Moller et al. (2008), in an article on e-learning in higher education, observed that ‘E-learning courses can carry a certain “stigma”’ (p68). In August 2010 the Society for Human Resource Management- ‘the world’s largest HR membership organization devoted to human resource management’- conducted a survey amongst Human Resource managers to investigate the common perceptions companies have towards online degree holders when considering them for employment. 49% of respondents affirmed that job candidates who achieved their qualifications online are viewed less favourably than their counterparts who have studied through traditional, face-to-face instruction. In addition, 16% of respondents were not sure (Society for Human Resource Management, 2010). It would appear that the ‘stigma’ Moller spoke of was borne out in these results. In this reflection on my studies of Distance Learning I will consider why society can tend to take an unfavourable view of online studies and what is happening that can change these prevailing sentiments.
One of the keystone principles of distance learning and, by extension, online learning, is Equivalency Theory. Equivalency theory posits that studies at a distance should not be identical to face-to-face education but that ‘equivalent outcomes… should be expected of each learner’ (Simonson et al. 2012, p. 52). For online education to be considered a mode of education worthy of respect in and of itself, and not merely as a poor alternative to traditional studies, ensuring that equivalent learning outcomes are achieved is vital. Simonson et al. (1999) explain that Equivalency Theory is ‘central to the widespread acceptance of distance education’ and if ‘equivalency is not what the public perceives, then distance education will continue to be peripheral to the field of education’. The survey by the SHRM cited in the above paragraph strongly suggests that, despite Equivalency theory being central to the development of online studies, and despite research suggesting that equivalency in learning outcomes is very much achievable through online learning (Lapsley et al., 2008; Webster and Lennon, 2007), there is a social perception that learning in online courses is not equivalently effective to traditional course studies.
There is, however, a positive trend developing in social perceptions towards online education. Allen and Seaman (2013), in a study tracking perceptions towards online studies in the US over a ten year period, demonstrate clear quantitative evidence that social perception of online education is becoming more positive with time. Although close to 25% of Chief Academic Officers at higher education institutes in the US felt online studies were inferior in some ways to face-to-face education, this percentage has almost halved since the surveys began in 2003 (p28). Allen and Seaman make one particularly fascinating (for the sake of this paper at least) observation from their data: ‘A consistent finding over the ten years of these reports is the strong positive relationship of academic leaders at institutions with online offerings also holding a more favourable opinion of the learning outcomes for online education’ (p29). This suggests that individual perceptions of online education are very much influenced by the level of exposure to online education that the particular individual has had. With the increasing popularity of MOOCs and the rise of the numbers of people who are studying or training through online learning it stands to reason that the level of acceptance of online studies will also continue to rise. It has been posited that distance education will soon reach a stage of critical mass, the stage where distance education will be ‘expected and respected’ at large; not just an alternative to traditional education, but an equal (Laureate Education, n.d). In conclusion, I believe that the ‘stigma’ Moller et al. mentioned being attached to online education persists, but it is on the wane. I believe the evidence points strongly to the fact that within the near future online education and training will achieve a point of saturation high enough to make its equivalence with traditional studies a generally accepted norm for this type of learning.
As an instructional designer of online studies, there is a constant responsibility to represent the very best of what online education can offer distance learning students as a viable alternative to traditional studies. Designers should make every effort to ensure that students studying online have the best learning experience possible, and just as importantly, the most equivalent experience possible. For example, although it has been well documented that interaction between students and instructors is critical for developing a meaningful learning community and promoting transformational learning in online learning (Murphy & Cifuentes, 2001; Schmidt and Gallegos, 2001) one of the oft-perceived weaknesses mentioned by potential students of online education relates to lack of interaction with instructors and isolation from classmates compared to studying face-to-face . Schmidt and Gallegos (2001) are very clear on how important interaction is for distance learning students: ‘When developing a distance delivery course, course designers must provide a way for students and instructors to interact’ (p5). Ensuring that such interaction is accounted for in online instruction is an example of how instructional designers can ensure that positive perceptions of online studies are fostered. The proliferation of people studying online and having positive experiences while doing so is a crucial step in online education reaching the ‘critical mass’ that Dr. Simonson referred to.
Personally, my ambitions for online education are focussed on the education sector. I believe that online education will reach the stage of ‘critical mass’ within the next decade, and at that point it will be incumbent on universities and institutions to embrace online education as an equal to their campus studies, or else face the prospect of being left behind by their competition. Once this stage is reached there will be a demand for workers with expertise specifically in distance and online education to ensure that equivalency to the traditional courses is ensured in new online study programmes. In the more immediate future I, and every other worker in the online education industry, has a certain responsibility to safeguard the reputation of online education and aid the advance towards general societal recognition of its value.
- Allen, I. & Seaman, J. (2013). Changing Course Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States. United States: Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group.
- Lapsley, R., Kulik, B., Moody, R., & Arbaugh, J. (2008). Is Identical Really Identical? An Investigation of Equivalency Theory and Online Learning. The Journal of Educators Online, 5(1).
- Laureate Education. (n.d.). Theory and distance learning. Retrieved November 9, 2014, from https://class.waldenu.edu.
- Lennon, J., & Weber, R. (2007). Multi-Course Comparison of Traditional versus Web-based Course Delivery Systems. The Journal of Educators Online, 4(2).
- Moller, Leslie, Wellesley R Foshay, and Jason Huett. (2008). “The Evolution of Distance Education: Implications for Instructional Design on the Potential of the Web.” TechTrends 52 (4), 66-70.
- Murphy, K., & Cifuentes, L. (2006). Using Web tools, collaborating, and learning online. Distance Education, 22(2), 285-305.
- Schmidt, E., & Gallegos, A. (2001). Distance learning: Issues and concerns of distance learners. Journal of Industrial Technology, 17(3).
- Simonson, M., Schlosser, C., & Hanson, D. (1999). Theory And Distance Education: A New Discussion. American Journal of Distance Education, 13(1), 60-75.
- Simonson, Michael, Sharon Smaldino, Michael Albright, and Susan Zvacek (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: foundations of distance education. Boston, M.A: Pearson.
- Society for Human Resource Management. (2010) Hiring Practices and Attitudes: Traditional vs. Online Degree Credentials SHRM Poll. Retrieved December 19, 2014, from http://www.shrm.org/research/surveyfindings/aspx.