Online assessment Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007

What does it mean to hold an online degree? This hot topic has been debated since the initial Internet-based educational programs debuted in the mid-1990s and began sending graduates into the work force.

Could these degrees someday be viewed as equal to traditional in-class educations or possibly become the preferred method for training high-potential employees?

“There’s nothing magical about a classroom education — it’s just the way we’ve always done things,” says Tim Blumentritt, Ph.D., online programs director, Kennesaw State University, Coles College of Business. “Considering the latest technologies, the ability to communicate with and educate students through an online course actually can be superior.”

Smart Business spoke with Blumentritt about how technology, connectivity and a generation of Internet-savvy collegians may soon be the key to removing the stigma attached to online education.

What recent advancements have increased the popularity of online degrees?

Adult learners have become more comfortable with this type of communication and are willing to depend on it for managing finances and communication with friends. Also, the available technology is so much cheaper, and the Internet has become so much faster and more efficient that we’ve been able to create far more robust teaching tools, like Web conferencing and captured presentations.

Does a stigma exist regarding online degrees?

I believe there still is and, in some respects, for good reasons. The Net has created tremendous opportunities for people to provide nontraditional forms of education. While I respect all efforts to offer and pursue further education, some of the first online education providers were not all that substantive. But people love the convenience of online learning and are becoming increasingly familiar with technology. Traditional universities have begun waking up to these possibilities.

We are now transitioning to combining this somewhat novel way of distributing education and engaging students with the same level of rigor traditionally associated with in-class degrees. There are some very smart people from established institutions who believe this can work, but until we get a substantial population of graduates out there doing good work, we’re not there yet.

How do employers view today’s online degrees?

Some people still hold the view that if you have on your resume an online degree, it will be devalued. That’s just the way it is. But most schools, including ours, are attempting to differentiate the idea of getting an online degree from getting a degree through online courses. That’s a small difference in terminology but a big difference in meaning. If our institution can offer degrees with the full affiliation of the Board of Regents of the University of Georgia, for example, and the full backing of the AACSB International — the most rigorous accreditation process in business education — then we can suggest that the delivery method is somewhat irrelevant.

Who are prime candidates for online degrees and certifications?

The first are the traditional college-aged students who are most comfortable communicating through Internet-based mechanisms. They’re likely to intermingle online courses with in-class courses. The second group consists of people who are completing degrees, those who started their education some years ago and had to stop their education prior to getting a degree. A third group is the relatively small population of people looking for a full online education.

For businesses, online courses are an excellent method for developing high-potential employees who simply lack the appropriate degree. It’s a credible way for them to complete those degrees without upsetting their normal time commitments to their employers.

Can an online education actually top a traditional classroom experience?

Absolutely. Instructors are assumed to be experts. But the key for a good education is knowledge transfer. One of my favorite quotes is, ‘The most serious error in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’ The idea being that simply because one person in a group is smart, and they are leading the discussion, that everybody else will be smart thereafter.

The latest iteration of online education uses much more powerful levels of communication. Voice recordings can be added to PowerPoint presentations, so students get the same content as a traditional lecture. New software can capture screen shots of Web pages and integrate active Excel sheets that are synced with the professor’s notes and other course content. Plus, all of this material can be posted to a course Web site, so it can be accessed as many times as necessary for the student to learn the material.

How will online training change the future business environment?

Tradition is often a desirable characteristic for universities. But distance communications and online activities are absolutely standard in almost every industry. This suggests that business schools should be training future managers to be successful in an online world. We have to make sure our educational systems prepare people to work in electronic environments.

TIM BLUMENTRITT, Ph.D., is online programs director, Kennesaw State University, Coles College of Business. Reach him at (678) 797-2075 or tblument@kennesaw.edu.