Distance learning is not a new thing. Traditional universities, as well as innovators like the Open University, relied on studies by mail well before the invention of the internet. In fact, historians suggest that distance learning was common even as far back as the 1800s. And it’s been the modus operandi for postgraduate students and doctoral candidates for as long as anyone can remember.

Why, then, have we had to battle the stigma surrounding online learning for so many years? Articles like this one from 2009 – claiming that universities don’t expect job applications from holders of online degrees – have long added to the controversy, forcing students to make difficult decisions about their education.

The answer to that question is a complicated one. However, it offers us some insight into why the world might finally be coming to terms with the legitimacy of online learning programs. This week, we’re going in-depth on online learning and why it might finally be accepted as the go-to option for new students.

The world of higher education is built on perceived legitimacy

Here at The Brand Education, we sometimes work with new universities alongside long-standing institutions like Durham University. And although their courses are often of high enough quality to rival some of the best in the world, they still lose out to bigger brand institutions. The reason is that perceived legitimacy is entrenched in the higher education hierarchy. 

Online courses have, until recently, suffered from the credibility factor; how can a student know that their course is genuinely published by the leading academics and researchers that create offline courses? Bafflingly, this trend persists even when the credibility of online degrees can be clearly substantiated. And that trend filters up to the employment sector. A 2013 study from US non-profit Public Agenda found that employers prefered traditional degrees, even when admitting that online degrees produce more independent and self-motivated graduates.

The generation divide

It’s likely that this credibility issue is exasperated by a generational divide. Today’s graduates are digital natives, born into a world of work that is dependant on internet communications. It’s likely, though, that the employers hiring them still remember a time when their work was done with pen and paper. With that newness comes some level of scepticism from employers, much of which is aimed at the work ethic of younger students. “Online education,” wrote John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, “is not, in my judgment, all that appropriate for an 18-to 24-year old”. These opinions fly in the face of research, which indicates that millennials work longer and harder than previous generations.

Time will inevitably alter this dynamic, as more digital natives find themselves in hiring positions. And technology itself is having an impact on perceived credibility in the space. When working through older programme management systems, one had to have faith that the person assigning work and reading lists was who they said they were. Today, we are virtually in the room with our lecturers, working face-to-face with other students on assignments and taking part in seminars. The more exposed employers are to the actual dynamics of distance-learning today, the more likely they are to shed their apprehensions about the format.


The BBC, at least, seems to agree. Here in the office, we believe the shift to online learning is inevitable as more and more universities look to make a global impact. This will fundamentally alter the global higher education landscape in ways we can’t completely predict.
Whatever happens, though, we have every faith that institutions will do their very best to continue to serve the needs of students around the world.