Online education is changing the way people approach college. Between 2012 and 2016, on-campus enrollments dropped five percent, while the percentage of students enrolled in at least one online class increased (Aslanian Market Research and Learning House, 2016). In other words, fewer students chose on-campus programs while more chose options that are available off-campus. Despite the increasing prevalence of online programs, however, concerns about this form of education still abound. How valid are these concerns? In this article, we take a look at some of the benefits to online education and some of the myths that exist surrounding it.
The Growth of Online Learning
As of 2017, six million-plus students were engaged in some type of distance education (Digital Learning Compass, 2017). This number has increased steadily since 2002, a year when fewer than 10 percent of all students took at least one online course. Studies in online education show another trend: the mean age of younger students in both online undergraduate and graduate programs has increased (Aslanian Market Research and Learning House, 2016). In 2012, only 25 percent of online undergraduate students were between the ages of 18-24, but that reached 44 percent by 2016. The message is clear: online education is becoming widely accepted in younger students, who will go on to further normalize it as they age.
This is little surprise, considering how distance education programs continue to facilitate learning in new and innovative ways. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) make education accessible to significant numbers of students, while different delivery platforms and mobile devices make it easier for students to communicate with instructors and to access coursework. Self-guided programs allow students to focus on the aspects of courses that are most relevant to them, and help to teach discipline and drive that can be appealing to employers. In short, there are many advantages to this style of learning, and it's well worth considering.
Benefits of an Online Education
The benefits of online learning are multi-fold, ranging from in-state tuition for out-of-state students, flexible scheduling options and the option to stay close to friends or family. Let's take a closer look at some of these advantages below.
- In-state tuition for out-of-state students. Many schools offer students enrolled in online programs in-state tuition rates, regardless of their actual location. This can make a difference when it comes to budgeting for college and student debt. How much of a difference? The College Board states that average published yearly tuition and fees at public four-year in-state colleges were $9,410 in 2017-18, but reached $23,890 for public four-year out-of-state colleges. That's almost a $15,000 difference! Tuition and fees at private four-year colleges were even higher, reaching $32,410. Is it any wonder that nearly 68 percent of online students attended public institutions and that only 14 percent selected private for-profit schools in 2015 (Digital Learning Compass, 2017)? If the school of your dreams is out of your state and thus out of your price range, find out if they offer online programs. This might be just the answer to your prayers.
- Flexibility for work or family obligations. Flexible scheduling can make an enormous difference in students' lives. Keeping a full-time job or raising a family can be easier for a student enrolled in an online program. An online education allows students to "attend" class whenever it is convenient for them -- during lunch breaks at work, late in the evening or even in the middle of the night. They can avoid the hassle of commuting to college, saving them not only time but also money for gas (or even the expenses of owning a car altogether, if you can otherwise get by without one). In fact, more than 20 percent of students enrolled in online programs said that flexible schedules were the most important factor in choosing their program (Aslanian Market Research and Learning House, 2016).
- Staying close to friends and family. Attending school remotely means that a student may not have to move to another city or state to attend college. Staying close to a support network of friends and/or family can be important, particularly for students who are raising children, caring for a family member or staying at home to save on rent. Data from Aslanian Market Research and Learning House (2016) shows that nearly 75 percent of online students in 2016 opted for a campus that is located within a 100-mile radius of their home. Furthermore, this radius has become smaller and smaller since 2012. It may be ironic to think that online learning broadens student access to education, but also allows students to stay close to home.
Distance Learning Myths Dispelled
You may have heard unsettling criticisms of online education: difficulties about communicating with professors, classes that lack rigor and degrees that mean little in the workplace. Of course, these criticisms didn't come out of nowhere; lamentably, these are problems that can be encountered in online programs. However, it's important to be aware of where these myths originated and the extent to which they are true today. Let's take the time to examine some of these myths in more depth.
- You can't communicate with professors and other students. Indeed, it can be difficult to communicate with professors and other students… if you are a student who is not comfortable with using technology. However, between cell phones, email, social media, message boards, learning management systems, instant messengers and all the other methods that exist to facilitate distance communication, there are many ways to form bonds with professors and other students. In fact, a study released by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) shows that as far back as 2009, online technology was actually able to give students a greater sense of control when it came to interactions with professors and other students.
- Classes are too easy and you won't learn anything. It can be easy to assume that because students are not in a classroom and not monitored by a professor during "class," there is little accountability by professors or from students. However, in most circumstances, this is not true, for one simple reason: accreditation. If your school is accredited, then its programs are all held to the same standard of quality -- all of them, both on-campus and online. In fact, online education can sometimes be more rigorous than face-to-face learning. Aslanian Market Research and Learning House (2016) reports that 90 percent of online students said their online coursework was on par or better than their classroom experiences. If you're still concerned, you might be interested in learning more about how to investigate online schools before enrolling here.
- Employers will not respect your degree. Possibly the most negative of these three myths, it's fortunate that it is also largely untrue. Online education requires a significant commitment to goals and a substantial amount of self-motivation, and many employers recognize this. "Sometimes I am more impressed with a candidate if they have done all that they can to earn an online degree or certification while working," says Rich Thompson, Chief Human Resources Officer at Adecco Group, North America. "People choose an online route for a reason. If that reason makes sense and it shows they are highly motivated to complete their degree, I'm impressed with that." Plus, as more and more highly-rated universities begin to offer online programs, it becomes harder and harder to ignore them. A degree earned from University of Maryland-University College or Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University tends to impress employers, regardless of the format in which it was earned.
Is Online Learning For You?
While it's true that several of the more dramatic criticisms of online learning are exaggerations or inaccuracies, that doesn't mean online learning is a magic "one size fits all" format that everyone can benefit from immediately or at all. Some people may prefer the face-to-face interaction that comes through a classroom, and others may find they don't have the self-motivation and organizational skills needed to keep up with an online course. Fortunately, there are multiple ways to test online education for yourself before committing to an online program wholesale, such as:
- Online questionnaires: Many schools offer questionnaires on their websites to help potential students determine whether this delivery method is a good fit. Schools from the University of North Carolina to the College of Southern Idaho offer surveys, and include questions about the ability to set goals and about a student's comfort with computers and technology.
- Ask questions: Many schools have advisors available specifically for online learners, as well as additional services such as online tutoring programs, online libraries or online mentors. If you're apprehensive about an online course, seek out these resources at the school you attend (or are planning to attend) and ask for details about the online programs offered there.
- Hybrid learning: Hybrid programs, also known as blended programs, combine on-campus learning with distance education. Some required portions of class -- sometimes specific days of lecture, sometimes course-relevant labs -- are held on campus, while other aspects of the course -- perhaps lectures, assignments or additional study materials -- are provided online. It's a fusion of the two styles of learning that can give you a taste of online education without being completely new. You may even find that you prefer hybrid programs to fully online programs, seeing as they combine online flexibility with face-to-face interaction in a way that can be highly beneficial for some students.
- Audit a class: If you have the time to spare, give online learning a practice run by auditing an online course, perhaps during summer when courses should be shorter. Trying online learning can be the most efficient way to discover whether online learning is right for you or not, and by auditing a class rather than taking one for a grade, you don't run the risk of damaging your GPA or your course history in case the experience goes poorly.
Distance learning has been around since the mid-19th century, when it was delivered in the form of correspondence courses. Today, the medium of the platform has changed, but the idea remains the same: to provide students with the opportunity to learn through an easily-accessible format. Online learning may intimidate some, but it also offers plenty of ways for students to succeed. With graduate-level programming, vo-tech training and certificates being offered online, it could be a good time for students to start considering online education in earnest.