Online PhDs

If there is a concept that always makes me laugh very hard it’s that of an online PhD. However, there are quite a few people who don’t see the idea as deeply humorous. Boise State is one of them. The university has now introduced an online-only PhD. The school’s official discuss the program in very pompous terms in a futile attempt to prevent people from laughing out loud at the idea:

Dr. Ross Perkins, associate professor in Educational Technology, warns that although people may be critical of online education, it has every bit the quality of traditional education. “People shouldn’t be discriminated for where they chose to live,” said Perkins.  Online programs offer people in rural areas the opportunity to study programs that may not be available to them.

The program will also boost the university’s research profile.  Having more students graduate from doctorate programs could allow for an increase in grants funding.

What’s truly funny here is that Dr. Perkins is trying to shut down any criticism of the program by presenting it as some kind of a heroic attempt to combat discrimination. The original definition of the word “to discriminate” is the following:

1. Recognize a distinction; differentiate.
2. Perceive or constitute the difference in or between
As much as Boise State administrators would like for people to fail to recognize a distinction between a real doctoral program where students have a chance to get educated through discussions with their peers and mentors and a sad parody of a PhD where you are stuck home alone staring at some PowerPoints, this isn’t likely to happen. Far from raising the university’s research profile, this online program will make it a joke among educators everywhere.
Thank you, Margaret Soltan, for posting a link to this story.

42 thoughts on “Online PhDs

  1. This may be a function of the ‘results oriented’ rather than process oriented education. We reward people for their pieces of paper at the end, not on whether or not they have truly ‘learned’ anything.


  2. I am enrolled in an online Master’s program at a reputable bricks and mortar university and I find the classes a complete joke. I recently discovered that no matter the quality of the work, as long as all the boxes are checked, every student gets an A. Why should I work hard on my research? I have found students who are taking their last business management class who don’t know the difference between revenue and profit. For those unfamiliar with business jargon, revenue is all of your income. You then deduct your expenses to get your profit. Everyone understands this concept…expect for some students about to receive a business management degree from this program.

    The “professors” primarily have their “PhDs” from Capella “University” and all of those are incompetent in their fields. I have only found one who was competent and his degree is from the University of Phoenix. I don’t know if his competency is due to the University of Phoenix or if it is due to the fact that he spent 35 years working in the field. My wife has been, and is currently, enrolled in online programs and some are better than others. A major problems appears to be that the good professors at bricks and mortar institutions don’t understand, and many don’t want to learn, how to operate in an online environment. A second problem is that the syllabi for most online courses are prepared by “educational corporations”, that don’t know much about the content of the courses.

    My conclusions so far are 1)Capella University is a diploma mill and I would never put their name on a resume or CV and 2)for anything other than highly technical courses for professionals working in the field, online education in its current form sucks.

    I learned my profession by what was essentially a modern day apprenticeship. I have seen “college educated” people in the field and they all have the technical education, but cannot correctly apply what they have learned. I suspect that the same is true for most fields. Unless you have years to practice (I think 5 years is minimum for almost every field)under the tutelage of an experienced professional, you will not understand how to do the job well. Hey, that sounds like a traditional PhD program doesn’t it?


  3. I actually think it is possible to design a quality online PhD program (which would of course include discussions with mentors and peers). It is just extremely difficult, extremely time-consuming, and extremely expensive, as it would definitely require much more than a few Powerpoints online. It is also something that most people would probably not prefer, and is probably not worth the expense and frustration. Just because something is typically done badly, doesn’t mean it can’t be done well. I have no idea what the quality of the Boise State program is, but I don’t think the idea itself is ludicrous.


  4. Here is another joke: a PhD in Leadership. With no dissertation requirement. No, I have no idea what it means, but since some states require superintendants in public schools district to have PhDs, it’s all the new rage.


    1. I guess I’m old fashioned, but I think of PhD is supposed to be a research degree. Yes, most researchers teach to pay the bills and to ensure a new generation of researchers, but it is still supposed to be a research degree. How does being a school superintendent qualify as research instead of practice? What happened to the good old EdD degree for school administrators, MBA for business executives and MPA for public agency administrators? I could see a PhD in Leadership, if it combined training in psychology and sociology with research in what makes an effective leader and a poor leader.

      A resume for an administrative or executive job with that on it would go in my circular file immediately.


      1. Don’t look at me. I have no idea, but I guess it goes along with the trend that you need a Masters in Education to teach high school (instead of good knowledge of the subject). And what is worse, those Masters are taught by people who haven’t been in front of a high school classroom ever. I’m old fashioned too.


        1. We get these Masters students who have been teaching for a decade or two and now are forced to take classes with us. It is no fun to have a bunch of people in the classroom who have no desire to be there but have to for fear of being fired.

          This is really wrong, in my opinion.


        2. BTW, Spanish Prof, every time at work when I click on your name to go to your website, I get a denial and warning that “teaching Spanish” is a sex site. Who knew just how risque your profession is? Not me. Maybe it is “out of bounds” because I left a comment on your site about Vidas Privadas as a tragedy instead of just a melodrama.


          1. Wow, I never knew I was so riské… Maybe “teaching Spanish” has some hidden meaning such as “turning Japanese” (look for that in your spare time, I don’t want to get you fired)


              1. Actually, I learned it a month ago, after The Economist cover page story was titled “Turning Japanese”, but it referred to the economic problems of the US and Germany. Somebody sent a really funny letter to the Editor, so I had to look it up.


              2. No need for detailed explanations. 🙂 We know what sexy beasts you, the Argentineans, are. 🙂 I don’t remember when was the last time an English-speaking novel about Argentina came out that didn’t refer to Buenos Aires as “the sexy Buenos Aires.” 🙂


              3. Now if only somebody could convince Rick Perry to take a trip to Buenos Aires… Although from what the Texans I know tell me, it’s not a “Maria Belen” what would do the trick.


  5. I think it depends a lot on the field, but I cannot imagine a mathematics Ph. D. without a lot of face to face time with ones advisor. I also cannot imagine a Ph. D. in paleobotany, say, without at least a few months of field work digging up fossils. What exactly does online mean here? Do you do this kind of field work using a remote control robot, using technology similar to a CIA drone??

    It really is offensive and cannot but make the degree meaningless.


    1. When I was a grad student, I benefited greatly from hanging out in my profs offices, looking at their libraries, chatting with them about life. Walking around the library was also extremely important and inspiring. Spending time with other grad students, having coffee or drinks and debating literature and philosophy, gosh even just walking the hallways of the university – these were all absolutely invaluable experiences. A PhD diploma isn’t just a piece of paper attesting to how many courses you took. It’s a testimony to being part of a certain culture. You can’t get that from being online. You just simply can’t.


  6. As usual, playing devil’s advocate here…

    I actually gave some serious looking at an online degree, mostly because in music there just aren’t that many places to get doctorates of any kind, and Boston University (NOT a diploma mill, last time I checked) has online Music Ed Masters and PhD degrees. These are, as far as I can tell, geared to the needs of folks who are already working in the field but can’t take a few years off to go live somewhere else and get a degree, also a situation in which I found myself at the time. (As it turned out, I quit my job and will be eating ramen noodles for the next 3 years, that glorious staple of grad students. Hope my kids like it. 🙂

    I don’t know the quality of Boston’s online degrees, but I did take one online course for my Master’s at another school–primarily brick-and-mortar, but branching out–and the prof really did work hard to make sure we all contributed AND did the work. Mini-papers due every week, mandatory discussion participation on a strict schedule, and ample final project with mandatory reading of and commenting on one anothers’ final projects. More writing than I’ve ever done for a single course. It was hard work, rigorously planned, and I learned a lot. That school has since started offering complete distance learning degrees, which involve two weeks onsite at the beginning and end of the degree, and the rest happens via various media; a friend of mine is in that program. I haven’t seen his classwork, but it’s a helluva lot more than a few power points.

    Yeah, it’s not the ideal, and I’d miss that apprenticeship vibe too, but even so–my biggest couple of “mentor” profs are ones I have corresponded with primarily via phone and email anyway, at their preference, and the relationship has been a very apprentice-y one nonetheless.

    And yes, I realize that as someone who doesn’t actually HAVE a PhD I should probably shut up…but there’s a bit of irony in assuming that people online can’t “get educated through discussions with their peers and mentors”…and doing it on this blog, immediately before a fairly interesting discussion among a bunch of peers and mentors right here:-). There’s a LOT of substantive relational stuff that can happen online, and I personally spoke up a lot more in my online course than I ever do IRL, because that’s just how I roll.

    That’s not to say I think that’s what Boise will have. And bad online education is probably easier to achieve than bad traditional education. (Although I’ve had some pretty bad traditional education along the way…) When I listen to someone “defending” online education this way…well, let’s just say it doesn’t make me want to bookmark the site.

    Hanging up my horns again. 🙂


    1. I think that online degrees for working professionals will be the primary post graduate educational resource sometime in the future. They make so much sense. The problem is that the rip-off artists have preceded the responsible educators in the field. This method of teaching will require re-writing a great deal of the pedagogical canon.

      However, as Clarissa mentioned, conveying the culture of the institution is as critical as conveying the technical information. The environment and atmosphere of the institution impresses itself on how the student matures as an educated individual. Perhaps the most significant change necessary for online education to be successful will be the cultural change in students who are adapted to doing business in cyberspace as opposed to face to face. In a few years my grandson will think I was totally screwy for insisting that he look someone in the eye when talking with them and that he practices a firm handshake without causing pain.


      1. Good point re the culture of the institution…I think you’re exactly right.

        And I love what you’re teaching your grandson, I’m trying to do the same with my kids. Those are important skills, whether everyone else thinks so or not.


  7. (Oh, and to clarify–the online degree offered by my old school is a Master’s only, and it’s a “professional” degree not designed to go on to a PhD…so it’s admittedly not as heavy-duty academic as what y’all are talking about…)


    1. I don’t think they are any cheaper than regular programs. PhD students in the US don’t pay anything and get a stipend to live on, while these online students obviously don’t get anything like that. It’s just a way to squeeze money out of people while offering them nothing instead.


        1. My diploma at Yale was 100% free to me. 🙂 And I got all my living expenses paid for 5 years on top of that. So it is definitely much cheaper.

          The only reason schools are turning to online teaching is to make loads of money. Because you have to invest very little and can reap huge monetary benefits. 😦


  8. “PhD students in the US don’t pay anything and get a stipend to live on, while these online students obviously don’t get anything like that”

    Not in all the disciplines, nor all the schools. You’d be surprised how little funding certain departments can give, and how many American students are willing to accept it. One of the advantages of being a foreigner is that you would never be put in that position, because you can’t get loans. But I know people who got offered acceptance at PhDs in Political Science without funding, a person who got a PhD in Anthropology from Columbia along with a $100,000 debt, or History students that get offered $9,000 a year stipend (as of 2007).


  9. “But I know people who got offered acceptance at PhDs in Political Science without funding, a person who got a PhD in Anthropology from Columbia along with a $100,000 debt, or History students that get offered $9,000 a year stipend (as of 2007).”

    And I’m sure that these students are so better than the stupid Clarissa 😉 WHO ATTEND A TUITION-FREE FUCKING COMMUNIST UNIVERSITY LIKE YALE! 😉


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.