UT’s computer science department began accepting applications to its new, completely online masters degree program on Feb. 15. So far, it has received hundreds of applications, indicative of the growing number of college students enrolling in online classes.
“What online education does is provide an additional path for people to access information when that on-campus option simply doesn’t work for them,” said Brent Winkelman, computer science department director. “It’s not either/or, it’s additive. As to the future of online education at this University, I do think it’s going to grow … significantly.”
A recent report released by the International Council for Open and Distance Education, a network for online higher education providers, stated alternative digital credentials, such as certifications and degrees, are becoming increasingly important for institutions to provide in order to stay relevant in the digital age.
Digital pathways to education provide institutions with large pools of students they would not otherwise have had room for, Winkelman said. This is why, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, some institutions providing online degrees and certificates have become mega-universities with massive online student populations.
Colleges such as Arizona State University and Southern New Hampshire University are taking advantage of distance learning programs, whereas other higher education officials have been skeptical of the quality assurance and degree inflation of online degrees, according to Inside Higher Ed, a higher
education media company.
“For a long time a lot of the (hesitance) around online education was around ‘Can we maintain the high quality of education that this university has earned a reputation for providing?’ And … now that we have a vision for how to provide both accessibility and excellence, I think you’re going to see increasingly more people comfortable with the notion,” Winkelman said.
Steven Leslie, UT System’s executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, said the UT System supports institutions growing their online offerings through an Online
Education Task Force.
“Online education is a critical tool for making a UT education attainable for as many qualified students as possible, many of whom represent ‘nontraditional’ populations, such as students who work full-time, are returning to college after a hiatus or who live in a location that makes commuting to a UT campus unrealistic,” Leslie said in a statement.
UT-Austin has a handful of online degrees and certifications available: a master’s in nutrition, a master’s in mechanical engineering and now a master’s in computer science, as well as approximately 13 online certificates. However, UT-Arlington currently has one of the largest online credential programs in the system with 32 degrees and certificates available online.
Stephanie Lobo is currently working toward her Master of Social Work degree online from UT-Arlington. Lobo said despite disadvantages, including lack of community and a need for self-discipline, she remains grateful for the opportunity provided by online programs and recommends them to nontraditional students.
“If I didn’t have these online options, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to pursue my master’s so I’m really thankful for that, but I recognize there are things that are lacking online that you can get in person,” Lobo said. “I definitely recommend it for people, but if you can sacrifice a little bit and actually do it in person, I’d say it’s definitely better.”