As the dregs of summer fade into autumn, university students around Australia are rousing themselves to the fresh wintry chill, fighting off O-week hangovers and caffeinating for those early morning lectures.
Imagine an alternative. Rolling out of bed at a reasonable hour, boiling the kettle, and sitting down to stream the lecture over a bowl of Weet-Bix, still wearing pyjama pants and ugg boots.
With the evolution of new technology and communicative media, it’s never been easier to exist nearly completely online. We shop online, bank online, exercise online, and these days, study online. So what’s the point in wasting precious hours carting heavy textbooks from lecture to lecture, when apparently we can accomplish the same educational feats from the comfort of our own home?
It raises the ubiquitous question that clouds the next generation of academics: with the onslaught of ‘open’ institutions and online accreditations, is it worth physically attending university? What exactly would we be missing out on?
It seems like the choice is clear – the path that doesn’t require wearing pants is always the most tempting. But it comes down to the main reason we attain degrees: employability, and if caliber of online education comparable to that of institutions such as Sydney Uni, Monash and ANU.
Dr Cathy Stone, an expert in online education from the University of Newcastle, argues it’s more about the reputation of the institution, rather than the mode of learning, especially in the university sector.
“Universities such as Charles Sturt and the University of New England have been teaching online successfully for decades,’ she says. “They have a high graduation percentage, and their students earn exactly the same degree as if they had attended campus.”
Weighing up both options depend heavily on the individual. Online universities boast advantages such as no classrooms, no timetables and no deadlines – appealing to prospective students juggling family and work life, but marketing this method certainly doesn’t appeal to everyone.
University of Sydney modern history student Olivia Cashmere says she would never be able to complete her degree online. “If I was left to my own devices and had to do the coursework on my own, I wouldn’t be able to motivate myself,’ she says. “I need the support system and deadlines to push myself – I learn far better in person.”
On the contrary, Charles Sturt history student Tom Skadez said it was his extra years of work experience that got him ahead in his career. “It was hard, but working and studying full time gave me that advantage of experience – something my fellow graduates didn’t have,” he says. “When it came around to resumes we had the same education, but I held a position for three years at the same time.”
The average ages for on-campus students range from 18-25, often those fresh out of high-school classrooms. “Mature age students who feel a little rusty often feel less pressure learning online at their own pace,” says Stone. This was the appealing factor to mature age student Aimee Brow when deciding to study her sociology degree online, only to be intimidated by the faceless personalities in the online forums. “It was difficult to trust someone you don’t know a thing about with your biggest learning difficulties, and rely on their participation to pass subjects,” says Brow.
Ultimately, it comes down to careful research. “People often confuse online colleges with online universities,” says Stone. “It’s definitely not the same thing, because you are studying – and paying for – a completely different qualification.” If pursing online study, Stone recommends enrolling in a program with brand recognition in the relevant market, as nationally accredited courses have the strongest reputation.
But it can be tricky, with online colleges trying the blur the lines separating them from universities. Open Colleges Australia brand themselves as “Australia’s leader in online education”. They highlight their pros – fitting study in around work and family commitments, online support from staff, and getting a ‘fully recognized’ qualification online – but ex-student Kailyn Lister says her course was outdated and too unstructured to benefit any student embarking on tertiary education online. “In the end, I just didn’t feel I gained anything. It didn’t teach me new skills and a lot of questions went unanswered.”
So how do the two methods measure up when it’s time to don the blazer and attend a job interview?
Head of Education and Training for NSW Special Services John Morahan says having a degree obtained online isn’t a red flag for most employers, but having one from an unknown institution is.
“We would definitely ask about the practical aspects,” says Morahan. “How have they been assessed in the field? Where is the practical application of their qualification?”
“We would also look at the time frame - if it took them eight years to complete a three-year undergraduate degree, we are going to ask why.”
Morahan also raises the point of clarifying the authenticity of online work. “How do they know it’s coming from the student, and not another source? How can they monitor students are actually completing the coursework?”
However, Stone says it’s just as difficult to monitor legitimacy in the classroom as it is online.
“How many times have you had a group assignment, and there’s always one that doesn’t do their fair share, relying on the rest of the group to pass?”
If this is the case, how are these online universities helping their students become job-ready?
Bachelor of Journalism graduate Ellie Cole says she couldn’t have launched herself into her career without the physicality of her degree. “We had portfolio workshops, received feedback on writing samples, Q&A’s with news agencies, and mock interviews.” From making useful contacts, Ellie was able to get an internship at a local news station that lead to a full-time position.
It’s also about keeping up with evolving workplace management. Baby boomers might be more sceptical about online education, but newer managements may appreciate the self-motivation and dedication it takes to complete a degree entirely online. At the end of the day, not having to get out of bed when your alarm goes off shouldn’t be the main motivator when deciding how to study. But if you’ve been putting off another degree because you don’t think you can find the time - technology and education are constantly evolving and developing, and with them comes unexpected opportunities.