September 9, 2021

The legitimacy of online learning vs traditional learning

Is an online degree as legitimate as a traditional brick-and-mortar qualification? The short answer is yes. Once perceived as a second-rate substitute for traditional on-campus learning, online degrees are coming of age in a post-pandemic world.


Since the early 2000s, distance learning has become a popular alternative (or addition) to traditional in-classroom education. In 2020, the pandemic forced a near-universal shift to virtual learning, and online education experienced the most significant boost since its inception. In 2021, almost all graduates entering the job market completed at least part of their degrees online.


However, despite the leaps and bounds made in technology advancements, digital literacy and pedagogy strategies, there is a lingering stigma around the topic – that online degrees are substandard, easy to acquire, or possibly even fraudulent. A 2009 study found that employers and hiring managers had an overall negative perception about online degrees, citing a perceived lack of rigour and an increased potential for academic dishonesty as common concerns. In short, anyone with an online degree was considered less qualified than someone who spent four years on campus in an actual classroom.


Fast forward to 2021. Are online degrees still considered less credible than degrees earned in person, or have the events of 2020 created a tipping point for the legitimacy of online education? As the pandemic endures, how will online degrees be viewed against their traditional counterparts, and will they carry the same weight in a professional environment as a four-year, on-campus degree?

Shaking the foundation of brick-and-mortar bias

Today, a growing number of prestigious brick and mortar universities have embraced online learning. Moreover, with platforms like Coursera proving that online learning companies can successfully partner with established universities to deliver quality degrees, employers are beginning to recognise the value of online learning more widely.


Good news for online degree holders entering an increasingly competitive job market, a report by Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy (CFHETS) found that many hiring managers no longer view online degrees or credentials as inferior to those earned on campus.


  • 61% of HR leaders firmly believe that online learning is of equal or greater quality to more traditional methods.
  • 71% of organisations have hired a job applicant with an online degree in the last 12 months.
  • 52% believe that, in the future, most advanced degrees will be completed online.
  • 33% believe that, enabled by technology, online education will ultimately be better than traditional face-to-face instruction.

What do online degree holders bring to the boardroom?

The way we work has changed significantly. Remote working has increased by 44% in the last five years, and that is not accounting for the massive upswing in remote working due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As companies continue to embrace remote working arrangements, employers are changing their posture on remote learning and are starting to recognise the benefits online learners can bring to the workplace. Hiring managers are beginning to value the skills and experiences involved with distance learning, including digital literacy, strong time management skills, and the ability to work independently.

A question of choice, not circumstance

For some time, online education has been the logical option for students who cannot physically attend classes, particularly those with full-time careers, family obligations, or who live far from campus. Today, it is no longer their circumstances driving students to study their degrees online – they are choosing remote learning over in-person studying. In the United States, recent research by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows declines in enrolment across nearly all categories of institutions since 2020. In contrast, online institutions experienced a marked increase in both undergraduate and graduate enrolments.


This spike in interest is only in part due to stay-at-home orders during the 2020 pandemic when 98% of universities moved a majority of classes online and forced the shift to e-learning. Students are increasingly choosing to study online because they realise that it is a better way to learn. Research has found that students retain 25-60% more material when learning online, versus the much lower 8% to 10% information retention rates of face-to-face training. Furthermore, students can learn faster online than in the classroom. E-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting. This is because students have more autonomy over their learning and can learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading material, skipping sections, or accelerating through concepts as they choose.


In a 2018 survey, 85% of students who had previously enrolled in face-to-face and online courses reported that their online experience was either the same or better than the classroom course. That included 37% who felt it was a superior experience. As the benefits of online learning become more widely recognised and evidence of student success more known, these figures will grow.

Looking ahead

The online education field, while maturing, is still relatively young. To meet the changing needs of an ever-evolving student force, higher education institutions need to connect with their learners where they are – online. Looking ahead, online delivery is poised to continue to claim a larger share of all higher education activity. EdTech is enabling universities to engage students in innovative ways through the introduction of new technologies and methodologies, like mobile learning, augmented reality, podcasting, learning analytics, gamification and more.


It’s important to note that whilst fully online programmes and courses will certainly be a key driver of this evolution, hybrid degree programmes allow students to get the best of both worlds. Online resources are readily available to students, supplementing traditional instruction (rather than replacing it). Students can meet with professors in person, collaborate with peers in class, and still benefit from the flexibility of online classes. And research shows they work. As reported in one study, students (at nearly all levels of achievement) do just as well in hybrid classes as they do in traditional classrooms.

The last word on legitimising online learning

In a 2018 survey by Northeastern University Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, hiring leaders identified recommendations for colleges and universities to pursue to ensure the quality and utility of online credentials in hiring. These include:


  • Including real-world projects and engagements with employers and the world of work.
  • Providing academic credit for experience and on-the-job learning.
  • Including more industry and employer validation of curriculum, e.g. as with certifications.
  • Providing better systems to verify and validate credential authenticity.
  • Engaging in more rigorous forms of quality assurance and accreditation.


Degrees still have great value in the hiring process. To help legitimise online degrees and credentials, it is becoming increasingly important for researchers to continue tracking employer perceptions of candidates who have pursued their education online. If online learners, especially those who choose not to pursue a traditional four-year degree, prove successful over time on the job, the impact on online learning could be profound.


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