Tom Stammberger took a circuitous route to landing a bachelor’s of science degree in information systems. He earned 27 credits online at UMass Online and the remaining 20 credits at the university’s brick-and-mortar school in Lowell, MA. In all, it took him three years to compile 47 credits. Combine these with the credits he earned for his associate’s degree in electronic engineering, and they add up to one hard-won degree.

Sound complicated? You bet, but the unorthodox approach offered Stammberger the best route for obtaining his degree, especially since he was working full time as a strategic project training manager at Segue Software, a software and testing tool manufacturer in nearby Lexington, MA.

Stammberger’s unusual academic path may prove educational to CIOs attempting to weave staff skill-building into today’s already hectic work schedule.

Online approach isn’t always the best way
While earning credits through traditional classes was a breeze for the 39-year-old techie, online studying proved to be a challenge. Despite all the hoopla about the benefits of distance learning, virtual education is not for everyone—especially for those taking difficult technical courses.

Attending remote, Web-based virtual classes requires a substantial adjustment when it comes to studying, taking exams, and interacting with teachers and other students. Yet Stammberger did find that online learning was time efficient. Virtual learning spared him several wasted hours sitting in traffic, and it afforded him extensive flexibility with his daily schedule.

Most online programs offer a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning. The newest technology is interactive, so lectures can be delivered in real time, with students logging in to the class to attend the lecture. Students can interact during the class via phone or e-mail capabilities controlled by the instructor. Away from the virtual classroom, assignments or lectures can be posted online or downloaded.

But although “virtuality” capabilities are improving, online learning isn’t easy, and it requires focus and discipline, Stammberger warned. “You must create a schedule and keep to it,” he advised. “It means sacrificing time.”

Stammberger sets aside at least two hours a night for studying, which isn’t easy when working full time. But he isn’t alone in his quest to further his education online while working. According to the United States Distance Learning Association in Boston, 2.2 million students are taking online courses, compared to 1 million five years ago. The number of online institutions has also spiked from 800 to 1,700 within the same period.

Quality and standards are improving
Distance education, with regards to professional value, has come a long way over the last five years. Many employers have long been skeptical about hiring candidates with online degrees—and for good reason. At that time, many online institutions were not accredited by the most widely recognized associations (Middle States, New England, North Central, Northwest, Southern, and Western). Teachers were considered barely qualified and likely inept at using advanced communication technologies such as e-mail and video conferencing.

For the most part, all that has changed. There are still questionable operations, but most online degree programs are offered by reputable institutions. And most employers see no difference between job candidates with a virtual degree vs. a traditional one.

Bob Lambert, managing director of technology and new ventures practice at executive search firm Christian & Timbers in Irvine, CA, admires candidates with online degrees. “Most of the candidates I’ve interviewed who hold online degrees are highly motivated, resourceful, and determined,” said Lambert, who has also served as the chief human resources officer at Stride Rite Corporation. “These are all highly desirable traits.”

Still, skeptics like Franklin Loew, president of Becker College in Wooster, MA, and former dean at Tufts University in Boston, believe that the traditional classroom setting is the best learning environment. Loew said he would have concerns about hiring someone with an online degree. “I question the quality of the educational experience,” he said.

To avoid any quality issues in choosing an online educational institution, Stammberger advised investigating faculty credentials, researching the school’s reputation, and checking for accreditation by one of the associations mentioned above. He also suggests that interested students take one online course as a test before signing up for a full course load.

Does online training work for your staff?

Tell us how you’ve made it work or why it failed.