Although online degrees are becoming more popular, many students have questions about what the actual Web education experience is like. Unfortunately, students often have only school websites, past students or current instructors to turn to for information. Because the student experience can vary so much from person to person, and current instructors may have only their traditional brick-and-mortar experience with which to compare an online platform, a better choice for an evaluator would be a teacher who has also received his or her Ph.D. online. Dr. Katie J. Thiry has a Ph.D. in education from Capella University and works as an adjunct online instructor with Ashford University, Argosy University, Colorado Technical University and Grand Canyon University. She has sat as a dissertation committee member for a doctoral student at Capella and teaches courses in master's and doctoral programs.
Thiry decided to pursue an online program after doing some serious digging. “I took time to research institutions, investigate programs and inquire with colleagues about the reputation of specific universities and programs,” she said. She then attended a conference of the American Society for Training and Development, where a conversation with the program chair at Capella sparked her interest in the university. “After this conversation about my educational and professional goals,” said Thiry, “I grew confident that both the program and the university were a good match.”
Thiry worked full time while she pursued her doctorate, and she fit class discussions and assignments around her work schedule. “[I] found that the flexibility of an online program allowed me to maximize my days, weekends and nights,” said Thiry. “While there were residency requirements throughout the program which required a physical presence and face-to-face participation for a full week at a time, I coordinated accrued vacation time from work with attendance at the residency events.”
The convenience of an online degree is one of the most significant bonuses for doctoral students. However, the “convenience” aspect is part of the reason professional and academic communities sometimes disagree about whether online colleges should be looked upon with suspicion. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “55 percent of managers surveyed … [in 2006] by Vault Inc., a career-information company, said they favored applicants with traditional degrees over ones with online degrees. Forty-one percent said they would give equal consideration to both types of degrees.” However, Thiry has found that convenience does not have to mean lower quality. “Attending courses and completing course work during nontraditional hours is, in fact, ‘convenient,' ” she said. “However, ‘convenience' does not translate to a program that lacks integrity or substance,” she said.
Many doctoral degree holders opt to teach in an adjunct capacity (on a contract basis as opposed to a tenure track) at an online university as a way to maintain a flexible schedule. According to a 2007 article in The New York Times, the proportion of adjunct professors at colleges and universities was 43 percent three decades ago and is now at nearly 70 percent.
It is more important to find a program with all the necessary components than to worry about the delivery method, Thiry argued. A good program, she said, is one with “opportunities for synchronous and asynchronous interaction, extensive library resources, knowledgeable faculty, technical support, and the usability of the institution's learning management system or educational platform.”
In her work as an online instructor, she has used many of the common Internet learning platforms, including Blackboard, WebCT, ANGEL and eCollege. Strayer University uses Blackboard as the learning system for all its online courses. The online program at Rutgers University is supported by eCollege. Thiry believes that students should explore the learning management systems used by online schools they are considering just as they would visit campuses before making their selection. As the learning management system will be the format in which students attend classes, communicate with peers and professors, and turn in assignments, it will determine the student experience in a significant way.
“Some systems are laid out well, easier to navigate, and administrative tasks like uploading assignments are easy,” said Thiry. “Some systems are more sophisticated and require more extensive training and experience, while the basic systems can be quite intuitive.” One of the features Thiry suggested to look for when comparing one system to another is the ability to provide live interaction, such as video and voice chat. And elaborate is not necessarily better, she added. Some of the sophisticated platforms can be complicated for students and faculty to use, Thiry said.
Dr. David L. Elliott, associate dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Excelsior College, echoed Thiry's sentiments that strong collaborative capabilities should be built into a school's learning management system. “The key to quality education, online or classroom, is the interaction between faculty and students,” Elliott said in a Faculty Focus interview. “Having qualified educators with a commitment to their students and the subject, regardless of the modality of instruction, remains the single most important factor in quality education.”