As distance education proliferates, students will invent more ways to obtain their degrees in the shortest possible time with the least amounts of effort and work.
Educators are concerned with the phenomenon of "grade inflation" -- i.e. when students are assigned grades that are higher than what they earn and deserve. Grade inflation appears to occur at practically all levels of education. It is true that grade inflation is a serious problem. However, I see a far more serious problem beginning to occur in education, one that I call "degree inflation," -- i.e. when degrees are conferred on people who have not learned all they should have learned in order to earn their degrees.
The use of technology to deliver education to students at a distance has the potential to multiply the problem of degree inflation and spread it across the world. It is possible to offer very rigorous educational programs to students using distance education technologies. Several major educational institutions offer distance education programs of high quality. However, I am concerned that many fly-by-night educational institutions will use computers and related educational technologies in a manner that will accelerate the propagation of degree inflation.
A current trend in distance education is called "anytime, anyplace" learning. As the label suggests, this means that using distance education technologies people can learn from anywhere and at anytime. Existing and emerging distance education technologies have truly dissolved the boundaries of time and space when it comes to learning. The four walls of the classroom now encompasses the whole world and class is always in session, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 (or 366 during leap years) days a year.
Various technologies are being used effectively by many institutions of higher education to deliver content to students at a distance. It is not the mere delivery of content that is cause for concern. It is the assessment of learning at a distance that raises serious questions about how and what students are really learning.
Assessment in distance education often relies on the integrity of students. While a majority of distance learners may be honest, there is the possibility for cheating on projects, quizzes and exams. Unless students are monitored by either the course instructors or disinterested third persons during quizzes and exams and while they complete and submit projects, there is absolutely no way for a distance educator to determine who actually completed the projects or the quizzes and exams. Under unsupervised conditions, it is very easy for a distance learner to let a more knowledgeable person complete and submit their work for a pre-negotiated compensation. As the number of students who are learning at a distance grows, it is quite possible that we will also witness the growth of a new industry characterized and populated by people with advanced degrees who lease their time, skills and knowledge to students who are enrolled in online courses.
A distance learner who wants to earn a degree the easy way could very well enroll in a program and pay someone with an advanced degree to complete all the course requirements and give them all the necessary information, including usernames and passwords necessary to access course materials. People with advanced degrees could make a reasonably good living by selling their services to a few distance learners each year. As their reputations spread by word of mouth, so will their status and the fees that they command. We may even start seeing classified advertisements that read something like:
"An MBA from a top ten business school willing to assist aspiring MBAs to complete online degrees. Guaranteed degree completion in ten months or money back. Fees are negotiable. Confidential references available on request."
Not being able to truly determine who is doing the work is indeed a very serious weakness in assessment in degree programs offered solely via distance education means. Another problem is that distance learners can learn content at a superficial level and still earn the degree that they seek. Since students have access to all the reading materials and discussion board messages posted by their classmates, just by timing their own remarks and by consulting the reading materials when they need to, distance learners can give the impression that they have mastered the content without actually internalizing it. In a sense it is quite easy for distance learners to fake learning, something that is much harder to do in face-to-face classroom situations.
As distance education grows and proliferates, students will invent more ways to obtain their degrees in the shortest possible time with the least amounts of effort and work. The ranks of the people who hold advanced degrees, but who don't know much of the content that is expected and required of those who hold such degrees, will continue to increase.
Degree inflation will become a widespread phenomenon. Degree inflation will soon grow into the much larger phenomenon of "educational inflation," a situation where even advanced doctoral degrees will not be worth the paper on which they are printed. Society will have to take drastic measures to devalue degrees, much like devaluing monetary units in economies that are plagued by inflation.
Society can act now to prevent degree inflation from becoming a reality by insisting on greater accountability for distance learners and distance education programs. The need for convenience on the part of distance learners should be balanced with the need for academic quality, rigor and integrity in distance education programs. By closely monitoring and guiding the growth of distance education programs, society can prevent the phenomenon of degree inflation from plaguing it in the future.
The author is a tenured associate professor at Florida International University in Miami where he teaches educational technology courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. He is also a consultant on issues related to distance education.