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Career Coach

The University of World Wide Web

About the author

Elizabeth is a freelance writer in California and a former Career Q&A columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

Will employers respect your online degree? It depends. (Thinkstock)

Will employers respect your online degree? It depends. (Thinkstock)

The number of people who turn to online classes to boost their education has exploded. You wouldn’t know it, though, judging by their resumes.

In 2003, one in 10 students took at least one course online. Fast forward eight years, and that figure jumped to nearly one in three with more than 6.7 million students worldwide taking classes online through US institutions, according to the Babson Survey Research Group’s 2012 Survey of Online Learning.

Online education options are more numerous than ever, and the numbers of students flocking to the medium continue to grow at a staggering rate. Globally, the trend is also accelerating.  

Still, students remain nervous about how hiring managers and recruiters perceive the online degrees and coursework. UK-based headhunter Martin Ellis said he has even seen candidates try to hide the degrees on their resumes or curriculum vitae, fearing that the credentials would be perceived as subpar compared to those earned at brick-and-mortar schools.

In addition, a number of for-profit online schools have come under fire in the past couple of years for questionable practices and high student loan default rates. So, the question remains: Do the pros outweigh the cons? In short, it depends on where those students are searching for jobs.

Accepted in North America

North American job hunters can relax a bit if they’ve turned to online courses.

Over the last five years, online degrees and coursework have become much more commonplace and accepted in Canada, said Jeff Aplin, president of Calgary recruiting firm David Aplin Group.

“Each individual has a slightly different learning style,” he said. “I would tell candidates to try and figure out the way they learn most effectively and to do that.”

Degrees, once considered all-important, are losing some of their significance, said employment experts.

Companies are increasingly interested in how much of a self-starter a candidate is, whether he or she has an aptitude for lifelong learning and his or her level of personal accountability, according to Aplin. It’s not about how a degree was earned or even what the degree was in — but more about what a candidate has done with that degree since finishing school, he said.

When it comes to online learning, the US has always been a leader, according to Richard Garrett, vice president and principal analyst for online higher education at Eduventures, a higher-ed research and consulting firm based in Boston.

Other countries have adopted the method as well. In nations like India and Turkey, distance learning has always been a component of higher education since many students have gone overseas for study, so online degrees are the next logical step, according to Garrett.

Some employers are even partnering with colleges and universities to create online training and education programs for employees, said Dr. Becky Takeda-Tinker, president of Colorado State University-Global Campus, which only offers classes online. That’s one clear sign that employers are embracing the instructional method, she said.

The school has developed certificate programs for a number of large companies, including a multinational construction company, a large natural gas company and a national cable company. (Due to agreements with the companies, Takeda-Tinker was not allowed to name them.)

Students from 16 countries take courses: the US, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Canada, UK, China, Thailand, Italy, Germany, Japan, Czech Republic, Qatar, South Korea, Hong Kong, Mexico and Chile. Of graduates, 95% are working in paid positions and 55% make more than $55,000 a year, according to Takeda-Tinker.

“It doesn't matter how they earned their degree,” said Takeda-Tinker. “What matters is they graduated and are able to apply what they learned to their profession to be productive employees.”

Slower adoption

In much of Asia, there is a not a long history of online learning programs and their growth in part has been limited by a lack of internet access, according to Megan Fitzgerald, a career coach based in Singapore.

“Traditional learning institutions are more well-known and hence have a stronger reputation,” she said.

Elizabeth Zach, a Berlin-based director of development and communications for an international cancer research society, said she rarely sees candidates with online degrees or training.

“German society still being very traditional, and a university degree and titles still paramount, I believe that online training just doesn't register here,” she said.

Much of the slow adoption has to do with German culture, said Zach. University education is free, people tend to stay in jobs much longer and the government steps in when help is needed. That makes new educational initiatives slightly less imperative.

Careful consideration

For anyone who does choose to go the online route, it’s important to do the same due diligence as one would for a traditional school, said Jayne Mattson, senior vice president at Keystone Associates, a Boston-based career management consulting firm.

Check on the school’s accreditation and research the following, said Mattson: “Is the school reputable? Do they offer what you are looking for? What is their placement rate after graduation? Are they using the latest technology in their virtual classrooms?”  

Once you earn the degree or complete the coursework, take pride in the accomplishment, said headhunter Ellis. If choosing the online route out of necessity, let a potential employer know that.

“Employers respond very well to people who have made the extra effort to get a degree they really want, especially when they're in full time work or caring for a young family,” he said.

Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.

Students remain nervous about how hiring managers and recruiters perceive the degrees and coursework.