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The Pros and Cons of Online Higher Education

Suzanne Shaffer


Author and philosopher Gilbert Chesterton said, “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.” Online universities give every member of society a chance to pursue higher education and pass it on to the next generation.

According to a 2018 study by BestColleges.com, a little more than half (57%) of students currently enrolled in an online degree or certificate program report that they spend time on their school’s physical campus. The same study found that student satisfaction with online education was high — 94% say it has, or will have, a positive ROI (return on investment) and 95% would recommend online education to others.

We have certainly seen the necessity for online courses in 2020 as during the pandemic colleges had to pivot to providing remote learning opportunities to their students. As with any education choice, however, there are advantages and disadvantages to the online education experience. By examining these, parents and students can make an informed choice.

The Pros

There are advantages to pursuing a degree online, and certain types of students who will thrive in this environment.

Convenience

With an online program or degree, the student gets to decide when and where to take their courses. All they need is a computer and internet connection to participate in classes, talk to professors and connect with other students.

Students have the flexibility to log on at any time to review course material and upload assignments. They can attend class full-time or part-time as fits their schedule. This is one of the many reasons online college appeals to students who work and/or are raising a family.

Availability

There are more online schools and degree programs established every year. Both fully online universities and traditional universities offer certificates, associates, bachelors, masters and doctoral degree options. Students aren’t bound to one geographic area, but can take courses at institutions in different states or even countries.

Cost

Tuition at an online university can cost as much or more as tuition for courses taken on campus. Taken as a whole, however, attending class online will save money. Even if your student is attending blended classes (online and on campus), you will save significantly on room and board and dining plan costs, along with other fees related to using campus services.

Self-Paced Learning

Many students are more . Some students need in-person instruction and interaction with teachers to keep them motivated. Others are comfortable learning at their own pace and even prefer it. The type of learner who is able to organize and pace themselves on their own without the need for constant reminders will thrive in a distance learning environment. Students can take a few courses at a time, or double up to cut down on the time needed to achieve a degree.

Technical Advantage

A student taking online courses will become proficient in using technology such as video conferencing and content management. These skills are valuable in the workplace as businesses and other organizations rely on technology for employee, vendor and customer communications.

The Cons

Online education has drawbacks as well. It’s not for everyone.

Limited Course Offerings

Colleges and universities are still largely committed to educating students on campus. For this reason, the number of fully online undergraduate degree programs remains small. STEM majors, especially, require hands-on training and labs to supplement the course curriculum. These skills are difficult to acquire solely online.

Requires Good Time Management and Organization Skills

Students who are prone to procrastinate will have a difficult time adapting to self-paced learning. Hours of self-directed work are necessary to coordinate course material, online lectures, video supplements, assignments, assigned reading and class discussions.

Find tips for developing better time management skills here >

Lack of Campus Resources

There is support for students taking fully online classes but the resources are not nearly as rich as those available on campus. Physical libraries offering material that might not be available online, computer and tutoring labs, and science and technology labs can be lost in a purely virtual environment.

Technology Requirements

Not every student has access at home to the latest technologies, like high-speed internet, which are essential to a successful online learning experience. At many colleges transitioning to a hybrid online/on-campus approach to instruction, the methodologies, facilities and IT support are still new and not fully implemented. Students may have to troubleshoot their own technical problems.

Limited Social Interaction

One of the benefits of attending college on campus is the peer-to-peer interaction. Even though online classes have a discussion area where students can chat and ask questions, it’s done primarily through typing. This makes it difficult to form any lasting bond.

In general, face-to-face interaction is important to provide encouragement and validation. A campus experience also offers students the opportunity to unwind and connect between classes and on the weekends, which can be important for many students, especially freshmen who want the “full” college experience.

Difficult Transition for Some Professors

Some instructors aren't accustomed to teaching online or comfortable using technology. They have a difficult time transitioning from teaching in a classroom to connecting with students online. This may decrease the quality of the education.

Lack of Credibility

There has been, in the past, a common misconception that an online degree isn't as valuable as a traditional degree from a brick and mortar college. Many employers continue to reject online degrees due to publicity about diploma mills, lack of accreditation, and the perception that online students don’t get the same education as traditional students.

Spokespersons at Intel and Texas Instruments noted that online degrees in engineering, math and science are less valued because “there are no real online engineering courses that can simulate the hands-on courses you need.” For this reason, degrees in humanities and business may be more readily accepted.

As time goes on and more colleges offer online courses and degrees, the real and perceived value of online education will certainly increase. As colleges adapt to the demands of the era, upgrade their technology and possibly look at ways to save money, we should see more schools offering hybrid experiences — a combination of on-campus and online learning, and possibly the best of both worlds for the 21st century college student.

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    Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been highlighted on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College and TeenLife online and she has written for Smart College Visit, College Focus, Noodle Education and Road2College. Her articles have also been featured in print in TeenLife, UniversityParent and CollegiateParent publications.
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