How Online Degrees Work

A young woman wearing a graduation dress while on a laptop
Today, you can earn a degree from a major university without ever having sat in one of their classrooms. Ergin Yalcin / Getty Images

Earning a degree if you're working (or simply busy) isn't as hard as it used to be. The time, distance and financial constraints of higher education have all but disappeared with the arrival of distance learning via telecommunications and online technology. If you're already in the workforce but would like to earn a degree, then the opportunity is there. It may require some technological know-how, current computer equipment, and a lot of self-discipline, but it is definitely easier and more effective than it used to be.

Today, you can earn a degree from a major university without ever having sat in one of their classrooms. Many colleges and universities are jumping on the distance learning bandwagon and offering online courses and degree programs. There are even consortiums of universities, such as Canadian Virtual University (CVU). CVU offers no courses or degrees itself, but simply acts as a portal for courses from 14 universities across Canada. There is also the Global University Alliance that is a consortium of 10 schools from the United States, England, Australia, Switzerland, Singapore, China, Japan and Denmark. There are even schools that are complete, stand-alone virtual universities with no campuses, no football teams, and no fraternity row.


In this article we'll look at how online degrees work, what you should look for if you are pursuing a degree via the online option, and what employers think of online degrees.

The Employer's View

The big question in everyone's mind is, "Is an online degree from an accredited college or university seen by potential employers as a lesser degree?" The jury still seems to be out on this. On the plus side, the IT fields appear to place more value on online degrees because of the nature of the work itself. As would be expected, human resources (HR) professionals tend to place more value on degrees from established universities rather than virtual universities they've never heard of., a career network Web site, did a survey of 239 HR professionals and found just that. According to the results, which were released in February 2001, 77 percent of respondents believe that an online degree earned at an accredited institution like Duke or Stanford is more credible than one earned at an Internet-only institution.

Here are some other findings from Vault's study:


  • Twenty-six percent believed that online bachelor's degrees were as credible as traditionally earned bachelor's degrees, while 37 percent believed that online graduate degrees were as credible as traditionally earned graduate degrees. This perhaps follows the idea that people seeking graduate degrees are doing it online because it's their only or best option due to current job demands. These people may be seen as more driven and self-motivated.
  • The most commonly cited drawbacks of online education were the lack of social interaction with peers (61 percent), lack of data about the effectiveness or quality of the education -- it's too new to gauge (53 percent), and loss of real-time teacher/student exchange (39 percent).
  • The three industries most likely to embrace online degrees were Internet/New Media (70 percent), Technology (46 percent), and High Tech (44 percent). Media and Marketing (29 percent), Telecommunications (29 percent), and Consulting (22 percent) followed.
  • The three industries least likely to embrace online degrees were Medicine (68 percent), Law (56 percent), and Health Care/Bio Tech (52 percent). Academia (44 percent), Government (22 percent) and Finance (18 percent) followed.

Some of the comments and recommendations the respondents made might help online degree holders land a job even if the interviewer is hesitant about the value of the degree. Some of the those recommendations included:

  • Tell employers and potential employers that your degree was earned online. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said this should be a requirement.
  • Bring along transcripts and course study examples, as well as letters of recommendation or authenticity about the program and its accreditation.
  • Have industry experience to back the degree.
  • Traditional courses like public speaking, debate, public forum and group dynamics might be helpful to show that you have people skills. (This is probably more helpful if you don't have a long work history behind you.)

Other sources, such as Thomas L. Russell of North Carolina State University, did studies that revealed that there is little if any difference in the quality of education received through online distance learning versus traditional classrooms. John Losak at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale found similar results in his own study. He analyzed graduation rates, time to graduation, and knowledge, as well as other elements. He found the students performed as well or better in online courses.

Still and uphill battle

But how do you make employers aware of these studies and the quality of online education? How do you convince someone evaluating your credentials that your master's degree, earned late nights in front of your computer or sitting in airports, was as rigorous and thorough as one earned the old-fashioned way?

As more and more people get online degrees and use them in the workforce, HR managers and hiring managers will begin to feel more secure about the quality of education these people have. If the studies that were done by Thomas L. Russell and John Losak -- showing the quality of online education to be as good as or better than that of traditional education -- hold up on a larger scale, then the future of getting jobs and advancements based on online degrees will be bright.

Until then, choose schools carefully, and check for accreditation and strong programs. When you've completed the degree, go to job interviews armed with information to counter any questions about the quality or validity of your degree. Make sure the interviewer knows how you achieved the degree, how you worked it into a busy schedule, how you overcame any obstacles. It will show a self-motivation and discipline that may be just the qualities the company is looking for.


Online Learning Programs

With a computer, an Internet connection and a little self-discipline, you can earn a degree from home, work, or anywhere else for that matter. Online degree programs follow much the same routines as traditional learning, with a few twists. There are lectures, but they won't be in person. There are assignments, but you won't hand them to your instructor. There are exams, but you won't be able to look at your neighbor's paper. There may be a set time that "class" begins, but you don't have to be there then. In most situations, you are free to "go to class" when it fits your schedule. If you get a phone call during class, you don't have to miss anything. If you get sick, you don't have to ask for someone's notes, you just visit the lecture later.

You'll communicate with your instructor by e-mail, chat rooms, bulletin boards, and instant messaging. Your classroom will live in a special software program that uses text chat and bulletin boards, as well as streaming audio or recorded lectures. You may be put into a virtual workgroup with other students and be required to solve a problem. You may have to work through interactive puzzles and quizzes. Contrary to popular belief, you will have contact with other students and the instructor.


In fact, faculty/student contact at Duke University's Global Executive MBA program is significantly greater than in other Executive MBA programs. Its Web site states that this is because of the 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week nature of Internet-mediated learning. It states that the faculty hold weekly real-time office hours, as well as monitor class and team bulletin board discussions and respond to e-mail on a regular basis. On average, faculty will respond to questions from students within 24 to 48 hours.

Depending on the program and institution, distance learning may consist of synchronous (live) sessions or asynchronous (non-live) sessions. Transcripts and notes from lectures are archived, so you can always go back if you missed something. If there are live sessions with discussions among students, you can go back to those as well. Assignments may even be returned with audio clips so your instructors can convey their tone of voice along with their comments.

Printed documents may be sent to you through the mail, or you may have the options of printing them yourself or reading them online.

Some schools require an initial "boot camp" held at the campus (if there is one), where you will meet the other students, instructors and support personnel. You'll learn how to use the technology, learn about the library and reference systems, and begin your coursework.

Here are some samples of what you might experience online:

  • Georgia Tech has a sample lecture page.
  • New York University has a demo page for their online program The Virtual College.

There are many different presentation and management techniques for online learning. Instructors team with Web developers and instructional designers to put together their courses. The result is (hopefully) a high-tech, interactive and very effective learning experience.

For more information about the psychology of online learning, and more in-depth information about what makes it effective, check out How E-learning Works.


The Good, the Bad, and the Accredited

Requirements for licensing and/or authorization for educational institutions vary from state to state in the United States. Most states require that a learning institution be certified, authorized and/or accredited in order to award degrees to students. There are some schools out there that do not meet these requirements. In fact, there are several levels of fraud found in some educational programs and "schools." They range from using the student's work history as the "learning" period that earned the degree to simply selling diplomas. These "diploma mills" have been around for decades. Online programs like Degrees-R-Us promise a bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree in about 10 days. (There is a higher tuition fee if you want to graduate with honors!)

Now, however, there are some states (Oregon, Iowa, and South Dakota) that are cracking down on schools within their borders that grant degrees without any type of approval and legitimate accreditation. There are also some states (Wyoming, Montana, and Hawaii) that allow unaccredited universities to do business as long as they have a physical presence in the state. The problem is that when a state does pass legislation that requires accreditation, those schools simply change addresses (when you don't have a campus, it's not that difficult to move). The question of jurisdiction also comes into play. If the institution has an address in one state but sends out degrees from another state, then which state is responsible for it?


For this reason, the most important thing to check out before you begin any kind of distance learning program is the accreditation the school has, or claims to have. Simply having a statement about being "licensed by the state" isn't an accreditation and may not mean anything at all. There have been many violators that claim accreditation from agencies that either don't exist, have been created by the school itself, or are legitimate agencies but have no record of accreditation for the school. Students who are enrolled or have completed degrees from schools that are not accredited have wasted a lot of time, money, and effort on a degree that may be rejected by potential employers. Credits from schools that are not accredited cannot be transferred to other universities.

There are several state-based and regional accrediting bodies. Each is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

To find out whether the school is truly accredited, contact the appropriate State Department of Higher Education.

Problems with non-accredited schools

Some of these violators have been awarding diplomas and degrees for decades. Courts that have shut them down have cited problems like:

  • Too few qualified faculty members to maintain the number of students or level of education
  • Too much credit given for previous life and work experience without properly determining the actual level of knowledge
  • Not having course objectives
  • Awarding Ph.Ds to students who haven't performed the type of research and analysis typically required of such a degree

Basically, the problem relates to the schools having substandard requirements for earned degrees. Some programs even allow students to earn master's or doctoral degrees without having first earned a bachelor's degree.

Play it safe

The best bet is to stick with a known, reputable university or college that is offering online/distance learning. That school's reputation will be at stake so it is more likely to have the same quality online as offline. Of course, there are some good programs from universities that are strictly online. According to an article by a former student at the University of Phoenix Online, many students feel as connected with other students as they would if they were on a campus attending classes in the traditional way.


Evaluating the Program

So once you know the school is accredited, is the decision easy? Not necessarily. There are still a lot of questions to ask before you make your selection, such as:

  • How is the course presented? Investigate the method by which the instructor gives lectures. Does the instructor simply put the lecture online as text? Are there accompanying slides? Is there any interaction? Is there video or audio? Are exams given? How are assignments turned in? The format of the course is sometimes as important as the content. Great content is more easily absorbed if it's done in a dynamic and innovative manner that involves interaction between the student and instructor as well interaction with the content itself. Online learning technology provides many opportunities for innovation. Find a school that takes advantage of it.
  • How do students interact with each other?Is there an established method for interaction and congregating? Online programs can use chat rooms, instant messaging, teleconferencing, and video conferencing to communicate. The key is to find a program that has this interaction built into it and even requires it. How the online community functions should be very important to both the instructor and the educational institution.
  • Are the instructors qualified?Check out the credentials and degrees the instructors hold, as well as their knowledge of online learning and its differences from classroom learning. What kind of support do the instructors get for their online courses? If technical problems arise, is there someone to turn to? A school that is dedicated to its online programs will have the development staff and the support staff to make it successful. Instructors (and students) have to be able to adapt to changing technology.
  • What kind of reputation does the school have?It may seem simple -- a good school will have a good online program. That may be true, but it is also probable that its online program is still too new to judge, so you're left with nothing but the reputation of the school's traditional programs. This reputation, however, may not be as straightforward as you think. You can look at the overall quality of the school and make a judgement, but there may be weaknesses in the program in which you are interested. It's not uncommon for a great school to have a weak program or two.
  • How are students evaluated?Earning a degree should mean just that -- earning it. If students aren't assessed properly and degrees are handed out with little or no verification that any knowledge has been transferred from the instructor to the student, then how can the program be rated? Students, particularly adult students, learn more by doing than by simply listening. For this reason, it is important to ensure that part of the program involves applying what has been learned.
  • What kinds of library facilities are available?Make sure the school has a good system for ensuring that reference materials and texts are accessible from anywhere. If a student is taking a course in another state (or another country), the online program shouldn't limit that student's ability to do assignments because of lack of electronic reference materials. Online references are extremely important and should be up-to-date and accessible at any time.