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Degrees By Separation

April 04, 2003 11:51 IST

Online degrees from the US and UK are fast gaining credibility. Interested?

Thanks to the flexibility it provides -- to learn anywhere, anytime -- online learning is fast becoming a popular alternative to conventional classroom teaching, in most American and British universities. With good reason, too, considering the many benefits it offers.

Sanjeev Roy, Business Development Manager - MLZ, British Council Division, New Delhi, lists a few advantages of earning an online degree from a British University. He says that these are available locally in India, reduce overall costs by more than 50 per cent, award students the same qualification given to full-time students, are based on the same content and quality of the programme abroad and, obviously, do not require you to leave home.

The online learning market is expected to grow with increased and cheaper access to the Internet, and improved quality of products. The growth is also attributed to a shift in demand of content from pure IT to traditional subjects like business management and economics. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), the worldwide corporate e-learning market will soar from $6.6 billion in 2002 to $23.7 billion in 2006.

The big question is: How useful are these degrees? In February 2001, (a career network Web site) conducted a survey among HR professionals to measure the credibility of online degrees. Out of 239 respondents, 77 per cent believed an online degree earned at an accredited institution was more credible than one earned at an Internet-only institution.

By 2002, the number of students who enrolled in online courses exceeded two million. The University of Illinois had more than 12,000 enrolments for the 2001-2002 academic year. Today, the University of Phoenix, one of the most popular online universities, has over 125,000 students working towards degrees that are recognised worldwide.

To get back to the issue of credibility, it is important to understand, firstly, that the concept of online learning is relatively new. Even those in the know doubt its efficacy when compared to classroom learning. They assume it lacks qualified instructors, interaction with professors, the ability to learn from other students, etc. normally associated with traditional education. They also feel that most online institutions aren't as credible as traditional ones.

Incidentally, these are the same questions that go through the minds of most potential employers. "The industry is still sceptical about online degrees as the concept is in a nascent stage," says Robert Khongwir, Personnel Officer, Schlumberger, Mumbai. However, he adds that a candidate armed with an online degree isn't discounted. If a candidate proves to be good, the value of his degree and credibility of the institution will be taken into account and a reference check will be done. Candidates meeting these requirements will surely be employed.

Premkumar, Head of HR at Tata Interactive Systems, Mumbai, says, "We receive plenty of CVs from people with traditional degrees. There aren't many reputed online institutions in India anyway. We are not very comfortable in India with the concept of correspondence courses or online courses." Like most others in the industry, he feels it is better to try out something known and accepted rather than experiment. " Maybe we could explore that option in future, as online degree gain in popularity and reputation," he adds

Navin Rao, VP Operations, Gurukulonline Learning Solutions disagrees. According to him, despite the apprehensions, there shouldn't be a problem if the course is from an accredited institution. "I won't differentiate between a candidate holding a traditional degree and another with an online one," he says. "At the end of the day, what matters is an individual's performance."

Misconceptions about online learning can only be removed by inculcating awareness. Students in an online class are required to work as a group and interact with other students online. There is more interactivity between peers and professors, and content presented online is brought to life with animation and interactive exercises. Employers should also realise that these students have spent an equal amount of time, taken assessments, cleared them and spent more money to receive their degrees.

An online degree from an accredited university is considered as good as a traditional degree from the same institute because it has met the university's requirements. The choice of institution is, therefore, of prime importance while choosing an online course.

The major case for online learning is that it is cost effective. John Neelankavil, Director of the Centre for Management and Information Technology, Mumbai, says: "The tuition fee for an online degree is usually higher (about 10 to 25 per cent) than the tuition fee for an onsite program in the US. The typical fee for a UG or Master's course would be $US 1000 to $US 1500. However, since the cost of accommodation and travel is avoided (which happens to be equal to the cost of tuition in most cases), overall it would be cost effective."

Sanjeev Roy of the British Council Division agrees. "You don't have to leave your job or pay for hostel accommodation, and the fee is 50 per cent lower than that of a full time course. For instance, the Masters in Management course we offer in Delhi from the University of Durham costs £3000. Doing it in the UK would cost £ 6400 in addition to the high cost of living there. And, at the end of the course, you get the same degree. The certificate does not mention the kind of course (distance/online) you have taken."

Institutes like CMIT have tied up with universities in the US to offer online programs at about a tenth of the cost. The degrees do not mention the Indian campus or mode of education, and students receive their grade reports, transcripts and degrees from the parent college directly. On completion of their course, they are automatically considered alumni of the parent institution and are entitled to the all students' services.


A few things to keep in mind before taking the plunge into online learning:

Attempt a trial course: Most online programs offer free demo courses, which will help you find out if the medium is right for you.

Check for accreditation: Find out more about the university you are enrolling in, its credentials and how long it has been in the business. Neelankavil says students can check Web sites of accrediting agencies, such as NEASC, to see if a particular college is listed. However, both Roy and Neelankavil say that no degree or qualification awarded internationally is recognised by the Government of India. This doesn't change even if one were to go abroad and study, of course, but the fact remains that Indian industry holds accredited degrees from the UK and US in high regard.

Check the method of instruction: While some courses are completely media-driven, others have instructors at the back-end. It is always better to go for an instructor-led course so you can receive personal feedback.

Verify technology issues: Find out if your computer can handle the technology required to go through the course.

Talk to people: Ask the colleges to put you in touch with alumni and instructors to find out more about what online learning is like.

Sherin Mammen