind, I still think online degree programs are wonderful for those of us who either don’t live near a major university or don’t have flexible schedules.

Before enrolling in an online degree program, you need to ask yourself some difficult questions.
First, can you afford the program? Online degrees tend to cost twice to three times as much as traditional degree programs, even through the same university. Some universities are now charging a single per-unit rate, with an additional “technology fee” for online courses, but that remains a rare approach.

Next, ask yourself if you are self-motivated and disciplined enough to do the coursework without the incentives provided by weekly class meetings. If you think you need a schedule, then consider the type of online courses carefully.

There are four models for online degree programs: online asynchronous, online synchronous, hybrid, and limited residency. The first two types of courses are offered entirely online. A hybrid course is one that meets a few times in a traditional setting, but most instruction and work is done online. A “limited residency” program requires students to spend a short amount of time, usually one to two weeks, on a university campus each year.

For many working adults, an asynchronous online course is ideal. Students can read assignments, listen to lectures, and work on assignments at any hour. Deadlines are enforced, but taking classes is generally convenient. The downside of asynchronous courses is that students must be highly motivated. Also, the very things that make asynchronous courses attractive, like an unpredictable work schedule, can also cause students to fail or drop out early.

Synchronous courses require attendance during “live” lectures and discussions. Some universities broadcast traditional lectures over the Web for students enrolled in an online degree program. This allows students in remote settings to attend a university that might be hundreds or even thousands of miles away. One instructor I know had military personnel in Iraq taking her class and submitting papers via the Web.    

Hybrid courses offer the security of meeting an instructor and your classmates at least once during a semester. Major universities are experimenting with hybrid courses because these schools aren’t yet comfortable with the notion of a student never setting foot on campus. Some claim it is important to feel like you “attended” a university, if only for a few days each year.

The last model is the “limited residency” degree. During the summer months, when regular classes are not in session, intensive graduate workshops are offered. These one- to two-week sessions are then supplemented with online coursework during the traditional school year. In some fields, such as the performing arts, you must have some physical meetings to demonstrate knowledge.

Once you make the choice to pursue a degree online, selecting the right university is essential.

If the reputation of the university is important to you, then a good way to begin is by contacting the major institutions in your field of interest. The stigma of an online degree is definitely fading thanks to state universities offering online courses. The degree earned from a top school, such as a University of California campus, is the same whether you earn it online or in person. U.S. News offers an excellent guide to online degrees (http://www.usnews.com/).

Business and education degrees are often the only ones offered through major universities. This is both due to demand and the nature of the degrees. For example, teachers in most states, including California, need to meet “continuing education” requirements. This is a built-in market for universities offering graduate degrees in education.

Expect universities to move beyond these two fields as professors and administrators become more comfortable with online courses. The major for-profit online universities are working to improve their images, too. However, before enrolling through a for-profit university, ask people in your field about the value of the degree.

Obtaining a graduate degree is now compared to earning a bachelor’s degree only a generation ago. Thanks to online education, more of us can choose to live in the Central Valley while improving our career options. Sure, a huge university in Tulare County would be a dream come true… but in the Virtual Valley there are already hundreds of them.

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