Once viewed as the lesser substitute for campus-based learning, online degrees are going from strength to strength as virtual study tactics become the need of the hour. As the pandemic endures, how will they be viewed against their traditional counterparts?

Fully online degrees and certificates have become increasingly popular in recent years. However, according to the trends of students, they’ve often suffered from an image problem that they’re not quite as ‘legitimate’ as in-person degrees. But the pandemic has driven a surge of interest in, and need for, virtual learning, with even traditional universities moving their instruction online. Could this year be a turning point for acceptance of virtual degrees? If the number of people enrolling in online learning is any indication, it is possible.

Since mid-March, there have had 24 million individuals register for the first time. That is about 320% up from the same period a year ago, says Jeff Maggioncalda, the CEO of online-learning platform Coursera. The site, founded in 2012 by two Stanford computer-science professors, currently offers 20 degrees as well as thousands of short courses. In autumn 2020, the number of students enrolled in its degree program increased 76% over the same period in 2019. The particular online learning platform has seen a huge spike in virtual learning in Pakistan, alongside ZOOM and Google Meet.

Still, just because the industry’s growth has been huge and is predicted to swell even further, it doesn’t mean that online degrees have yet come to be universally respected. Ch. Ahmed Abdullah, 24, who is in the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) online course, says that although no-one has ever directly questioned her choice to study online, “it is clear from some comments that I have received that there is a slight stigma in any perspective involved in online virtual study”. It is almost as though they are seen as an easier route than traditional on-campus degrees, and I do worry that future employers will view my degree in the same way, and this will affect my chances.

Many students are of the point of view that the current online degree courses are actually just as challenging, “if not more”, than a previous on-campus degrees students have completed. Online practices are being done in education sector in Pakistan through the channels of Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU) and Virtual University Pakistan (VU). It requires the students to work more and more independently. It provides you with transferable skills that would not be as easily obtained on campus.

The professors of the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) say that universities have to an extent reinforced this distinction between the real and the online virtual learning degrees. They further added that around three or four years ago… we were observing a lot of things like an ‘i’ or an ‘e’ before the degree – an iMBA or an eMasters. They say it was an example of universities dipping their toe into online learning, while trying to protect their own brands.

But as people get more accustomed to online learning, and demand for higher education soars, that distinction could become increasingly less pronounced.  For example, in 2019, Harvard Business School changed the distinctive sounding ‘HBX’ to the simple ‘Harvard Business School Online’, making the line between its in-person and online offerings less immediately pronounced. This could be of the observation that maybe post-pandemic; hopefully, some of that stigma will be removed from the online virtual learning, given the necessity that we have for online learning.

Part of this may be that now nearly everyone is learning online. The pandemic has blurred the distinction between learning that started as virtual verses courses that were meant to be in person and have necessarily shifted to be remote. Simply, everyone is taking an online course now.

And, perhaps surprisingly, those who were already in online learning environments before the pandemic may be at an advantage i-e VU and AIOU. Traditional universities i-e rest of the universities of Pakistan have been forced to cobble together online teaching at a moment’s notice, whereas in state-of-the-art online learning, it’s a much more engaging experience because it was designed to be online.

As a result, some universities are innovating in ways that may increase the legitimization of online education. Part of this is finding ways to teach subjects that once were difficult or impossible to instruct virtually.

Whereas, at the National University of the Emerging Sciences (FAST0 the civil engineering department has pioneered an entirely online first-year course and hibernated the course at on-campus. It incorporates virtual reality and computer-game technology to allow students to work in virtual labs. Head of Department, Professor Doctor Khalid Awan Butt said, “When the COVID-19 pandemic put everything on the standstill, and we put on the jets and virtualized all five elements of the course.”

However, despite the innovation, it does concede that online degrees cannot compete with the social experience of going away to university. The bricks and mortar that university offers to students is something more than just a degree. It offers them a sense of engagement, of belonging and an experience.

But many online degree providers have no intention of replacing this rite of passage university experience. Instead, they’re keener to tap into the growing market of older learners who want to improve their career prospects but need to balance studies with work and family. So, looking at a degree’s relative legitimacy may be the wrong way to evaluate things entirely.

Still, questions remain about of the impact of online degrees. Will they make the same impression as in-person degrees? Will the ubiquity of online learning devalue traditional degrees? It is also of the consideration that if in-person degrees will become exclusively for wealthy students, meaning campus-based programs may end up signaling a student’s status instead of a better degree. But rather than being a threat to traditional universities, online studying could be an opportunity. I don’t think traditional colleges are going away, but I do think that there’ll be more growth in the online area than there will be in the on-campus area.


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