college.jpgTaking an online course may seem like the perfect solution to your time-management problems, but beware.

While online learning opportunities are proliferating, the perception of such courses is actually on the decline.

A study put out by Sloan Sloan Consortium, an institutional and professional leadership organization focused on online learning, found that a cyber learning is exploding:

* Over 4.6 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2008 term; a 17 percent increase over the number reported the previous year.
* The 17 percent growth rate for online enrollments far exceeds the 1.2 percent growth of the overall higher education student population.
* More than one in four college and university students now take at least one course online.

Alas, while more and students and schools are jumping on the online bandwagon, such courses are getting fewer props from the very faculty that’s supposed to embrace the concept.

The survey asked chief academic officers as these schools whether their faculty accepted online learning, and the numbers actually dropped by nearly 3 percent to 30.9 percent last year, from 33.5 percent in 2008.

Why the drop occurred is unclear, but it could be a host of factors. The poll’s researchers surmised there may be a “pushback” on the part of faculty as more institutions try to implement such programs.

Or it could just be that educators don’t think it’s as good as a class with face-to-face interaction.

Researchers asked faculty directly whether they thought e-learning had inferior learning outcomes compared to face-to-face learning and 70 percent thought it was inferior or somewhat inferior. Only 7 percent thought cyber learning was better than classroom learning, and 23 percent said it was comparable.

Experts have told me in the past that it just doesn’t stack up:

“Right now, pound for pound, I don’t think it carries the same weight,” says Warren Arbogast, a higher education and technology consultant, when asked about an online degree vs. a degree from a traditional college.

And what about hiring managers? How do they perceive such degrees. That’s really what counts for most of us in the end.

“A recruiter evaluates the caliber of a university or college,” says Angela Pertrucco, director of the career center at the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University. “While many schools are providing online degree formats for students, not just any school with an online degree will be attractive to a recruiter. It still depends on the strength and national recognition of the program as a whole.”

So, I’m not saying online degrees are not a good thing. You just have to know the facts about how they might be perceived by educators and hiring managers, and you have to do your homework.

Scams in online learning are on the rise, and you don’t want to end up with a fake degree.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

* Make sure that the school you’re interested in has accredited degree programs. The last thing you need is to spend years finishing up a degree only to find no one recognizes it. Experts suggest checking for accreditation on the Council for Higher Education Accreditation Web site.

* Beyond a school’s credentials, it’s up to you to figure out what a degree from a particular institution will do for you career aspirations. Petrucco suggests doing a bit of homework to find out what the “perceived value of that degree is in the marketplace.” That means calling alumni from the school and also recruiters. The institution, she says, should be more than willing to share this information with you. If not, then forget them.

* Also, if you want to advance at your firm, or want to get a job someplace else, it’s a good idea to find out which degrees are held by the people in the jobs you want. Finding resumes of individuals online these days is easy thanks to social networking sites like LinkedIn, so do a bit of snooping.

I know, taking classes at home in your fuzzy robe is tempting, but make sure you’re really going to get what you need for your career.

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