It’s easy to think of online learning as a new phenomenon, the upstart kid of the higher education field. But in truth, structured distance education has been around since the late 1800s and has long been praised for expanding access to post-high school study. In fact, as far back as 1858, Charles Dickens called the University of London’s distance learning program as “the people’s university” because it allowed people outside the elite upper classes to continue their education.
Distance learning, correspondences courses, online classes — the terms for it may change, but the truth is that it’s been part of the education landscape for decades, often at the fringes or as an afterthought to the “real” school. The ramifications of that legacy mean that there are still a number of myths and misconceptions about taking online courses or getting an online degree. But at Vista College online, we see the truth behind our students and the work we do every day, so we thought it might be helpful to dismantle them.
There are those who believe that there’s no way an online learning environment can teach students as well as the experience of sitting in a physical classroom, but that hasn’t proved to be the case. In fact, a 2014 study by MIT found that online classes were just as effective as on-campus classes, even for students who had no previous experience with higher education. So even if you jumped right from high school into the workforce and haven’t been enrolled in a class since, you can be successful in your pursuit of an associate’s degree online or even an online bachelor’s degree.
It’s likely there was a point in time when employers wouldn’t give a graduate from an online school the time of day, but that becomes less and less true every day. In fact, in 2010, Excelsior College and Zogby International conducted a survey that found that 83% of employers who were familiar with online degrees felt that they were just as credible as degrees from traditional institutions. These days, it’s not about whether you sat at a desk on campus or in your home — it’s about whether it’s a good program that taught you what you need to know to succeed. Which brings us to…
More than school location, employers want to know if you graduated from an accredited institution. And many online schools are in fact accredited. For example, Vista College online is accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC), and we’re very proud of the work we do to maintain that. The ACCSC sets standards for accredited online degrees that schools need to reach in order to prove that they’re providing a quality education for their students, and those of us who work at Vista College’s online campus are more than happy to do whatever it takes to meet or exceed those expectations.
The idea that online courses are somehow the easy route to getting your degree is a persistent one, but it disregards a lot of different aspects of today’s higher education landscape, like curriculum standards, employer input and feedback, and the wide variety of tools and technologies available now to give faculty of online programs even more options. If you look up, for example, medical assistant programs online — like ours here at Vista College — you’re going to find that we expect our online medical assistant students to demonstrate the same knowledge and competencies as our on-campus medical assistant students. The venue may be different, but our standards are not.
It might seem like more people would be tempted to get away with some academic fudging in online classes. But, in fact, the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration did a study back in 2009 and found that students working toward accredited online degrees were no more likely to cheat than traditional students. So, just like with the previous myth of online courses being easier to coast by on, the perception doesn’t quite match with the reality.
In this day and age, technology is so integrated into our everyday lives that most people already have the basics down, at the very least. And you don’t need much beyond that in order to succeed in your online courses. At Vista College, we use an online learning management system called Canvas, which is designed to be accessible not just from a desktop computer, but also from a tablet or your smartphone. Which means getting your bachelor’s or associate’s degree online could be as simple as leveraging a device you probably use every day already.
We can’t speak for every online school out there — maybe this one is true for some of them — but it’s not true at Vista College, and it shouldn’t be the case at any respected, accredited distance learning program. Faculty for online courses have the same curricula to teach and the same standards to reach, so they want to be just as present as their traditional counterparts. Many often embrace best practices like having online office hours, providing clear expectations and prompt feedback, and studying virtual methods of providing student support and engagement.
A lot of people assume that an online class instructor just posts a reading assignment one week, puts a quiz up the next week, wash-rinse-repeat, and that’s all there is to it. But that’s just not how online learning works anymore. For example, at Vista College’s online campus, we employ faculty members who check in on each individual student’s progress and adjust accordingly if they’re not mastering the material. We also have student and career services representatives who are there for you throughout your program to make sure you’re getting the support you need. All of this contributes to the same personalized instruction you would get at any traditional college.
It would seem difficult to build a sense of community in the classroom without being physically present, but accredited online schools across the country are doing it. The same audio and visual technology that makes it possible to stay in touch with loved ones around the globe also enables students to interact with one another and make real connections. You add active learning techniques and small group projects, and at places like Vista College, coordinated programs that make it more likely you see familiar names pop up in one class after another, building the bond of going through this education experience together.
The truth behind online education in 2020 is very different than a lot of the lingering misconceptions would have you believe. It’s not just flexible and convenient; it’s also personalized, respected, and cutting-edge. It’s always been “the people’s university,” as Dickens said, opening up doors to higher education — it’s just reaching more people in more unique ways than ever before.