There’s not much you can’t do online. Thanks to the Internet, anyone can work, shop, socialize, date, and learn about ancient history or last night’s winning lottery numbers. However, online learning today goes far beyond Googling fast facts and “surfing the ‘net.” Millions of students—from kindergarteners to post-graduates—are taking advantage of the convenience of online courses to earn class credit, certificates, and even advanced degrees.
Online college education, or distance learning, has evolved tremendously since the early days of Internet accessibility. Once relegated to the fringes of traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and offering continuing education courses, extension classes, or certifications, online options have taken on a life of their own.
Online degree programs are flourishing
Today, not only are traditional universities adding entire divisions dedicated to distance learning; a slew of online-only colleges also have been created to serve the growing demand for online terminal degree programs. By 2016, more than six million students were enrolled in at least one online course being offered by 4,700 higher education programs. This number continues to increase year after year, even as on-campus enrollment declines.
Only a decade ago, when online undergraduate classes were already widely accepted, the quality of online master’s level courses was still being speculated. However, more and more adult learners expressed interest in convenient and flexible post-grad options that they could complete while working full-time jobs and managing family obligations. As of 2015, master’s degree programs are among the fastest-growing online education options, with 34 percent of post-baccalaureate students taking at least one course online.
Top universities offering diverse options
Leading universities also have recognized the appeal of distance learning to potential students and have introduced programs that are completely or mostly offered as online courses. Harvard, MIT, Stanford, UCLA, Brown, NYU, Cornell, Penn State, and Johns Hopkins now offer one to 60 master’s degree options that culminate in the same diplomas as their on-campus versions. From liberal arts, information technology, nursing, and business to supply chain management, data science, biotechnology, and engineering, these schools are providing new opportunities for students of all ages and life stages to earn graduate degrees in sought-after fields – and most programs are completed within two years.
Postgraduate law degree programs are some of the newest entrants into the distance learning landscape. Syracuse University recently became only the third school to win approval from the American Bar Association to offer a Juris Doctorate program where two-thirds of the courses are completed online. With the growing popularity of online degree programs in other fields, the ABA has considered loosening current restrictions that limit online courses to only 15 credits in over 200 JD programs. Although critics argue that distance learning omits—or at least dilutes—the foundational practice of the in-person Socratic methods, advocates believe that with proper instruction and oversight, graduates of online JD programs will be equally qualified to sit for the bar exam as in-class-only students.
Accreditation is key
When it comes to oversight of online degrees, accreditation is the most crucial indicator of a quality online education program. For a school to be accredited by a recognized agency, such as the Higher Learning Commission, which is responsible for evaluating and accrediting colleges in 19 US states, the school must meet strict requirements that guarantee the quality of not only education programs, but also of administration, faculty, and student support services no matter how the program is administered (in-person or online).
Some online courses of study are overseen by program-specific accreditation bodies. The Council on Social Work Education, for example, is the only organization to provide accreditation for a master’s degree in social work. Over and above general school-level accreditation, the CSWE focuses specifically on ensuring the quality of social work programs and the program’s ability to prepare graduates for state licensing in social work. Criteria for CSWE accreditation include parity in education regardless of online or in-person delivery, practical competency, sound policy, requisite curriculum, qualified licensure, and proficient employment.
Although online degree programs usually cost less than similar on-campus courses, the quality of education provided through distance learning should always be equal to that offered in a classroom. If you’re considering a postgraduate degree with an online option, don’t settle on a program based upon cost or convenience alone. Do your homework (online, of course), and find a program that will provide you with the quality education you need to achieve your career and personal goals.