Online University Degrees: Gaining Respectability

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Online university degrees have been gaining in respectability for quite a while and with continued efforts on the part of the respective institutions, administrators, and faculty, this trend will carry on and evolve as students’ needs change and higher education reinvents itself to meet those needs. How can the once maligned online university degree gain even more respect and credibility in the eyes of academia and, perhaps more importantly, prospective and current employers?

Online university degrees have come a long way since the days of correspondence courses. A wide range of colleges and universities now offer entire degree programs in a distance format. These programs tout flexibility and convenience for their audience largely comprised of adult learners, maintaining that degrees can be earned without too much disruption to the everyday responsibilities of family, work, etc. There has also been much conversation surrounding the credibility of online degrees, oftentimes comparing them in a less than favorable light to those offered by their more traditional, brick and mortar counterparts. There are reasonable steps colleges and universities can take to ensure their degree programs are viewed as credible and respectable including incorporating online proctoring services into the learning management system (LMS), and designing and adhering to concrete course and unit outcomes.

Detractors of online university degrees have raised concerns over the validity of the course assignments, including exams and quizzes. After all, how do we know who is actually doing the work or taking the test when we never see them in person? While this may be a logical worry, there are ways to avoid cheating on exams through the use of online proctoring services. Proctoring is offered in a variety of packages, and no matter the type of package selected, can verify the identity of every test taker.

Live proctors interact directly via webcam with students and alert them to any discrepancies that might been seen as cheating during the actual exam time. Another option is to employ a remote proctoring webcam. Even though there is no live proctor present, the student is still monitored and through keystroke identifiers and algorithms faculty can be notified of any deviation from the rules surrounding the exam. The remote proctoring alternative takes the faculty members’ special instructions into consideration without appearing too intrusive as the live proctor sometimes does. For example: May the student have open book? Are they able to navigate to other websites during the exam? No matter the level of online proctoring chosen, it can be integrated into virtually any LMS and can go a long way in lending credibility to this aspect of online degree programs.

Before assignments and learning activities can be designed and implemented, curriculum developers and faculty members must start with course and unit level outcomes on which to build the rest of the course material. Using a concrete naming convention like the verbs provided by Bloom’s Taxonomy gives all outcomes an easy to follow structure while designing assessments that help students meet these objectives and learning activities to enhance give greater depth to the assessments. An organized way to bring all of these elements together is a course map. A course map is a document that allows curriculum developers and faculty to connect the academic dots. An Excel spreadsheet works best but other types documents can be also be used.

Keeping the end goal in mind (what do we want our students to learn by the end of the course?) the first column of a course map lists all of the course level outcomes, followed by the unit level outcomes. At that point, the assessments can be listed in an effort to show how they will assist students in meeting the outcomes and then, finally, the learning activities are described. A concrete map makes the course design process a far easier one and having all of the outcomes in an easy to access place is handy for administrative and accreditation purposes as well. Simply put, solid, credible courses stem from easily measured course and unit outcomes.

The type of measures taken to ensure credibility of online university degree programs will of course vary from institution to institution. No matter the steps taken it is clear that they are necessary in convincing others in higher education that the online programs offered are indeed worthwhile ones in which students should enroll in order to succeed both academically and professionally. Online university degrees have certainly evolved and, in most cases, improved. However, there may always be those who doubt the legitimacy of these programs and taking the proper steps to ensure they are as comprehensive and reputable as possible is a must.