Monday November 7 2011

Online schools: beware of fakes

Online schools: beware of fakes

Before you sign in for an online course, make sure it is legitimate.  

By Raymond Mpubani

The logic of earning a degree online has never seemed stronger. Online degrees are cheap, flexible—you can study as you work, from any location in the world— and are now accepted by most employers. Improvements in technology, the internet especially, means that more people are considering studying online rather than enrol in a bricks-and-mortar institution. And with exclusively online/distance education universities like the Open University offering highly respected qualifications, the stigma once attached to degrees earned over the internet is ebbing.

A new rush
Indeed, many traditional and prestigious universities are making it possible for people to earn degrees online. Highly rated institutions like the Pennsylvania State University, Boston University and the University of Liverpool are some of the top universities offering online degrees. A good number of the most prestigious institutions still hold reservations about the idea, offering only non-credit courses. Yet, why stress over so-called major universities when you can study with the University of London External, which has made its degrees accessible to students all over the world since 1858?
In Uganda none of the traditional universities offer online degrees as of yet. Instead, distance learning, where students collect notes and coursework from the university, sitting paper exams at the end of the semester, is embraced by Makerere University, Uganda Martyrs University, Uganda Christian University, KIU and Kyambogo. Whereas no university offers online degrees currently, Makerere’s Vice Chancellor, Venansius Baryamureeba, told this newspaper in March that arrangements are underway to introduce online degree programmes within the next two years.

The growth of online education has been held back by their potential market. While the universities are reasonably equipped, most Ugandans, even those living in urban areas, access the internet only sporadically. Hence, internet savvy Ugandans interested in online degrees turn to foreign universities. But this might no longer be necessary, especially for those who are inhibited by the costs of foreign universities. Virtual University of Uganda, a fully online university, will admit its first students in January 2012. This is subject to a provisional license from National Council of Higher Education (NCHE) and the directors say they have got it.

The Higher Education Officer at the NCHE, Francis Otto, revealed to this paper that the procedure that mandates, regulates and supervises online education in Uganda is still being developed. Still, he was optimistic about the Virtual University of Uganda. It will be the first exclusively online university in Uganda, or the only university offering online qualifications for that matter.

Even though the Virtual University will be the first such legitimate institution, there have been instances where the NCHE has had to close institutions claiming to offer degrees that later turned out to be fake.

Last year the council closed down Kayiwa International University, affecting 300 students who had enrolled. The ‘university’ belonged to a renowned Kampala pastor, Simeon Kayiwa. Kayiwa claimed that the university was in partnership with two online American universities, one of which, United Graduate College and Seminary of Tennessee, turned out to be fake as well. (The other institution denied any links with his university.)

Another online university operating in Uganda with accreditation in Turks and Caicos Islands, St Clements University, has been blacklisted in the U.S. and Australia.

In Australia, it was referred to as a degree mill, an organisation that awards degrees of substandard quality or is not recognised by accreditation bodies. However, such ‘universities’ have chequered accreditation statuses around the world; some countries recognise them while some don’t.

Unfortunately, the NCHE can’t do much about such institutions unless it receives a complaint. There have been instances where people have gone to have their ‘degrees’ verified and investigations by the council uncovered their purported qualifications as fake.

Take care
Ugandans willing to enrol in little-known online schools are advised by Mr Otto to seek information from the council first. Since it is legally mandated to accredit only local universities, the NCHE will contact the accreditation council in the country that hosts the university and then advise the interested party accordingly.

In Kenya and Tanzania the University of Eastern Africa, Baraton and the Open University of Tanzania respectively are accredited to offer online courses. Information about accredited East African Universities can be obtained from the Inter-University Council for East Africa.

So, while the advent of online education is a trend that should be embraced as fast as possible , people interested in attending online universities should watch out for fake institutions.

Unless it is the University of London External, the wise thing is to involve the NCHE before signing them a cheque.