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Online Universities: An Opportunity for Valley Residents

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
June 27, 2011 Deadline
August 2011 Issue

Online Universities: An Opportunity for Valley Residents

Individuals with college and university degrees have a substantially lower unemployment rate than others in our community. Every political, business and educational leader I’ve met in the Central Valley has told me that education is essential to improving the quality of life in our region. Unfortunately, for many Valley residents the dream of a college degree remains merely a dream.

While I have a doctorate specializing in technology and literacy education, I remain skeptical when anyone starts talking about the potential promises of online education. My research identified many barriers to success online, from poor visual design of classes to teachers not interacting with students. Too many students do not finish college degrees they start, either online or in traditional classrooms. This leaves many people burdened with debts they cannot repay.

Online courses are not the same as traditional courses. Successful completion of an online course requires self-discipline and dedication. Some of the reasons a student might want to try online courses are the same reasons students don’t finish: unpredictable work hours and family responsibilities.

One way to determine if an online course is right for you is to try several of the free online educational options. These virtual classes do not lead to degrees, but they lead to self-improvement and discovery. Some of the best free educational programs are available on Apple’s iTunes, under the iTunes U menu. Online lectures are available from universities such as:

Cambridge
Harvard
University of California Berkeley
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Oxford
Stanford
Texas A&M
Yale

The iTunes U lectures are the same materials presented at these prestigious institutions. I’ve listened to classes on computer programming, Greek history, and English grammar. More than a hundred universities post free content to iTunes. This is great for students at these universities since they can review a lecture anytime, anywhere. But it is fantastic for the rest of us, too, since we can learn without paying the tuitions and fees.

Self-improvement might help you do a job, but I know from experience that what many employers want are college degrees and technical certifications. If you are ready to pursue a degree online, the struggles are worth the time and money.

I do caution my students that they have to select degrees carefully and wisely in this economy. Georgetown University researchers have created a guide to what various college degrees are worth, based on the salaries of recent graduates. The best careers are in science, engineering and health care. You can read the career guide from the Center on Education and the Workforce online at:
http://cew.georgetown.edu/whatsitworth/

Many of the popular online degrees are in fields with low salaries and poor employment prospects. If you want to pursue an online degree in creative writing or world history, you should recognize that those degrees offer personal growth but not great job opportunities. I know several recent college graduates who did not find permanent positions. However, all the graduates I know with degrees in technology, science and math did find positions.

Online programs in what are known as the “STEM” fields of science, technology, engineering and math, are being launched and expanded by some of the best universities in this nation. Many of my colleagues are resisting this shift to online courses, but the reality is that students were pursuing degrees at other institutions so they could begin careers in high-demand fields.

Though some have criticized the rise of satellite campuses, for-profit colleges and online universities, the rise of these institutions has forced the cobweb-encrusted ivory towers of major universities to recognize the world is changing. It is true that some of the early for-profit online universities were nothing more than degree mills. Today, however, numerous for-profit and established major universities are providing access to excellent online degree programs.

College of the Sequoias, Fresno State and Fresno Pacific University offer some courses online. Fresno Pacific, in particular, offers complete online programs for educators seeking to complete master’s degrees in specialized areas. The value of a master’s degree depends on individual career plans and what one hopes to gain from the coursework personally.

Of course, online degree programs mean you are no longer limited to local colleges and universities. Some of the elite universities still require online students to meet on campus for a few days each year, but you don’t have to attend classes on campus. Certainly, a week on campus for orientation is far more convenient than quitting your job and moving to another city. A degree from Stanford is a degree from Stanford, whether you sat in the lecture hall for a computer science course or watched the video online.

With technology, I am hopeful that more Valley residents will pursue college degrees. The online programs offered by universities are going to open doors that had been closed to working adults, parents and others needing flexibility.


In January, a colleague in Pennsylvania contacted me. A respected regional university specializing in technology and health care was considering launching online degree programs that would be available nationally. I originally declined the opportunity to interview for a position coordinating some of these online programs.

As the days passed, I reflected on the fact I pursued my own education with the goal of using technology to change how our colleges and universities functioned. After discussions with friends and family, I agreed to travel to Pittsburgh in March. While there, I met with university officials and several faculty members. I wanted to ensure the online degrees were equal to the traditional degrees students had earned at this institution for nearly a century.

I have accepted a position in the School of Communications and Information Systems at Robert Morris University (http://www.rmu.edu/). My duties will include coordinating online programs in professional writing and technical communications. Online programs will be evolving, and I plan to reach out to areas like the Valley to better understand employer and prospective student needs.



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