Offline or Online: who’s got the better degree?

at work

To sum up this issue up quickly, the main idea is offline education is not any “better” than online education. What the research shows is simple. (NOTE: I use the term online to mean classes delivered from or conducted entirely online using a variety of Information and Communication Technologies. I use the term offline to mean classes that, in relation to online instruction, have more time where a student and professor interact in the same physical room.)

1. Perceptions do exist that offline degrees are more valuable. This can be traced to employers who do not understand the current state of education, that there is little understanding that these are working professionals often getting advanced degrees while working 40+ hours a week matching theory to experience, and the explosion of unregulated online education has confused people. Many issues then affect how online degrees are viewed. Quality can and is found among online degree programs.

2. Students who earn their degree, mostly online, need to be more capable and driven to find work, to market their degree, and must work harder to build a personal network for job finding. Those who find success with their online degrees have tended to build personal networks to find employment.

3. Perceptions are changing. Employers and the gatekeepers of hiring, Human Resources Professionals, are beginning to understand the online degree and understand what it takes to obtain one. Slowly, it is being realized that you can “skate” through an online degree just as a person can “skate” through an offline degree. An online student’s ability to prove their expertise by showing earned certificates and completed projects matters more than it does for an offline student. Expect to prove yourself.


1. Robinson’s report on “Using your distance education to earn an academic degree” states, “In a study by DETC, 100 percent of the supervisors who responded to the survey said that: (a) they felt that distance education degree graduates performed better on the job as a result of their degrees; and (b) a person receiving a distance education degree compared favorably in terms of knowledge learned by someone with a resident degree.”
+ Students need to understand how to market their degree to employers who find it valuable.

2. Haigh reports of a survey conducted on Information Science students in “Divided by a common degree program” that distance students were more successful in four distinct areas than those students that chose offline classes. A key difference was the comfort level online.
+ Screen students and steer those not suited for online classes to offline classes or suggest they find alternatives.

3. surveyed over 200 HR professionals. A stunning comment: “I still view this as close to the equivalent of earning a GED through a Sally Struthers correspondence course.” And, “Elitism in education is one of the most ridiculous entities that I think can think of. Surely, we call can think of a dozen “Ivy League” graduates that we have encountered that would have a hard time finding their way out a wet paper bag. After all, it really is not the school but the individual that is important.”
+ Younger managers may be more accepting of an online degree and understanding how difficult it is to work 40 hours a week while maintaining a master’s level course load. Those managers who have no exposure to online education may be skeptical.

4. Adams and DeFluer in “The acceptability of online degrees earned as credential for obtaining employment” sent out a national survey to hiring executives to determine if an a student earned a degree online would be hired as easily a traditional offline degree. Their research showed online degree students would face a far harder time getting hired.
+ The research shows a negative perception of online degrees. It does not prove that online education is less rigorous than offline education. We must prepare students to face and work on marketing iSchool programs as the best.

5. Neuhauser in “Learning Style and Effectiveness of Online and Face-to-Face Instruction” investigated the same course taught online and offline. Neuhauser study found “the results revealed no significant differences …[between online/offline student]… although the online group’s averages were slightly higher.”
+ iSchools need to market the high standards of their online degree programs helping to change perceptions among employers. It must also ensure students can market themselves as they will be iSchools largest advocates.

6. Carnevale reports in “Employers often distrust online degrees” Dean Dennis as saying, “…some students come into these courses with the attitude thinking that, well it’s online so it’s going to be easy…It isn’t easier. It’s harder.”
+ Students should be well informed that online learning at a reputable institution is challenging. And in coming out of the degree, they must know how to talk about their degree. Something their accepted offline degree counterparts do not have to contend with.

7. Glover writes in “NextGen: don’t discredit my online degree” that we must change the perceptions employers have about online degrees.
+ Online iSchools need an exit class that prepares students to leave the program and find work, successfully. Most students do not know they must build a personal network, make finding their first career a 40-hour a week job, must practice interviewing, and engineer a portfolio of documents that will aide them in getting hired (resumes, project examples, writing, etc…).

9. Zhao states in “What makes the difference? A practical analysis of research on the effectiveness of distance education” that quality varies greatly in degree programs equally among online and offline degrees. Also, the right mixture of technological and human interaction must be put into place.
+ iSchools must embrace newer educational technologies and require a higher standard of technological proficiency for graduate students.

No college degree is truly a face to face experience anymore. While the specific class time may be face-to-face a large amount of research, administrative time, and communications take place online. The internet increases the richness of the face to face experience. A quick example: not having to wait until you get to class to find out it has been canceled prevents a needless trip in a time crunched world. If a class is truly offline should it use any modern communication technologies? Also, this illustrates how blended our learning environments have become.

It’s not enough to rail against online or offline (and then not back it up with research) which I tried to not sound like I was doing. What I’m tired of is hearing outdated opinions about how horrible all online education is. That’s just not true. We need to ask better questions from better formed positions. Overall one point rises quickly: what matters in education is the effort one personally brings to their education; what does not matter is if the class is online or offline. Having a great Professor helps, but should not determine what is learned -within the context of the class. When you think about it, anyone attending school today has participated in a variety of class formats that merged offline/online experiences. Learning is now blended learning.

Contact me if you want to scholarly share in the articles I mentioned above.

TTW Contributor: Lee LeBlanc

13 thoughts on “Offline or Online: who’s got the better degree?”

  1. “Students who earn their degree need to be more capable and driven to find work, to market their degree, ”

    Is it possible that the word online got left out of the first sentence of point 2?

  2. I believe so; that adds the right sense about the students I’m talking describing -although, I feel all library school students need to come out more capable and driven than students of other academic or occupational disciplines. We need agents of change -who can get jobs.

  3. Wow. I would have expected the complete opposite. I guess I have always considered people who take online courses to be really self-motivated. That seems like something people in the workforce would want. Unfortunatly my school offers very few classes online…otherwise I would have chosen to do a great deal of my MLIS in that manner. To me, an online degree holding person is not only a self-starter but tech savvy.

    In other words, people need to stop being such haters. ;)

  4. Good stuff as usual Lee. Yeah, when I hear people say “Oh, you do that online.” They usually say it as if they don’t think it takes that much work. I have empty bottles of ibuprofen and tums to prove otherwise.

    Keep up the good work!

  5. If there is a perception that offline degrees are more valuable (and I don’t dispute that there is) I do not understand the statement that it can be traced to:

    “there is little understanding that these are working professionals often getting advanced degrees while working 40+ hours a week matching theory to experience”

    Plenty of us earned our offline degrees “while working 40+ hours a week matching theory to experience” When I went to school that was indeed a norm and not at all unusual.

    Perhaps that research is more reflective of the world at large than of the library community?

  6. Agreed! The current perception seems to be that plenty of us, who earn our degrees online, are not doing so while working 40+ hours a week therefore matching classroom theory to real-time, organizational experience.

    Let’s also consider when you went to school, you went to a school where working full-time is the norm and not at all unusual. That is not the norm for an undergraduate/graduate attending school in the US. While some students work part-time (and I will also concede full-time jobs), it’s doubtful they are working in their chosen profession. They could be, but I need to see research supporting that idea.

    The research overall includes the library community -I don’t think our hiring practices are more hospitable than other occupational disciplines. In fact, I think we could draw upon hiring practices used in the more creative businesses, government organizations, and NGOs. Overall, online degree students need to be aware of a certain lack of understanding about how the online degree is perceived in the hiring process.

    Great comment -thanks for your insight.

  7. I got my degree on campus at UIUC’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS), but they also have a program where people can get the degree online. I took a couple online classes while I was at GSLIS, and I must say, the students in the online classes aren’t getting a fair deal. The classes are no where near as in-depth or thought provoking, and it shows in the skill levels of the students getting their degrees online.

    At one point in the semester, the students taking online classes had to come to campus for a whole day session for their class. The students who were taking online-only classes were far behind and it was like pulling teeth to get many of them to understand and keep up with the rest of us on-campus students. So, until I see a shift in the skill level and knowledge of online students taking online classes, I still believe on-campus education is better.

  8. Appreciate your comment and perspective. Another thing to consider is that those students are ill-prepared, not that online education is poorer. Also, professors and their teaching style needs to be considered.

    But, you do highlight another point about some of the research I read: online learning is harder for the majority of students and students who lack strong study skills do not do well.

  9. Though off line courses are preferable as one can interact with both faculty and students directly which is not that easier in online courses beside a student has to be really self-motivated in order to pursue an online course.

  10. Hi Professor, I define it as, in the 3rd sentence of the first paragraph of the post you are referring too,:

    “… term online to mean classes delivered from or conducted entirely online using a variety of Information and Communication Technologies. I use the term offline to mean classes that, in relation to online instruction, have more time where a student and professor interact in the same physical room….”

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