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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Upward Mobility in the Distance Institution: Factors Influencing Prestige and Status in Online Programs


The college degree earned either partially or fully online has ascended in stature to solid respectability, as college administrators have come to believe that online courses as well as online master's programs can be more rigorous than face-to-face. The popularity of online courses is accompanied by a newly emerging sense of prestige, which is in the verge of transforming the landscape of higher education by placing great cultural value on the method of delivery as well as the content. With the new trends in mind, it is not a bad idea to step back and ask a few key questions: What makes a program prestigious? Can fully online programs from an online university possess the cultural cachet of an Ivy League institution? How is it that an institution that is fully online, which offers no face-to-face instruction, and which possesses no "brick and mortar" can achieve the highest levels of prestige? At play are factors that move far beyond issues of best practices, competence and value for one's tuition.

(This is Part I in a two-part series. Click here for Part II.)

In order to achieve prestige as an online institution of higher education, one must understand the inner workings of status production in a society, and what constitutes cultural value. Social class determinations must be kept in mind, as well as the reasons for social stratification, and beliefs about upward mobility. Having a clear understanding the relationship between education and social class has helped distance programs groom themselves to achieve higher levels of status. At the most basic level, however, the online program must contain a solid foundation of programs, as well as a coherent vision.

*A Vision That Begins and Ends with "Legacy"
Most institutions of higher learning have a vision statement that focuses principally on the here and now: what kind of classes, services, and experiences will the students have, and how will they prepare them for a useful working life within a respectable community?

In contrast, the institution of higher learning that has achieved high status and prestige in society will tend to spend more time envisioning the distant future, clearly implying that individuals who have earned degrees from their institution are imbued with sufficient power and influence to bring about tangible change in the world. Without the proper context, the assumptions and articulated views will seem unrealistic, even narcissistic.

However, when one realizes that a number of the graduating class will be influential policymakers and stakeholders within a specific social group, the underlying attitudes and assumptions seem less grandiose.

For the traditional high-prestige university, the academic year begins with a moment dedicated to envisioning the future: who will receive honorary doctorates, and who will be the perfect commencement speaker - one to communicate, almost as though by osmosis, that this is an institution that not only prepares its students for a successful future, but also for powerful friends and influential connections.

What does the culminating moment look like for an online institution that has gained prestige and cultural status? The graduation ceremony should be seen for what it is: a rite of passage, a "launching" of graduates into the world. The influential speaker is the embodiment of achievement, influence, and deeply cherished values. For Thunderbird Garvin School of International Management, the MBA in International Management ( is a degree program that prides itself in continuing relations. Even as the graduates are launched, they are encouraged to keep in touch and to open doors for each other. Before the advent of the Internet, Thunderbird graduates were well-received throughout the world. Their online program reinforces the notion that their perspective is truly global. The legacy is assumed to be a Thunderbird philosophy, an imprint on international business practices and policies, and a story of successful graduates.

For an online institution, the challenge is to communicate the same values and beliefs, but to do it in a visual manner. Careful attention must be paid to the visual details, with an eye to the semiotics - the coded non-verbal visual messages that convey complex messages.

While online programs have not existed for enough time to say that they are a part of a long tradition in and of themselves, it can be said that they are part of a continuum, and that the only difference is that of delivery method. For example, the University of Oklahoma has not offered an online graduate degree in museum studies for more than three or four years. On the other hand, two of the Southwest's largest and most prestigious museums -- the Sam Noble Natural History Museum and the Fred Jones Memorial Art Museum - have been mainstays of the university for decades. Thus, one can legitimately say that the online museum studies program is a part of a tradition. The fact that the courses are taught by University of Oklahoma curators and faculty also supports the case.

*Curriculum PLUS
In the new online universities, the curriculum is not only equivalent to traditional face-to-face programs, it exceeds it in terms of rigorous and regular review, and adherence to best practices. Online institutions take advantage of the distributed nature of course development and subject matter expertise, and bring together a collaboratively-created curriculum which incorporates elements from many sources, from many places. There is clear alignment with learner needs and desired outcomes.

The Sloan Consortium's report, Growing By Degrees, published in 2005 contains data that supports the growing perception that online education can be more rigorous and can contain more quality controls than face-to-face instruction. Despite the fact that most administrators believe that the quality of online instruction is more difficult to evaluate than face-to-face (2005), institutions continue to incorporate online instruction in their strategic plans. In 2005, fully 56% of responding institutions reported that online education was a critical component of their overall strategy (2005).

In the case of Cornell University, a decision was made to focus on professional and executive development certificate programs through a new arm, eCornell. The University leveraged its reputation to bolster the credibility of the online programs. After successful launches of the program, several large, nationally known entities such as YMCA of the USA and Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts selected eCornell for employee development. ( Further, the programs have received national awards and commendations. Now it could even be said that the traditional part of Cornell University is benefiting from the reputation of eCornell.

*Instructional Materials in Multiple Formats
Instructional materials reflect the underlying values and defining vision of the institution. Instead of being dependent on the skill and passion of the face-to-face professor, the online institution dedicates resources to a team of developers who integrate content, vision, and values. The developers then adapt the material so that it can be delivered in a number of ways, which include text, audio, multimedia, and blended approaches.

To most effectively distribute the materials, the online program staff seek innovative ways to take advantage of the flexibility of the Internet, and develop materials that are deliverable at any time and at any place, using methods respected and recognized by others for their innovation. For example, online institutions can take advantage of mobile computing and have materials playable on portable mp3 players or video players, as well as readable on small devices including laptops, palms, handhelds, and enhanced phones. Delivery options should keep actual user needs in the forefront.

An example is Duke University, and its use of mobile computing and iPods to deliver content for students. While the iPods are used on campus and in hybrid settings where face-to-face instruction is blended with distance delivery, the audio files are also accessible for students in their online courses. The iPods are used to listen to lectures and to record shareable content. A Description can be found here.

Continue to Part II

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