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Online and distance-learning degrees from the evaluator's perspective

Raymond Cheng

Photo © Amanda Armstrong

For working adults who are wanting to do or pondering on the possibility of doing an advanced degree from an overseas university via online education or distance learning, I would like to share my suggestions from an evaluator's perspective using the two utility standards, U3 Negotiated Purposes and U5 Relevant Information, specifically, in terms of selection of the program and what students should expect when they complete their degrees. These two utility standards are both published by the U.S. Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation (JCSEE) [1].

The JCSEE standards are accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and when a standard is approved by ANSI, it becomes American National Standards that is also accepted and used worldwide. In short, academic programs that follow the JCSEE evaluation utility standards means stakeholders in that particular program should find and eventually gain more value from their study and hence, in this case, a more useful academic degree (although the JCSEE utility standards may be applied to various other programs, and is not even necessarily academic in nature).

I shall choose two of these standards in the following discussion.

According to the JCSEE program evaluation standards (Yarbrough et al, 2011), "U3 Negotiated Purposes" suggests that "Evaluation purposes should be identified and continually negotiated based on the needs of stakeholders" whereas for "U5 Relevant Information", it says (ibid) that "Evaluation information should serve the identified and emergent needs of stakeholders."

For the working adult, who is both a stakeholder of the program and the final recipient of the degree, these two JCSEE standards conveniently translate into the idea that (i) the desirable, if not perfect, overseas degree program(s) should be designed and continuously improved to cater for the changing needs of the students (as well as the various parties, e.g. the industry who might be hiring the graduates, the related professional bodies etc.) in the much broader, international sense, and that (ii) the most up-to-date, accurate information regarding the degree content, suitability, scope of readings, its learning objectives, its utility, comparability, and local equivalency should all be identified on a global perspective, carefully studied and scrutinized before any claims about local recognition of the program can be made for the students.

In fact, while the perception of standards do change over time and that it was the original idea of the JCSEE to maintain rules of standards that would not only meet the tumultuous needs of the stakeholders but also to stand the test of time (Fitzpatrick, Sanders, & Worthen, 2011; Stufflebeam & Shinkfield, 2007), a program that does not following the utility standards in its preparations could easily steer away from its original focus and hence lead to unwanted results for the stakeholders – including both the program operator as well as the students. But following the standards strictly does not guarantee success either, particularly when there are cultural differences that may not have been addressed by the American standards (Hopson, 2001; Chatterji, 2005). Furthermore, there has also been warning concerning the "misapplication" (Stufflebeam, 2004, p.101) of these standards outside the American context.

So, what does all this tell us? If you are going to enroll in an overseas program that is delivered via online or distance learning, make sure you are going to one that makes constant improvement. Those that have not been updated for an extended period of time could turn out to be very lousy ones. Go to one that not only improves in terms of program structure but those that are constantly rolling out new options, new cognate subjects, new specialities, or even new programs. They may not be Ivy Leagues but at least you will be able to graduate from a respectable program that is useful in the current sense. In addition, make sure you know what the degree means to you. Either you are perfectly sure how you would be able to benefit from the program or you know clearly the utility of the final award in your area or sphere (i.e. both residential and professional), or else, make sure you have checked that the program is not just accredited in the university's own country but also one that can be evaluated in your own country as well – unless you have decided not to evaluate it – but don't take it for granted that it will evaluate as there are numerous reasons, be it political or not, behind the issue of evaluation and not every academic award from every country, no matter how legitimate it is, bears an academic equivalency in your country. For example, a Postgraduate Certificate or Diploma (which students receive before completing their master's thesis under the British education system) is, in most cases, not evaluated under the American system. Alternatively, the Certificate of Advanced Graduate Studies (CAGS), which is usually awarded after completing some 36 to 45 graduate level credits after the master's degree under the American system, has little value in the British world. Likewise, online education is generally not evaluated in China, unless it is accompanied by proper proof of entry and exit on the students' passport – which means there are not a lot of very valid reasons in earning your degree online if you are residing in and wish to work using that degree within China.

September 25, 2013

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Note 1: JCSEE, Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation, USA, see http://www.jcsee.org/


  • Chatterji, M. (2005). Applying the Joint Committee's 1994 standards in international contexts: A case study of education evaluations in Bangladesh. Teachers College Record, 107 (10), 2372-2400.
  • Fitzpatrick, J. L., Sanders, J.R., & Worthen, B. R. (2011). Program evaluation: Alternative approaches and practical guidelines (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
  • Hopson, R. (2001). Global and local conversations on culture, diversity, and social justice in evaluation: Issues to consider in a 9/11 era. American Journal of Evaluation, 22, 381-386.
  • Stufflebeam, D. L. (2004). A note on the purposes, development, and applicability of the Joint Committee Evaluation Standards. American Journal of Evaluation, 25(1), 99-102
  • Stufflebeam, D. L., & Shinkfield, A. J. (2007). Evaluation theory, models, and applications. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Yarbrough, D. B., Shulha, L. M., Hopson, R. K., & Caruthers, F. A. (2011). The program evaluation standards (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.