HARTE: New online course expansion troubling


Marquette plans to begin offering an undergraduate degree online program in fall 2019 for an undisclosed number of majors. However, university administrators should reconsider their focus on adding online programs, as these programs maintain a negative stigma and seemingly inferior quality. Students should also evaluate potential learning difficulties they may experience in online courses before signing up.

Through increasing their online course offerings, Marquette joins a growing trend at schools around the nation. A recent survey by Inside Higher Ed found that 83 percent of provosts said their schools will increase their emphasis on expanding online programs and offerings. Marquette currently offers online graduate degrees in programs such as business administration, corporate communication and supply chain management.

Online courses have numerous perceived benefits over face-to-face instruction. Students are afforded more flexibility to complete their class work whenever and wherever they want. Additionally, course sizes aren’t beholden to the number of learners who can fit in a classroom. Students completing a fully online degree can also save money on housing and transportation costs. Nevertheless, these benefits do not outweigh the seemingly inferior quality of education that online learning currently provides.

One of the chief goals of a university should be setting students up for success in future career opportunities. However, employers appear skeptical of the quality of online degrees. Researchers at Texas A&M University studied the perceptions of hiring managers if applicants had an online Masters of Business Administration degree versus a traditional MBA degree. The hiring managers strongly preferred the candidates with a traditional degree. They also indicated a belief that online MBA degrees were less challenging or inferior in quality compared to traditional MBA degrees.

Employers aren’t the only major group questioning the value of online education. Only 30 percent of university faculty members believe that online courses can produce the same learning outcomes as face-to-face instruction, according to a 2018 survey by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup. This is especially concerning because professors can likely gauge the quality of content delivery strategies better than any other group.

Additionally, student performance may be harmed in online courses. Researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California studied students across a variety of subject areas at several California community colleges in 2014. They found that students were less likely to complete an online course than a traditional course, and students were also more likely to fail an online course.

The increased difficulty students experienced in online courses may be the result of a lack of self-discipline. Online courses require considerable time management skills, as students don’t have an in-person lecturer keeping them in check for attendance. Students also likely experience difficulty developing friendships with their classmates, who may otherwise be an encouraging factor to maintain success in the course. 

Universities may be promoting online courses because they offer an opportunity to improve their financial status. The Arizona State University Action Lab released a study in 2018 highlighting successful strategies for online learning that have been utilized by colleges like the University of Central Florida and Georgia State University. The study notes that online courses offer universities an opportunity to “improve the financial picture by growing revenue while reducing operating costs.” This additional revenue came through larger class sizes in online courses, which equates to more enrolled students paying for tuition. A cost-saving strategy involved having adjunct or part-time faculty teach online courses. 

Students should give significant consideration into deciding if they’ll be successful in an online course or degree program. Administrators should also reconsider in online education until it can be proven to be just as effective as face-to-face learning.