What is the value of an Online Degree?

I overheard a University of California professor the other day discussing hiring.  He said he would never consider someone that had an online degree for a professor position.  His reason was simple, he didn’t think it was a real degree.  I found this a bit disheartening since I earned a Master’s degree through an online program and might someday like to teach at a four year university.  Not long after overhearing this I was introduced to the idea that the education system in the United States is currently very good at basically one thing; making University Professors (sorry I don’t recall where I heard this at the moment).  In that context, the professor’s position seems to make a lot of sense.  I mean we always hear how the education system isn’t preparing people for the real world.  Maybe my online degree did not prepare me for the university world.

The program I attended was project oriented.  We worked in small groups, collaborated via chat and email and studied much of the material on our own.  Certainly my learning experience was no less real because I was sitting in front of my computer instead of in a seat in a giant lecture hall.  If I had to make a comparison, it was more similar to working in the real world than any of my undergraduate classes had been.  I feel that I received a real education in the subjects that we covered and found that I could begin applying the concepts I was learning immediately in my current job.  Was it the same experience as sitting in the lecture hall?  No.  It may have been even more relevant to a working professional than a full time student.  Maybe that is why some people view online degrees the way they do.

As with all things Internet related, online degrees threaten the old ways of doing things.  It would make sense then that an online degree might not be received as an equal by the establishment that has been the gatekeeper of degrees for generations.  But the Internet is a game changer.  I received my online degree in 2003.  Since then the programs and the technology of online education have only continued to improve.  Online learning is entering the mainstream as prestigious universities open up their content on the Internet for all to see.  The relevance of online degrees is starting to change.  And while I do not expect every University Professor to accept online degrees overnight, I feel my online degree is no less real than any other degree I could have earned.

And I have a Master’s sized degree to prove it (it is a physical piece of paper, not a PDF file).  Seriously, do the degrees get bigger the higher you go?  The High School diploma isn’t even 8.5X11, the Bachelors is about a full page and the Master’s is larger still.  I wonder is the PhD like poster size?

But I digress and this leads me into my final thought.  I’ve come to realize on my path of life long learning that degrees do not represent learning or knowledge or ability.  I’ve met plenty of people, especially in the IT field that are incredibly knowledgeable and able and life long learners and yet do not have degrees.  I certainly think no less of them for that.  In education, sometimes I think this is forgotten.

So maybe the question should be: What is the real purpose of our education system and is it time for a change?