Anyone who has been around education for a while is probably familiar with the pro and cons of online education. After all, online schools have increased in popularity in the last decade. When distance learning first became available, it offered a few online classes here and there, whereas today more and more schools are offering fully online degree programs.
According to Inside Higher Ed, prior to the 2020 pandemic that threw all online learning statistics off-kilter, “the number of students taking at least one online course grew from 31.1 percent in 2016 to 33.1 percent in 2017 and 34.7 percent in 2018”.
Is an on-campus degree better than an online degree? Why are so many students choosing to pursue an online education? Below are the most common pros and cons of online education.
Pros of an Online Education
Flexible schedule – While online students may occasionally be required to be online at a specific time for a class or interaction with an instructor, this is rare. Students can log onto the course material at their convenience, making it possible for them to keep up with other responsibilities. According to U.S. News & World Report, online education offers excellent options for veterans because it allows them to work and study at unconventional times, which they’re used to in their line of work.
Availability of programs – More schools are offering online programs, increasing the available options, and allowing students to search until they find one that meets their needs.
Access to courses 24/7 – Online courses are available around-the-clock to any student with a computer and Internet access, unlike on-campus courses that require students to be in class at certain times. The reason that online schools can offer this has to do with the coursework delivery method. While it is possible to find an online degree program that offers instruction in real time, called synchronous delivery, it’s more common to receive instruction via asynchronous delivery methods. These include video and audio content, student and instructor forums, podcasts, and assigned readings. These delivery methods allow students to access the content when it’s convenient for them. Usually, they access the content via an online classroom, which has been created on a platform like Blackboard or Moodle.
No travel involved – Online students can study right from their homes, saving time, gas, and vehicle wear and tear. It also eliminates having to drive in inclement weather, and, of course, protects students from contagious viruses that exist in places where many people gather.
Multi-media format – Online students learn through a variety of ways, including Webcams, CD/DVDs, animation, and virtual classrooms. The virtue of these delivery methods is that there’s something for each kind of learner. Additionally, many of these learning methods capitalize on popular media like video games and comics. These instructional tools make learning more fun and engaging, and in the case of video games, ensure that mastery has been achieved. Students cannot move up to the next level in a video game until they master the lessons on the level they’re on. Finally, given how mediated the world has become, these formats are more familiar to some learners, making the adjustment from in-person to online instruction much easier. In terms of the pro and cons of online education, this one is definitely one of the most important pros.
Variety of courses/programs – Students today can choose to study almost any program online. With no commuting required, they can find a school that offers what they want.
Self-motivation – Students can log into their programs at their convenience and learn at their own pace. If they’re having difficulty with a course, they can take more time to study it.
Reputation – Although online education was once not viewed in the same light as on-campus programs, that is changing more every year.
Cost — Online education often costs less than more traditional methods of instruction. This is due in large part to the fact that online programs don’t require as many physical resources, like buildings and classrooms. This offsets the cost, initially anyway, because students aren’t paying to access facilities they won’t use.
Access to More — When students study online, they often gain access to people they never would have access to in the 3D world. Online classrooms may feature lectures by famous artists or physicists, and even if the student and the lecturer aren’t in the same geographic location, the meeting can take place.
Cons of an Online Education
Social interaction – Online students don’t have in-person social interaction with fellow students, which can be helpful for study purposes. As an extension of this, group projects can feel more challenging to students who are not used to working online. There are some tools to mitigate this. Many students communicate with their fellow students via technologies like Zoom or Skype. This allows them to communicate in real-time as they’re working on a project. Still, for some students, these meeting platforms are less than ideal when they need to share files for a project.
Student/Instructor interaction – Online students have limited interaction with instructors and may have to wait for hours for a reply to questions. While this is an issue to an extent, it’s also important to realize that no instructor is on campus 24/7. That isn’t the way college works. Most students only see their instructors in class and during office hours. Many online instructors make a point of reading emails at least twice a day. In all, access to instructors turns out to be about the same. It just feels different because most traditional students get to know their professors face to face. Not being able to do that takes some personal aspects out of instruction.
Technology problems – As great as technology is, it also has us at its mercy at times. Online students with computer or Internet problems will be unable to complete their assignments or exams as required. However, even when the technology works perfectly, it still has a hidden downside: cost. Most of the time, online coursework comes with specific technology requirements that students must meet in order to be in the class. In some instances, these requirements can include expensive memberships to sites like Adobe because the students in the program require these technologies to complete their work.
Motivation – What we listed as a pro can also be a con. Some students need the push to get to class. Online students who know they can do it at “their own pace” may procrastinate.
Transferring credits – Some schools still do not acknowledge online schools in the same light as on-campus schools, sometimes making it difficult to transfer credits to an on-site college.
Financial aid – Financial aid is not available at all online schools so students may be required to find other financing or find a school that does offer financial aid.
How Do I Find Online Programs?
The increasing popularity and availability of online programs has made it possible for many individuals to obtain an education despite having to work and/or raise a family. Often, the biggest dilemma is finding a school that actually offers online programs. Doing an Internet search can become very time-consuming, particularly for those looking for specific programs or schools in a specific geographic location. An excellent option is the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) College Navigator tool. NCES allows students to filter programs based on distance learning options, education fields, and geographic location.
Another option that students have is to see if the university of their choice has online programs. Many schools, including Harvard, have online options, and many offer entire degree programs online. This option works for several reasons. First, if a student studies online at a regionally-accredited college or university, then he or she has access to federal financial aid if the school offers it. This opens up the possibility of finishing a degree without having to worry about running out of money before the degree program is completed.
Second, the question of the degree being legitimate goes away. The school is already accredited as a brick-and-mortar institution, and in many cases, very well known. While some employers may still question the legitimacy of an online degree, it’s harder to argue that a degree from a school like Harvard or New York University or even Boise State University isn’t an actual degree. For many employers, having a well-known school attached to an online degree alleviates the fear that an employee doesn’t have the proper training necessary.
Other Important Information
The number of students in distance learning programs is impressive. According to the NCES, 6,651,536 students were enrolled in online programs. About half of them – 3,103,500 – enrolled exclusively in distance courses, and according to US News and World Report, about one-third of students were enrolled in at least one online course by 2018.
Of the students enrolled in these programs, 13.3 percent of them were undergraduates and 28.9 percent were graduate students. Nearly 60 percent of them attended a private, for-profit university, while 19.2 percent were at private nonprofits. Just over 11 percent of them enrolled in public schools.
Many of the best online programs are at institutions that most people would recognize. US News and World Report ranks Ohio State University first in the Best Online Bachelor’s Programs category, while Indiana University-Bloomington’s MBA program at the Kelley School of Business gets a nod for being the top online MBA. Clemson University’s Moore School of Education took the top spot for graduate education programs. In nursing and engineering, Rush University and Columbia University ranked first, respectively.
Other well-known schools that offer excellent online degrees include Purdue, Texas A&M, Johns Hopkins, and Villanova University.
With schools like Columbia and Purdue getting nods from the likes of US News and other publications, it isn’t likely to be long before most people realize that there are more pros to online education than cons. That said, online education still comes with its share of cons. Students often feel isolated and must pay for technology, which can be expensive. The best bet for people who are considering going to school online is to weigh out both the pro and cons of online education before making their choice.