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Employers can embrace online degree credential

Accreditation key to whether or not degree has value


Source: Northern Colorado Business Report

Author: Maryjo Faith Morgan

Get a masters in your jammies and work from home? Who would have believed that in just a few short years DSL and high-speed Internet would or even could revolutionize the way we do business and the way we learn? But it certainly has.

Visionary institutions in education saw the potential five years ago and seized the opportunity to develop online curriculum. This year, schools expect to issue 1.2 million online degrees, roughly tripling the total from 2002, according to Eduventures, an educational market research firm.

It's also a business phenomenon. Eduventures forecasts that schools will bring in $7 billion in tuition revenue from online students.

As online programs were met with skepticism, scrutinizing employers were unlikely to trust the qualifications of degrees earned online. Although class work was accomplished remotely, registration, purchase of books and taking exams required the student to come to the school in person. Presently it is possible to do all of this online.

Furthermore, students are present to each other and the instructor through required discussion groups, and they "hear" responses from one another by following threads posted instead of hearing a person's voice. They form a community just as if they had been sitting next to one another in a classroom.

How does this affect businesses that need to hire degreed individuals? Very little it seems, even when it comes to graduate degrees. Human resource departments frequently verify degree and coursework. Two of the main requirements are that the degree was awarded by an accredited institution, and that the candidate's experience is a good match for the position.

A local recruiter for a large technology corporation confirms that having a degree and experience that closely matches the position's criteria is more vital than which institution of higher learning awarded the degree. Accreditation of the academic institution is essential to many employers.

Jack Davis of Jack Davis Law Offices in Greeley looks for candidates licensed to practice law. "If a lawyer had a degree that got him a license, that's all I care about," Davis said. For Dave Green, Human Resource Manager for Platte River Power Authority, verification of accreditation is good enough. "Some schools stretch the meaning of it; licensing is not the same thing as being accredited."

The U.S. Department of Education defines accreditation as an assurance that the education meets acceptable levels of quality. Accreditation in the United States involves non-governmental entities as well as governmental agencies.

Colorado schools gain accreditation through the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA-HLC), The Higher Learning Commission and the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

"Over time we have proven that online learning is a good thing," said Carol Weber, who oversees Teikyo Loretto Heights University's Department of Nursing and the Online Nursing Program. "It is not an easy route and requires self-motivation and self-discipline for students to follow through. It is as rigorous as any classroom course, and employers know that now.

"They used to think distance-learning students read the manual then took a test. Now they know that is not true."

Weber also cites the fact that e-learning enables people in rural areas to have access to education at unprecedented levels; it meets a large need.

Another advantage of online learning is obvious, and resonates with busy people - time for coursework can be slipped in between current employment and family responsibilities, moving advanced degrees within the reach of many. Some school districts in Larimer and Weld counties encourage teachers to pursue such options, and often reimburse tuition based on the accreditation of the school awarding the degree.

As chief operating officer of Regis Learning Solutions, which delivers specialized corporate training, Mike Vaughan is certain e-learning is larger than a trend, and ultimately will become mainstream. In the corporate setting, cost-effective learning modules that produce results are needed.

"Executives demand strategies to enable employees to learn their businesses more effectively," Vaughan said.

Simulation, a training strategy that has roots in military history, is becoming more widespread in academia. Courses require active hands-on participation and problem solving, and include expert feedback with the opportunity to go back and repeat the series until proficiency is attained.

"When people hear 'online' they think of correspondence courses where an assignment is e-mailed in and received back corrected," said Russ Henderson, who manages Regis's School for Professional Studies. "Correspondence courses miss the experiential component entirely. In guided independent student studies the consultant or faculty provides a personal touch."

Henderson insisted that not only do virtual classrooms have lively interaction through required postings and role-playing, but course curriculum can also maintain a consistently high quality online. "An example would be capturing electronically a guest speaker who might not be able to visit every semester due to availability, budget, or feasibility."

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