The Stigma of the Online Student

This year I graduated with my Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Washington. I’ve been participating in the program for three years and while overall it’s been a great experience, there is one thing that still rankles me to this day.

I’ll start by telling you about orientation. The event was required. It did not matter if you were an online student living across the country or residential student local to the Seattle area; if you were in the program you had to attend orientation in person in Seattle. And so we flocked to campus brought together by our love of books, libraries and all things of the like nature. When we arrived we were given a name tag to wear. It had our name, program, and whether we were an online student or a residential student. I suppose by adding the type of student we were was a way of helping us find and connect with those we’d likely be in classes with, but it also made things a bit more…segregated.

You see, even in today’s internet savvy culture, there is still a huge stigma attached to being an online student. Being an online student (sort of like participating in online dating) carries certain connotations with it, and they are not positive. Many of the residential students viewed us online students as lesser.

Before you jump down my throat, I know that not everyone thinks this. If you didn’t or don’t good for you! But simply because you don’t think that way doesn’t mean that no one does. I’ll share a couple of examples.

One situation happened at the aforementioned orientation. I was standing around at an event trying desperately to not be super awkward. No one I knew had arrived yet, so I was trying to look approachable and friendly. A couple of women approached me and struck up a conversation. We chatted for a little bit before they asked my name and what program I was in. I glanced down at my name tag and saw it had spun around so my name and information was hidden. Chuckling, I flipped it around and introduced myself. The two women read my name and their eyebrows went up, one smirked.

“Oh, you’re an online student,” the smirker said. I nodded and began babbling about being a single mother, not having the money for childcare while I was doing classes at all hours and the convenience of being able to tackle the weekly work on my own timeline. They nodded, then excused themselves and walked a few feet away from me and chatted between the two of them. For the rest of the event I noticed how the residential students and the online students congregated separately.

I have a second situation as well. During my last year I was able to take one residential class. I was excited because the professor was one I’d been wanting to take a class from since the start of my program and it looked like it was going to be a really interesting course. Another of my online classmates was able to take the class as well.  We were about 4 weeks into the quarter when the discussion somehow turned to online classes. One of our fellow classmates, a residential student, questioned the validity of online programs, including UW’s! The professor did defend the program and talk about how comparatively UW has one of the best online programs out there. My friend also defended the online program, and even posited that it might be considered more difficult since you really only have yourself to be accountable to. The class was one of those 4 hour jobs, so at the break my fellow online student and myself ranted in the hallway about this stigma surrounding online education. The woman who said insulting things about the online program sent an email to my friend that evening apologizing, which was considerate.

Now you may be thinking I’m being overly sensitive. But I don’t think so. There is no reason for the scoffing, smirking reaction I received at orientation and the student in our class was talking about a program she didn’t know anything about. What is most ridiculous about these specific situations is the fact that no matter what program you’re in you have to take the same classes, which contain the same material and sometimes are even taught by the same professors. The only difference between the classes is the medium in which it’s delivered. At the end of the day we’ll both have a degree that says Master of Library and Information Science from UW. So why the snobbery? Why this stigma attached to being an online student?

I think this mostly stems from the years when “scammy” correspondence courses were prevalent and online “universities” were just getting started. These things were not exactly reputable institutions. Indeed when I was looking at library school programs I originally shied away from online programs thinking of them as not as good as a “real” university. If I’m being honest even when I got accepted at UW, for a split second I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get accepted to the residential program. And I have seen my online classmates toss around the words “correspondence course” as an insult to the classes they dislike the most.

But let’s think about a few things. Firstly, back in the day (and maybe even now, I don’t actually know) correspondence courses were probably the only way some groups of people could become educated. I’m thinking especially about women here. Let’s be real and recognize that since the dawn of humans scams have existed. I’m sure there was some first human out there tricking another first human out of their hard earned food, or clothing, or shelter. Scams are a part of life as a human person so we need to get used to it and not think of it as some sort of new invention. There will always be scams, but that should not discredit an entire way of learning. Some correspondence courses were garbage, designed to trick the student out of their money with nothing or very little to show. But that doesn’t mean they’re all the same.

Likewise, there are some online courses out there that are scams as well. You won’t learn anything and you’ll waste your precious time and money if you participate in them. But UW isn’t a scam university. Neither are the other top five universities that offer ALA accredited educations, so assuming their online programs are less than or a scam is simply ignorant. A residential student is not inherently better or worse than an online student and visa versa. We’re all in the same boat here. Instead of trying to push each other out without life vests why not ignore stereotypical stigmas that are patently untrue and support each other?


One response to “The Stigma of the Online Student

  1. For what it’s worth, my 9th and 10th-grade education was by correspondence course, after which I skipped 11th and 12th and went right into community college. I remember thinking then, even after skipping two years, that the in-person classes were a total breeze, comparatively. It takes a lot more work and self-discipline to study on your own. Kudos to you for your hard work; I know it takes a lot and I’m super proud of you for earning your master’s degree.

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