Are online graduate programs effective?

Today’s guest blogger is Linda Zabriske, who discusses the effectiveness of online education. Linda writes for, a site that provides resources for people who might be considering partial or full graduate education over the Internet.

In recent years the popularity of online college programs has grown extensively, in most cases substantially faster than overall higher education enrollments. In 2006, nearly 20 percent of all U.S. higher education students were taking at least one online course, up 10 percent year to year, and since then, the percentages have only risen. Yet, while some experts agree that the quality of these programs has been steadily improving, many question whether the quality of the programs can keep up with their expansion, and the overall effectiveness of online graduate school has yet to be fully determined.

While online bachelor’s degree programs have had a large following for years through fully online schools like University of Phoenix, in the 2009-2010 school year, the University of Illinois Online enrolled 11,000 students with a focus on graduate degrees. In 2010, the University of California debuted an approximately $6 million online program geared toward graduate and nontraditional students. Many of the nation’s top universities have shown great interest in online schools, and the University of California is hoping to lead the way.

“Somebody is going to figure out how to deliver online education for credit and for degrees in the quality sector- i.e., in the elite sector, I think it ought to be us,” says Christopher Edley Jr., dean of Berkeley’s law school. UC Davis senior lecturer Keith R. Williams has also expressed enthusiasm for the potential of online learning, stating that “having online classes could enable the system to use its resources more effectively, freeing up time for faculty research.”

Like any major innovation, the online programs of major universities have also been widely criticized, often by university faculty and staff.

“Offering full online degrees would undermine the quality of undergraduate instruction,” says Suzanne Guerlac, professor of French at UC Berkeley. Indeed, the education received from online programs cannot yet be proven to match the quality of traditional lecture courses, and many professors are quick to point out the lack of interaction between professors and students in an open, collegiate atmosphere, a factor that they consider crucial to the education experience. Furthermore, while programs like Harvard Extension offer more than 150 online graduate and undergraduate courses, only one-fifth are taught by traditional Harvard faculty, clear evidence that the quality of education is perhaps not yet comparable to the traditional university experience.

Despite the detractors, an online future seems inevitable for higher education. The lucrative and still growing online education market is far too seductive for U.S. universities that are struggling with decreasing government funding and private contributions. However, though the full picture of online education’s success is not yet complete, there is research to suggest it may be a step forward. A 2009 U.S. Education Department analysis found that “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

Faculty and students who embrace the potential of the technology may be taking a leap of faith, but in the long run, they may be heralding a new age in higher education.


2 thoughts on “Are online graduate programs effective?

  1. This was a very good post. I think that online education has a place. It provides additional access, and when both student and program take mutual responsibility for setting goals and reaching outcomes, online education can be a very good choice for some students. It can require considerably more self-motivation and motivation–something that students should consider before committing to an online program. The guest blogger mentioned the University of Phoenix. Just today, the company that owns the University of Phoenix announced layoffs and campus closures due to decreasing enrollment (see

    • James,
      Thank you for your insightful comments. As we both know, online graduate programs can be a great benefit to those of us who live in geographic areas that do not make it possible to access in-classroom graduate programs. However, it should also be noted that while some people may think that online programs are less rigorous and may require less work, that’s not the case with many programs, which as you mentioned, require self-motivation and self-discipline.

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