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Making the Choice between Online Learning and Traditional University Programs: Which is Right for You?
An increasing number of universities are now offering online learning programs. More and more students are also embracing these courses, which has led to the level of demand exceeding the supply (Moules, 2017). But what are the benefits of taking a course online as opposed to attending university and learning via physical lectures? Perhaps one of the main advantages is that in some cases, it means that students can learn where and when they want, accessing course material when it is convenient for them to do so. This could potentially free up time so that they are able to combine their degrees with part-time or even full-time employment. It can enable them to build careers for themselves whilst studying as opposed to having to wait until they graduate in order to do so. It also allows people to change careers more easily, as they do not need to take time off work in order to educate themselves in a new subject; they can work and study in parallel to one another.
However, online learning can sometimes involve live video lectures delivered according to a pre-arranged schedule (Howard, Meehan & Parnell, 2017), which detracts from its flexibility in terms of timing. Many online courses also involve mandatory discussions at specified times (Hassenburg, 2009). The need for participants to have a computer in front of them means that in reality, their freedom to work anywhere they want is somewhat restricted as well.
Another downside to online learning is that the additional freedom that students gain from not having to attend university in person means that they require a higher degree of self-discipline. This makes this mode of learning inappropriate for individuals who lack the ability to motivate themselves. They are likely to simply fail to get any work done.
The level of peer support associated with this type of learning are also worth taking into consideration. If you require help and advice from your peers, online learning might not be for you. Whilst it is true that support can be found in online forums, blogs, and email correspondence (Zinger, 2016), online learners frequently feel isolated from their peers (Galvin, 2012), which is likely to detract from their enjoyment of the course.
Although online lectures are somewhat impersonal and do not allow for as high a degree of interaction as their physical counterpart, they are advantageous in that they often involve videos that can be fast-forwarded, paused and rewound at the whim of the person taking the course. This provides students with an additional layer of control. If a student feels as if he did not properly grasp a concept then he is free to review it again (Hassenburg, 2009).
Amy Hassenburg (2009) of the University of California studied the pros and cons of distance learning and concluded that communication via the Internet can be challenging, as it is substantially different from face-to-face interaction. She pointed out that previous research has found that the majority of students tend to ignore online discussions and only participate in group projects at the last possible juncture, suggesting that they do not take them seriously. Collaboration was also observed to be more difficult when it was facilitated via the Internet, as each student contributed individual work, but there was no group cohesion (Hassenburg, 2009).
The Learning and Development Agency (2015) has noted that students who are taking online courses typically receive less support from the facilitators, indicating that the degree of support from lecturers that is available is also somewhat lacking. The individualistic aspect of online learning is not suitable for everyone. Some students require the guidance of an authority figure, and perform to a higher standard when they feel as if they are being more closely supervised (Hassenburg, 2009).
It is also worth bearing in mind that a smaller choice of subjects are available to study online. Some skills cannot be taught over the Internet (Learning & Development Agency, 2015), for example those that are required to gain a woodworking or needlework degree. This limits the variety of options that are available to students who want to engage in online learning.
On the positive side, the growing popularity of online learning means that students are no longer forced to either move to campus or limit their university selection to institutions that are close to where they live. They are not required to be located in a specific place in order to study, meaning that they can enrol in any course they wish at any university even if it’s halfway across the world (Learning & Development Agency, 2015). This could be of great use to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who cannot afford to relocate to live near their university of choice. It is also good news for those in rural areas who are miles away from the closest university.
Another way in which online learning benefits less affluent students is that itis typically a more cost effective option, as the expense of travelling to and from a physical location are spared. It also enables individuals to participate in degree courses in spite of them possessing disabilities that prevent them from travelling to university (Hassenburg, 2009). These learners might otherwise have been excluded from higher education due to the difficulty involved in attending lectures.
It is also worth pointing out that it is possible that some of the disadvantages associated with online learning could potentially be ironed out by future advancements in technology. This form of learning is constantly changing and evolving. It is feasible that the current system for delivering lectures via the Internet will be vastly improved throughout the years to come.
In summary, there are both pros and cons associated with online learning. On one hand, it is more convenient, allows for a greater degree of flexibility, and enables students who cannot physically attend university to participate in degree courses. On the other, it reduces interaction and support from peers and lecturers, and is not conducive to effective group work. So which option is best? That ultimately depends upon the individual characteristics and preferences of the student. It is advisable to conduct as much research into the online program you’re considering studying before committing to it in order to assess its suitability. Only then will you know for certain whether or not it’s truly capable of fulfilling your needs.
Galvin, R. (2012). Peer support: enhancing the online learning experience. International Journal of Innovation and Learning, 12(1), 41-53.
Hassenburg, A. (2009). Distance education versus the traditional classroom. Berkeley Scientific Journal, 13(1), 7-10.
Howard, E., Meehan, M. & Parnell, A. (2017). Live lectures or online videos: students’ resource choices in a first-year university mathematics module. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 1-24. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0020739X.2017.1387943?scroll=top&needAccess=true&journalCode=tmes20
Learning and Development Agency (2015). New trends in education and learning – Online learning. Retrieved from http://www.lsda.org.uk/new%2dtrends%2din%2deducation%2dand%2dlearning-online-learning.html
Moules, J. (2017, 5 March). Online MBAs: digital degrees come of age. Financial Times. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/4e1934a8-f47a-11e6-95ee-f14e55513608
Zinger, D. (2016). Developing instructional leadership and communication skills through online professional development. In A. Normore (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Effective Communication, Leadership, and Conflict Resolution (pp. 354-370). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.