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Sunday, March 29, 2009
The strength of online education is in its economics: it provides a very cost effective alternative for dumping loads of useless knowledge into students' heads. With online arrangement, a school doesn't have to spend money on facilities. Moreover, because of the inherent scalability of information products, an instructor is usually capable of teaching a few hundred students in one online "class". A lot of money is saved by the instructor by not commuting to the school.
From a student's perspective online education offers a good opportunity for working adults, "stay-at-home" moms, or people who live in remote locations and simply cannot commute to a school.
Even for more traditional students online education can be a great deal. In my own career as an undergraduate and then graduate student, I was able to get very high grades in classes which I didn't really attend. I had a very good rationale for not coming to class: "What's the purpose of coming to class when all the instructor does is retelling chapters from the book?". I'd rather stay at home and read the chapter myself. Of course, this depends on your learning style. Some people require individual attention from instructors. I, on the other hand, figured out very early in my career as a student that in order to learn material I need to sit down and read the book myself. For some reason, I didn't have good in-class comprehension. I usually came to classes just to to get hints regarding what was going to be on the test. But, of course, not everyone may have the discipline to study independently. Some people need an instructor not as much as a source of knowledge, but more as a source of prodding.
I do think that online education is likely to win some market share from traditional education because of its strong economics, but at the present moment online education suffers from numerous problems. The most important issue is that, just like all new things, it has many skeptics.
Look guys, even PhD graduates from legit brick-and-mortar academic programs have serious difficulties finding employment in academia. A department chair from any school slightly above community college wouldn't even look at a CV that lists online PhD degree in the education section.
Moreover, in academia, just like any other field, networking is very important for getting jobs and publishing papers. As an online PhD student you are not likely to acquire that kind of contacts. So even if you have the mindset and discipline learn the academic trade on your own, you chances of being employed in academia after you get your degree I very slim.
So with these issues in mind, I just don't see why would anyone want to get a PhD from an online program. Unless, of course, he or she wants to have a semi-bogus (in the mind of many industry employers and probably 99% of academics) attached to his or her name. But even if you don't intent to be an academic and just want a PhD attached to your name, I doubt it's a good idea. This semi-bogus degree can potentially do more harm to your reputation than absence of thereof.
On the other hand, I must admit that I saw a few profs working in brick-and-mortar schools with online PhD degrees. Those were usually crappy teaching schools in remote locations. I think those schools have problems attracting faculty or even temporarily lecturers from the industry because no one wants to live/commute there. However, I think that at least some of those people were already employed by the school as adjunct lecturers and decided to get a PhD in order to move to a permanent, full-time position. And you can probably land a job with one of those online schools, where the pay is in the vicinity of $1000 per course. So in my mind, this is the only people for whom an online PhD degree may be a good deal.