Online Ph.D.s Will Rise in Quality and Acceptance, Professor Says

Some scholars believe traditional academia will always be superior to online programs, but others have come to accept the format as a legitimate and valuable method of education. As technology continues to gain prominence in our society, learning via Internet tools will become even more accepted.

M. Gail Derrick, a Regent University School of Education professor and Ph.D. holder, is one academic who has come to appreciate online education. Despite never having taken any online courses while completing her bachelor's, master's or doctoral degrees, Derrick eagerly accepted an offer to teach them at Regent. She quickly saw the advantages of Internet learning at the Ph.D. level.

“I think when I began teaching online over a decade ago, there was some thought that online was less than, or not as good as, face to face,” Derrick said. “Well, fast forward 10 years and look where we are technologically in all aspects of our daily life.”

Students considering an online program should be self-motivated and effective in their time management, Derrick cautions. “If the student is a dependent learner who needs a great deal of support, then that student will usually not be successful in the online environment unless they are able to quickly move themselves into a position of a more independent learner,” she said. “Online programs are marketed for ease and convenience. What is not usually brought out is that they require a different set of skills: self-motivation, self-direction, autonomy and usually a greater time commitment.”

One question that many prospective online Ph.D. students have is how will the process differ from an on-campus one. Although the end goal for students in both formats is the same, they often accomplish that in different ways.

“In the traditional class, the student shows up for the three hours while online courses usually require more of a time commitment during the week,” Derrick said. “Dialogue by all students is required in my courses each week. This interaction builds community as well as provides a platform for all students to voice an opinion or respond to a prompt.”

Through the use of Blackboard, which Regent uses to facilitate its online courses, Derrick has set up mandatory participation for her students. “Dialogue is required in my courses with either weekly or two week blocks depending on the course and the number of students,” Derrick said. “In larger online courses, say 30-plus doctoral students, I break the students into small groups in order to facilitate the discussion.”

In addition to interaction, timely feedback is also essential for online programs to succeed, she noted. Derrick aims to respond to emails within the day they were sent.

In Derrick's online courses, assignments may be given as individual or group work depending on the learning goals. Dissertations, of which Derrick has chaired more than 20 and served on 45 committees, are handled through email, phone calls and conferencing.

“It is not the online format of teaching and learning but the quality of the program and the motivation of the individual that makes the difference in higher education,” Derrick said. “An accredited institution with high standards and internal and external review processes is equal to, and perhaps better, than some face to face.”

Students and professors may be warming to the idea of online education, but whether employers value such degrees as much as they do traditional ones is debatable.

“Are all online programs ones of quality?” Derrick asks. “No, but I do think with continued review by local, state and national accreditation bodies and organizations they have certainly done much to improve the quality of programs. It may be a result of [employers] just not knowing the online programs.”