A Matter of Degrees

Written by Jimmy Magahern Category: Valley News Issue: April 2018
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Online education is big business in Arizona, but is the trend good for students – or the schools themselves?

ASU Online, the online education (or “distance learning”) arm of Arizona State University run out of its SkySong Innovation Center in Scottsdale, now boasts one of the nation’s largest online enrollments at around 33,000 students – up from just 400 in 2009. Part of its success, administrators say, is that the Web-based lessons are designed to deliver students an equivalent experience to attending brick-and-mortar classrooms.

ASU’s success brings public focus to the greater topic of online education, with its relative newness, uncertainty and critics. Establishing credible programs in an academic environment wary of “diploma mills” is a challenge.

“There are a lot of universities that have online programs, but the online programs are really just an afterthought designed to generate revenue,” says Phil Regier, dean for educational initiatives at Arizona State University and CEO of EdPlus, the university’s unit for creating technologies used in online learning. “ASU is different. What we do is we work very closely with faculty to develop a whole set of tools, 21st century teaching tools, to place in the hands of the faculty to greatly expand their influence. To expand the number of students they can teach, and the efficiency and effectiveness of their teaching.”

But former teaching assistants and students who’ve gone through the program say ASU Online shares with online educators like University of Phoenix the same built-in deficiency of all modern distance learning: a lack of engagement. They complain that the absence of live and in-person instruction inevitably results in an endless stream of dull PowerPoint presentations and videotaped lectures with little opportunity for Socratic learning, that tried-and-true (literally, 2,500 years) method of stimulating critical thinking by giving students probing questions, and listening to a variety of answers.

Arizona Online Universities

“I’d say the biggest difference between the online and the in-person instruction is that there’s not much of an opportunity with the online classes to engage with either the instructor or your fellow students,” says Steven Totten, a former student and adjunct professor at ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication who’s taught both online and in the classroom, and who now works as the communications director for the restaurant chain LGO Hospitality. “While they try to make efforts to address that problem through discussion boards and e-mails and so on, that inherent lack of human face-to-face interaction kind of degrades the process of engagement.”

To employers, however, there’s no discernable difference between a degree earned by physically attending ASU and one earned online – a blurred distinction that’s very much by design. Does this elevate the online student? And can it hinder the traditional one?

7 Signs of an Online Degree Scam“At ASU, if you go through the online program and receive, say, a Bachelor of Science degree in marketing, your transcript just reads that you have a B.S. in marketing,” Regier says. “It doesn’t say ‘online.’”

Universities are embracing online like never before, partially to offset declining enrollment at their brick-and-mortar locations. In a 2017 survey of the National Center for Education Statistics, 74 percent of college administrators reported an increase in demand for online courses at their institutions, with 43 percent saying they were increasing their budget for online program development. Arizona’s three public universities are all in the nation’s top 50 online programs, according to a 2018 report by the Online Learning Consortium, and for-profit trailblazers University of Phoenix and Grand
Canyon University clock in at No. 1 and 3, respectively (see sidebar).

Unfortunately, such degrees are sometimes conflated with bogus degrees offered by so-called diploma mills, which confer degrees requiring little or no classwork. John Bear, San Francisco-based co-author of the book Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas, says there are thousands of fake schools operating online, although pinning down an exact number is difficult.

“The complication is that the same organizations often operate dozens – even hundreds – of fake schools, each with different names, from the same location,” says Bear, who worked with former FBI agent Allen Ezell on researching the book. “The immense Axact organization, based in Pakistan, has used more than 500 university names and sold... at least 200,000 degrees, mostly in the U.S. and in the Middle East, to the tune of $1 billion. And that’s just one of many.”

Bear says part of the responsibility for stopping the preponderance of fake schools lies with corporate human resource heads, who too often fail to check the schools listed on résumés for legitimacy.

“The majority either don’t even know that the fakes are out there, or they don’t do their due diligence,” he says. Part of that owes to a general lack of knowledge about how schools receive accreditation. All legitimate degree programs must be recognized by one of two agencies, the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which each maintain online databases listing the accredited organizations. But even they require some interpretation.

“People should look for schools that are regionally accredited, not nationally accredited,” Regier says. “Schools that are nationally accredited do not have to pass the much more rigorous process that regional accreditors require.”

One such accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, is prominently cited by ASU and other public institutions in their marketing literature. A cursory check of its website tool (hlcommission.org) reveals that some well-known for-profit Arizona colleges (University of Phoenix, Western International) are accredited. Others, most notably Sonoran Desert Institute, are not.

Some of the problem, however, also stems from basic laziness on the part of employers. “I recently did a LinkedIn search for Almeda University,” says Bear, referring to a non-accredited organization that once awarded a New York reporter’s dog an associate’s degree in childhood development, based on “life experience.”  “And there were about 3,700 people who were publicly listing that school on their résumés. And you look at their profiles and a great many of them are in big jobs – in education, business and so on.”

Bear says that’s the real danger of not properly researching a job applicant’s degree. “I testified in a trial regarding a North Carolina doctor who bought his M.D. from a fake university in England for £100,” he recalls. “He went on trial for murder – for taking a child off of insulin when he shouldn’t have, and the child died. Turns out he had been practicing for 20 years with a fake medical degree.”

“That’s the dark side of these fake degree mills,” he adds. “When it turns out... the architect who designed a skyscraper in New Zealand that collapsed bought his fake architecture degree online.”

Even legitimate colleges have trouble overcoming the bad reputation of the medium. “The problem is that online education has been exploited by some unscrupulous colleges and universities,” Regier says. “And so people started thinking ‘Well, online is junk,’ and decided that online is a lesser way of getting a degree. But that is not the case.”