Top down view of young blond person typing on laptop computerOnline courses are on the rise; their low cost and anywhere, anytime nature makes them attractive for people who want to improve their skills.

The number of higher-education students participating in at least one online course rose by 3.9 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to a 2015 survey from Babson Survey Research Group, a research arm of Babson College in Babson Park, Massachusetts. However, the same study found that only 29.1 percent of academic leaders “accept the value and legitimacy of online education.”

This attitude is likely to translate to the executive suite. As more learning happens online, whether through a formal college, university or emerging online learning provider, how do executives evaluate the credibility of these programs?

So far, educators are split on the value of online vs. in-person learning.

“I do believe face-to-face is eventually the gold standard,” said Gautam Kaul, special counsel on academic innovation to the provost at University of Michigan and a professor of finance and business administration. He also teaches courses on Coursera, a major MOOC provider. In his in-person classes at University of Michigan, Kaul said he tends to have his students learn material online, thus optimizing the time they have in the classroom for activity and discussion.

However, “professions in which it’s easy to verify what you’re expected to know, we could see face-to-face programs becoming either very short or not needed,” Kaul said. He especially sees this happening with computer sciences, accounting and finance, which all require a lot of technical knowledge and fewer soft skills than other fields.

One major concern about the value of online education is around socializing with others. “The social aspect of bringing people together is actually germane, and it facilitates the thing that we’re trying to teach,” said Larry Bouthillier, an instructor of computer science at Harvard University Extension School and director of online learning at New England Institute of Technology.

Especially when learning soft skills like leadership, project management and analyzing complex problems, practicing those in isolation would be difficult, Bouthillier said. However, well-done online learning can replicate conditions of a working environment.

Bouthillier said he agrees that plenty of online courses are poorly designed. “Actually, there are plenty of on-campus courses that might not be so great, as well,” he said. Therefore, for business leaders to know that applicants received the best online or in-person education, it comes down to what it always has: evaluating skills. “Assessing the person and their abilities and their skills coming in, in a way is a little bit separate from knowing what degree they have and what certification and credential that they have,” Bouthillier said. “You can’t just go by a degree or a certification. You have to go by what is your assessment about what the person can do.”

Charlie Schilling, general manager of enterprise business at General Assembly, a global education company specializing in in-demand skills, agrees. “I think that business leaders can look to the curriculum that those individuals have actually taken to see the type of interactions that may have happened,” Schilling said. “I think there are some roles where that’s just more important than others. But I don’t know that it alone is a good measure of how successful someone would be in a role. I think it really is about the content and someone’s individual skills.”

Schilling added that General Assembly benchmarks against other firms that they think are “best-in-class.” For example, during a partnership with the marketing team at cosmetics firm L’Oréal, General Assembly benchmarked against not just marketing teams at other beauty companies, but against the best marketing teams overall. Then, General Assembly measured progress of the L’Oréal team over time. “Objective measures in various disciplines are really key to the answer here, particularly given the low barrier to entry of curated online content and online learning,” Schilling said.

Facing the Future

University of Michigan’s Kaul said that top universities are investing in online education and increasingly providing certifications to their students. Moving forward, he expects that CEOs will soon not be able to distinguish if these certifications were provided from online or in-person sources.

But, he asks, will there be a difference? “My presumption is that yes, there will be a difference. But the question is how much?”

Still, for some of those fields such as computer science, online education is adequate. Softer skills can be cultivated in the field. “I think that what people don’t realize is that most of our learning doesn’t happen at school. Most of our learning happens while working,” Kaul said. “A CEO needs to figure out more-so how do they educate folks, especially on the softer side of things, what we call leadership skills or management skills.”

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy.

This article originally appeared in Chief Learning Officer‘s sister publication Talent Economy.


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