Distance Education Buyers Beware

Distance education programs can offer quality and academic intensity, but they also can be shams.  As the Latin warning caveat emptor suggests, those contemplating distance education or satellite campus study – even on-campus programs – need to ask the right questions

Caveat emptor (Buyer beware)


Scribes Stacy St. Clair and Jodi S. Cohen of The Chicago Tribune recently reported claims that the Chicago School of Professional Psychology’s Los Angeles satellite campus is offering second-rate educational experiences. The Tribune noted the use of the moniker “inferior degree mill”.  The special circumstances of satellite campus offerings require that the “distance” from on-campus offerings, and the impact of distance on quality, must be investigated by the student. Institutional disingenuousness abounds.

On-line delivery warrants an even more careful, almost microscopic, look.  As with satellite programs, on-line offerings can be craftily configured to look like something they are not.  A corollary to this truism is that in such environments the strengths and weaknesses of faculty, staff, and offerings can be more visible, not less. On-line courses are “frozen sections” — educational biopsies — not hiding places. Ask the leaders of Corinthian Colleges:  As Joe Louis quipped, “You can run, but you can’t hide.” For a searing indictment of Corinthian Colleges see a July 24th Consumerist piece by Ashlee Kieler.

Another truism — an excellent face-to-face teacher can be excellent on-line. Students can review what is presented over and over again; expose the teaching to family and friends for critical commentary and insight without distraction of “beer and circus.” All of this brings academic excellence into brilliant focus. Alternatively, a poor teacher on-site is likely more exposed on-line as flaws are potentially exaggerated through careful assessment: America’s Funniest Home Videos in the higher education environment.  Not so “funny” at two or three thousand dollars for one course.

Students pondering study, particularly in non-traditional, on-line, or satellite campus offerings should ask tough questions:

Are the institution and the degree being offered accredited?  Make sure the institutional and/or on-line offerings are legitimate and accredited.  It is possible for an off-campus or on-line offering to lack appropriate accreditation although the on-campus one meets it. Deceptive leaders may not be transparent regarding these significant anomalies.

Are the degree and course of study valuable to me?   Because many universities are cash-strapped, the value of degrees has been oversold; student enrollments are fading in response to demographic changes; and distance education can be offered in a less than transparent mode: Make sure that those who teach on-line meet the same screening requirements as faculty who teach on-campus. There is increasing financial pressure at universities to place surrogates, not faculty, to correspond, grade, and interact as subject matter experts (faculty) with distance education students. On-campus slights-of-hand are more obvious, while in a guileful distance education environment a slipshod, second-rate experience might appear satisfactory, especially to the uninitiated.

What does the program cost and why?  Paying more for the same courses in the on-line environment as in the on-campus environment is a red flag.  Institutions argue that the convenience and asynchronous availability of distance education courses is worth a little extra. On-line courses, due to amortization of intellectual content, tend to cost less to deliver after being developed, road-tested, and perfected. “Profits” from distance education programs are frequently used to subsidize ineffective leadership and management of on-campus people and programs.

Distance education is not a financial panacea. Deans and department chairs are often rewarded for putting more courses on-line by allowing the “profit” of those courses to be maintained at the college or department level. This sounds good but may lead to abuse if a shortsighted, so-called “business” practice provides low-cost and low-quality.  My experience suggests on-line courses require equal work of good faculty, not less. Substandard offerings by substandard faculty, delivered with substandard management and leadership, to bewildered and cheated students has no upside.

What are the requirements for enrollment?  Do not to be lured into a distance education setting if you are told it will be easier. The opposite may be true. The courses rely on self-discipline and motivation. The on-campus peer groups that provide face-to-face conversation, lamentation, and prognostication, do not similarly exist with on-line cohorts. Having coffee while trying to figure out what the instructor is talking about has value.  To be sure, chat-rooms and email strings have value too, but of a different kind.

Distance education programs are appealing especially because the enrollment process is so easy. It is like buying a pair of shoes on-line:  click, add to the cart, click, provide means of payment. Free returns if they don’t fit.  Not so in higher education.  Admission processes exist but frequently at reduced levels of rigor.  Students may be committed, but it’s not always clear to what, to whom, or why.  The same caveats apply equally to the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and Corinthian Colleges.

Higher educational institutions in every manifestation need to do a better job of making the quality of on-site, satellite campus, and on-line programs compatible. If what is being offered anywhere, by any means, is second-rate, beware: it’s not worth a dime on the dollar.

2 thoughts on “Distance Education Buyers Beware

  1. Distance education can have great value, even better value than on-campus education, in some cases. In our online program, I have found the students form their own groups using social media and engage in lively debates about classes, professor expectations, etc. These groups are very strongly connected to each other via online means. It’s true they are not likely able to meet for coffee somewhere, but they are able to “meet” at any hour of the day or night, either at the same time as peers or whenever it fits into their schedules. The second choice is not the same level of interaction but it still provides a model for asynchronous communication between students.

    Key elements that have made our online program work include: 1) Students are grouped into cohorts so they get to know each other. They all move through the program in unison, allowing friendships to form even though they are separated by many miles and time zones. I believe this has contributed to a very low attrition rate for the program. 2) I attempted to communicate very clearly with the students entering the program about what their level of commitment needed to be in order to succeed before they decided to apply. I was clear about the difference between campus classes having the structure of a regular meeting time, seeing the professor, and so on, while online classes are much more dependent on the student’s involvement in their education in order to succeed. 3) We have a monthly face-to-face meeting to accomplish the collaborative educational goals of the program. I think, over time, we will no longer feel a need to meet in person, in part due to the fact that more students will be comfortable with online education models as they become more commonly available. In my discipline (architecture) there are currently only five online programs in the United States. 4) We follow EXACTLY the same admission process and the same set of standards for admission to the online program that are used in the on-campus program. There is no difference in how students are evaluated for admission to either program. 5) Since the target market is working professionals, we have learned to make sure there is always a weekend just before each project and assignment are due to ensure that those who also work have time available to work on their graduate studies, too.

    A few unofficial statistics that I track are that we lost only 1 of 25 students in the program in the first year. He was always uncertain if he could manage his company and do the program so being in the program was an experiment for both him and us. The current average GPA is 3.694 (4.0 scale). Seven of 24 students have perfect 4.0 GPAs. Keeping the admission standards high has helped keep GPAs high in the program. JKD

  2. Unfortunately, online education, while useful for some basic subject courses, can never take anything away from the true value of a real university education. this is namely, the personal interaction between teacher and student in a classroom situation, the possibility of learning together in terms of the stimulation of personal contact, and direction to a university library where the real foundation of knowledge lies, namely books. For the most part online education is a cheap substitute for the real values of an educational experience via personal contact that a computer can not supply. While all these depend on good teachers and students, it should be noted that one of the people responsible for the development pf this technology now has second thoughts and many reputable academic articles have cast doubt on the effectiveness of DOL. It can only be a substitute for the real university education. So the axiom “Buyer Beware” should be applied to the whole ideal of distance learning that is now being seized on by administrators as a way to reduce faculty lines. DOL can never be effective in certain areas of the Arts and Humanities such as Drama, Poetry, and Creative Writing where personal expression is essential in a humanistic, non-technological environment/

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