Patrick O’Brien earned a master’s degree in instructional technology from Boise State University recently, but the Canadian teacher didn’t set foot on campus, meet his professors or even visit the United States until graduation day.
Instead of sitting in a lecture hall for a year, O’Brien sat in his living room in British Columbia and completed his graduate degree on-line.
He is one of the more than 5 million people who take courses at virtual colleges each year. It might sound unusual, but millions of people are trading the traditional ivy-covered campus for an education in cyberspace.
More than 2,000 accredited colleges now offer on-line graduate or undergraduate degrees. Schools offer MBAs on-line, as well as degrees in liberal arts, science, engineering and other areas. Distance learning has become so popular that Peterson’s, the college guide company, produced a 500-page book devoted to schools that offer on-line degrees.
Some students just take classes over the Internet, but thousands earn degrees from reputable colleges across the country. As education costs mount and more students work full- or part-time jobs, the traditional college or graduate program has become unworkable for many.
“This isn’t the wave of the future, it’s here now,” said Terri Hedegaard, vice president of the University of Phoenix’s on-line campus. “Almost every institution of higher learning is putting courses on the Internet.”
While there may still be skeptics out there, most distance learning programs are highly regarded by both academicians and employers. Admission to a virtual college is just as tough as admission to campus programs and the coursework is demanding. Getting a degree on-line isn’t any cheaper either. Most schools charge the same amount per credit for distance learning as they do for traditional programs.
“This is just another option that busy adults have when seeking advanced degrees,” said Hedegaard, whose distance learning program is one of the oldest in the country.
Many of the schools combine classwork via the Internet with other forms of communication such as video conferencing, teleconferencing and video cassettes.
The trend toward distance learning has been sparked both by the evolution of technology as well as the constraints faced by those who want to return to school.
For O’Brien, who teaches at University College of Fraser Valley, in Abbotsford, British Columbia, attending a traditional graduate program would have taken too much time out of his schedule.
By doing his course work on-line, O’Brien got the degree but was able to work and spend time with his family.
Ben Mazza, a young advertising executive in Manhattan, didn’t want to get out of the rat race to get an advanced degree, yet he knew his career depended on one.
“There was no way I could take time off to go back to school,” said Mazza, 26. So, he chose New York University’s virtual college program and received a graduate degree in information technology last year.
“It fit my schedule perfectly and I think it’s going to help me move up in my career,” Mazza said.
One drawback to virtual colleges is the time it takes. While a traditional undergraduate degree is supposed to take only four years, cyber-students rarely finish in that amount of time, said Pam Dixon, author of “Virtual College,” a book on distance learning (Peterson’s, $9.95). That’s because many of the students work at the same time as they’re taking classes.
However, the slower pace may have some benefits.
“The research in on-line education has shown that giving people more time to review and respond has real cognitive learning benefits,” Hedegaard said.
Rather than coming into class and fading into the background, on-line students have to interact with professors and classmates. “If you don’t interact, you don’t exist,” Dixon said.
People who are considering a distance learning program need the willpower, but they also need to choose the right school.
Among the criteria students should check are library and research resources, student services, accreditation and student-teacher ratio.
Dixon cautions that an on-line degree is not right for every field, especially those that require hands-on involvement, such as dentistry.
“If you want to be a nurse and you have only a distance learning degree, you’re going to lose credibility,” Dixon said.