e-Learning Pundit

Blogging distance learning opportunities at traditional colleges and universities
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Interview with Ms. Vicky Phillips of GetEducated.com

Recently, I was privileged to interview Ms. Vicky Phillips, CEO and Chief Analyst for GetEducated.com. For those of you who may be unaware, GetEducated.com is widely considered the most highly respected web site of its kind on the Internet. CNN, Forbes, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal have all consulted Ms. Phillips for her expertise at one time or another. If someone asks me about online bachelor’s or master’s programs, then I usually point them in the direction of GetEducated.com.

Paul: I noticed in a report that you developed an online counseling center for distance learners for America Online almost 20 years ago. Could you please describe your work back then?

Vicky Phillips: I’m a psychologist and educator by training. In the 1980s, I was working as Director of Academic Services and psychology faculty for Antioch University’s San Francisco campus for adult learners. An experimental new company, The Electronic University Network, was just getting started in San Francisco. They hired me to use my experience and research working with older adult learners to be the architect of an online counseling center that would help adult learners access higher education, first through a private bulletin board system (BBS) then through the commercial service AOL. The counseling center provided both academic coaching and counseling and career counseling. That work was tremendously challenging and rewarding. In addition to designing the first ever online counseling center and some of the first ever online academic e-course structures we did pioneering research on the psychological factors that help older learners persist and excel at distance learning using collaborative online communication tools.

Paul: How many collegiate-level distance education degree opportunities existed in 1989 that you were aware of?

Vicky Phillips: Quite a few distance education degree opportunities existed in 1989, but only three of these used “online” delivery conduits. Distance learning is nothing new. The University of London offered the first distance university degrees to civil service officials stationed abroad in the 1800s. That program sent assignments and graded responses back and forth across the continents and the oceans using ships and the penny post. Talk about going the distance to get an education! What was new about distance learning in the 1980s was the use of online networks to deliver coursework and build the first truly interactive learning communities (message boards and chat systems). Prior to the 80s distance learning programs employed postal mailed “correspondence,” mailed videotapes of course lectures, and other technology broadcast platforms, such as cable TV and radio, to broadcast learning opportunities. Internet technologies reached mass home distribution capacity (1990s) at the very same time Americans were clamoring for more and more higher education. It made for a perfect storm that is still wailing across the higher education landscape.

Paul: What inspired you to create GetEducated.com? How long has the site been up on the web?

Vicky Phillips: I’m a first generation college student whose parents never completed high school not because of lack of intelligence or academic promise but because of lack of financial and social access. Making higher education accessible is a mission I believe in with my whole heart. Education determines ones economic and social standing in the world today. Increasingly, we live in a society where paper credentials open (or close) career and life opportunities. Everyone should have equal access to educational opportunity regardless of where they live or what they earn. There are now more than 20,000 “online education portals” on the Internet. While I applaud growth in this area it disturbs me that virtually every one of these sites simply list colleges that pay to be listed. These sites don’t even screen for accreditation: their only listing criteria is whether or not the “college” has the money to pay for a profile.

GetEducated was founded to combat online education fraud, which has escalated on the Internet where anyone with an advertising budget can get these “online education portals” to “recruit” unsuspecting students for them. Many online education sites have begun advertising under the bought keywords “top ten online colleges” or “best online universities”: These sites buy-up these keywords on Google then never disclose to unsuspecting students that “top online colleges” means not the “top academic colleges” but the top colleges that could afford to buy listings on their site. There is a lot of fraud and corruption in online education and GetEducated.com was founded to provide a true and trustworthy alternative. We’re very much the “Consumer Reports” of online education. We rate and rank online colleges based not on the colleges ability to pay us for advertising but on independent national surveys that are reliable and valid measures of things such as cost and academic reputation.

Paul: You have obviously witnessed numerous developments relating to post-secondary distance education since the AOL days. What would you say are the most important changes since that time?

Vicky Phillips: The growing number of people who want, indeed demand, a higher education system that is more accessible, more practical, and more meaningful. In the 1980s distance learning was targeted at older, rural and mobile (military) learners who needed a portable and flexible type of learning system. Today, more than half of all regular college aged students are using distance learning technologies — social networks, virtual labs, online faculty office systems, videotaped online lectures — to improve and strengthen the learning experience. One of the most amazing things that has come of early research into distance learning is the notion that face-to-face lectures are not (and never have been) the best way to teach or instruct. Some online methods (such as virtual labs) actually result in better learning retention and satisfaction than the traditional lecture-based classroom environment which continues to be used and trusted because it is “familiar,” rather than because it was ever proven to be the “most effective” way to instruct or learn.

Paul: Just over the past year, I’ve noticed a great number of new online degree program offerings from various colleges and universities. In your opinion, would you say that we have hit a peak or can we expect even more online degree programs?

Vicky Phillips: Distance learning has not yet peaked. Far from it! In terms of number of college programs available you can expect that to continue to grow and diversify by 15% or more each year over the next decade. The major reason is demand. Older learners want education delivered this way so they can “fit” it into their lives where ever and when ever they need it; younger students want distance learning because they enjoy life online and are a part of a new demographic that grew up with the Internet and love the “convenience” factor of being able to learn where ever and when ever. In addition you now have several for-profit, publicly-traded education companies that must show “aggressive growth” to their Wall Street investors alongside a new emphasis among older non-profit college systems to spin off their higher education divisions online as “profit-centers” to help support the escalating costs of maintaining aging campus infrastructures. Expect more growth. Lots of it!

Paul: What would you say are the primary online degree growth opportunities for colleges and universities? To clarify, do you think we will see more associate or bachelor’s or master’s programs?

Vicky Phillips: Online master’s degree programs are the most popular and well-developed at present. Bachelor completion programs are next. The biggest growth is now happening and will continue to happen at the associate degree level and in the area of shorter, more practical career certificate and certification programs.

Paul: Personally speaking, I’m a huge advocate of name recognition. In other words, if an option at Johns-Hopkins or Stanford is available via distance learning, I find myself more inclined to favor an online degree opportunity from one of these schools rather than “Your State College”. What are your thoughts about brand name universities?

Vicky Phillps: Regardless of what I personally think about college brand names the research we’ve undertaken at GetEducated.com in this area is very clear when it comes to what learners themselves think in this area. If the brand name of a college that offers an online degree is “known” to a student or potential employer it meets with high levels of acceptance. If a college has an established brick and mortar identity then its degrees are widely accepted regardless of whether that degree is earned online or on campus. On the other end of the spectrum if a college is recently established or operates only online with no established brick and mortar legacy there can be a significant stigma attached to such a degree and the college that awards it. In fact, our users show ten times or more higher levels of trust and acceptance of known brand names than of newer online schools such as the University of Phoenix. State college and universities enjoy tremendous trust; if that state college happens to be in your region (we call these backyard brands) then the trust level rises even higher.

We offer a free service, the Diploma Mill Police, to help online students check on the accreditation status of any online college operating in the USA. In truth, while that service chronicles diploma mill reports on over 100 fake online colleges the top 3 colleges that people check on are real accredited colleges, but they are newer online colleges which use very aggressive marketing techniques that have bred widespread student mistrust. These online colleges have what we call “dirty brands.” They are accredited, but their own hyper-aggressive student recruitment practices and bad press in terms of lawsuits and stock market scandals have hurt them considerably in public and employer opinion polls.

Paul: I see that GetEducated.com awards scholarships to distance learners. Could you please tell us how the idea came about and how long your scholarship program has existed?

Vicky Phillips: We are a values oriented enterprise which truly believes in making higher education “accessible.” Cost is a huge accessibility issue. Not everyone can afford to get educated; as a company we want to change that. We’ve always maintained a scholarship program for our employees. We launched the Excellence in Online Education Scholarship program for the public in 2007 in an effort to help make distance learning degree programs more accessible financially to learners. We’re very serious when we say we want to help people “get educated.” So serious we’ve earmarked an escalating amount of our profits for use toward the actual education of our site users.

Paul: What sort of feedback are you seeing from your readers and site visitors?

Vicky Phillips: They want more. More online college ratings and rankings so they can better differentiate one college from the other and make better decisions prior to enrollment. GetEducarted.com is at present the only distance education research portal that posts national online college cost rankings. We do this to help students find their most affordable education option. Our national Best Buy Rankings are the most popular pages on our site. There is no relationship between quality and cost in higher education. Most students will never hear about the least expensive online degree programs because these come from state colleges which have almost no online marketing budget. Our rankings put these schools front and center so students have more choices. Students also want more on distance learning financial aid and scholarship opportunities. More on how employers perceive online education. And much-much more on how to match their career aspirations to educational degrees and elearning opportunities.

Paul: Are you working on any projects at the moment that you can tell us about?

Vicky Phillips: In response to feedback from our online education users we are developing a new version of GetEducated.com that will launch shortly. Our new site will give learners more of everything they have asked for: greatly expanded distance degree ratings and rankings, a distance education scholarship resource center, and a plethora of career matching opportunities. Look for that Fall 2008.

Paul: Ms. Phillips, I certainly look forward to checking out the new version of GetEducated.com. Thank you so very much for this interview.