The current challenges facing traditional colleges and universities, including higher tuition, budget cuts, and course shortages, have caused many students to search for alternatives. With nearly three million students currently enrolled in fully online degree programs and six million taking at least one online course as part of their degree program, online education has clearly become one of the most popular higher education alternatives. The continually improving reputation of online learning has also helped fuel its expansion, as initial skepticism has faltered in the face of evidence that shows that online learning can be just as effective as face-to-face education.
Top Featured SchoolsSponsored
Walden can provide 100% online flexible programs for you to further your career.
Southern New Hampshire University
Whether you need a bachelor's degree to get into a career or want a master's degree to move up in your current career, SNHU has an online program for you.
Kaplan University is a dedicated school in providing students with an innovative education. Kaplan is a student oriented program that focuses on students to teach them precious values needed in today's ever changing society. Kaplan serves more than 66,000 online and on-campus students.
Earn a Bachelor's, Master's or Doctorate degree 100% online in a convenient, affordable, and flexible setting. Save with Capella-sponsored grants and scholarships, transfer credits, military discounts, and more.
All of this means that students, from working professionals to recent high school graduates, find many reasons to take all or some of their courses online. Below are 10 advantages to online learning.
- Variety of programs and courses: From traditional four-year universities to completely online career colleges, higher education today offers a variety of options for students. This means that no matter what students wish to study, from nursing to neuroscience, they can find online the courses or degree programs they need. They can also earn every academic degree online, all the way from a career certificate to a doctorate.
- Lower total costs: Online programs can be a more affordable option than traditional colleges. Though not all online degrees have less expensive net tuition prices than traditional colleges (link to OEDB article I wrote about college costs), associated costs are almost always less expensive. For example, there are no commuting costs, and sometimes there is also not any required course materials such as textbooks because those are often available for free online. In addition, many colleges and universities have begun to accept credits earned via free massive open online courses (MOOCs), the most recent advance in online education. Free online courses such as these can help students fulfill general education requirements at little to no cost.
- More comfortable learning environment: Commercials that featuring online students studying in the pajamas only skim the surface of one of the primary benefits of online education: there are no physical class sessions. Lectures and other materials are electronically sent to the student, who will then read them and complete assignments. Students will not have to fight traffic, find parking spaces, leave work early to go to class, or miss important family time.
- Convenience and flexibility: Online courses give students the opportunity to plan their study time around the rest of their day, instead of the other way around. Students can study and work when they are at their peak energy, whether that’s early morning or late at night. Course material is always accessible online, so there’s no need to schedule special trips to a library either. All of this makes online learning a good option for students who need to balance their work and family commitments.
- More interaction and greater ability to concentrate: While there is contradictory evidence about the rate of online student participation versus participation in traditional courses, one thing is certain: online courses offer shy or more reticent students the opportunity to participate in class discussions or chats with more ease than face-to-face class sessions. Some students even report that online courses are easier to concentrate in because they are not distracted by other students and classroom activity.
- Career advancement: Students can take online courses and even complete entire degrees while working, while in-between jobs, or while taking time to raise a family. This academic work will explain any discontinuity or gaps in a resume as well. Also, earning a degree can show prospective employers that you are ambitious and want to remain informed and prepared for any new challenges.
- Continue in your profession: Even if someone wants to complete a degree program, it doesn’t mean that they want to leave their current job. For most students today, college costs mean that it’s necessary to continue working while in school. The previously mentioned flexibility of online degree programs enable students to keep working while also pursuing academic credentials.
- Avoid commuting: During snowstorms and thunderstorms, colleges may cancel classes; if they don’t, you run the risk of getting hurt in dangerous driving conditions. Rather than miss important class sessions, students in online courses can always “attend” by participating on discussion boards or in chat sessions, turn in their work on time, and watch lectures or read materials. Many students also find that the amount they save on fuel costs can be substantial if they don’t have to commute to a physical campus in general, no matter what the weather conditions may be.
- Improve your technical skills: Even the most basic online course requires the development of new computer skills, as students learn to navigate different learning management systems (LMS) and programs. The skills students learn to participate in their online courses translate to many professions, including creating and sharing documents, incorporating audio/video materials into your assignments, completing online training sessions, etc.
- Transfer credits: For college students who want to attend summer classes, but who live too far from their colleges or have to work summer jobs, taking online classes from an accredited college and transferring the credits to their primary college is a good idea. Students will be able to earn college credit while still enjoying their summer vacation or fulfilling the responsibilities of their seasonal jobs. Similarly, if a college or university is unable to offer enough open sections of a required course, students can take the course online at another college and transfer the credits.
These are just a few of the many advantages of taking online classes. Students in online degree programs are able to manage their time, learn the materials that are presented, and complete assignments on their own schedules.
The word “college” might make you think of students hanging out in dorm rooms or gathering for classes in enormous lecture halls. But that depiction is becoming increasingly out-of-date as technology provides for more and more ways to learn.
In fact, online and distance learning has steadily grown in popularity among college students, but does that mean it’s a good choice for you? In order to help you answer that question, take some time to compare and contrast traditional versus online education.
Comparing online versus traditional education
Both online education and its traditional counterpart have pros and cons, so it’s important for students to understand what to expect before they step foot—or log into—the classroom. We focused this side-by-side comparison on three key areas that make an impact on a student’s experience. We’ll also take a closer look at what a “blended learning” model has to offer.
Online vs. traditional education: Flexibility
One of the key components to consider when weighing the options is the amount of time you have every day to dedicate to schoolwork. Are you willing and able to attend college full-time or do you need more flexibility to work around your busy schedule?
A benefit to taking online courses is that they offer flexibility to the student. This is a great option for those who already have time commitments with family and work. Online classes will mold with your schedule—and allow you to log into your online course at a time that works best for you, as opposed to having to attend a lecture at a specific time.
Most online courses will follow a weekly format where students are expected to log in, read course materials, contribute to online class discussions and complete assignments prior to the beginning of the next week. You’ll still have plenty to do for each class—but you’ll have more options for fitting this work in around other commitments.
Generally speaking, this is the best option for students who have a little more freedom in their schedules. That said, traditional students do have some flexibility in their scheduling in that some schools offer night classes or classes that follow a schedule where they meet only once per week.
One easy-to-overlook factor when it comes to scheduling is travel time to campus—a long commute can certainly make schedules difficult, especially if you’re planning on working while in school.
Online vs. traditional education: Discipline & self-motivation
Something else to consider while weighing your college options is your level of self-discipline. Both traditional and online education certainly require some discipline to succeed, but there can be significant differences in how learning is structured. These structural differences can have a significant effect on your ability to stay on track.
The increased flexibility of online learning comes with a bit of a trade-off—you’ll need to be highly self-motivated. All college classes require students to keep up on required reading and assignments, but some students may struggle to stay motivated when learning from the comfort of their home.
The best online students develop strategies for staying up to date on their coursework. Things like setting aside time every week for studying and creating a work space with minimal distractions can help immensely.
When it comes to discipline and motivation, traditional education does have an advantage in the eyes of many. The structured schedule of attending class a handful of times per week and having routine face-to-face interactions with instructors can help keep students on task. Students in traditional, on-campus settings have more opportunities to be reminded of upcoming assignments, which can help if you tend to procrastinate on large, time-consuming assignments.
Online vs. traditional education: Social interaction
One final area to consider is the level of social interaction you’re hoping to have as you earn your degree. Do you need interaction from your peers and instructors to succeed and stay motivated? Or do you thrive in an independent study environment?
Social interaction with instructors and other students, while not as common in online courses, still happens regularly. The biggest difference is in the form it takes, with many online student interactions happening via video chat or through online discussion posts.
Some courses may also offer pre-recorded videos of the same lectures given to traditional, on-campus students. If you’re a social learner who likes to ask questions and pick the brains of your instructors, these video lectures can help you earn a deeper understanding of assigned reading materials.
Despite technological advances, traditional education is still likely the better option for those who thrive on face-to-face communication. Seeing and interacting with your instructors on a regular basis can be motivating for some—it’s a little easier to go the extra mile if you know your instructor is likeable and invested in your education. Traditional, in-class settings may also offer more opportunities for spur-of-the-moment questioning or interesting tangents that may help a concept “click” in the minds of students.
Online vs. traditional education: The blended education model
By now, it’s probably becoming clear to you that both online and traditional education each have their perks. So is there a way to get the best of both worlds? One option that is increasing in popularity is called “blended learning.”
In this format, curriculum is designed to implement both traditional, in-person learning and online coursework. The implementation of this can vary greatly, depending on the subject and instructor. But as an example, instructors may require only meeting once weekly for lectures, while assigning projects or other activities for students to complete online on their own time. This allows students to receive some of the positives from face-to-face social learning while still allowing for scheduling flexibility.
Another example would be a program that offers some courses on campus and others online. For example, a nursing program may include an online anatomy course, and a nursing simulation lab on campus. The idea here is that certain courses involve material that is conducive to online learning, while other lessons can only be taught in a physical classroom or lab.
The decision is yours
In the case of online versus traditional education, there is no right or wrong answer. Much of it comes down to personal preference and knowing how you learn best. These learning formats can all be very effective, no matter your personal learning style and situation.
It’s important to do some self-evaluation before diving into a full college course load. To learn more about which options best fit you, check out our article, Ways of Learning in College: Identify Your Ideal Educational Environment.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published February 2014 and has been updated to reflect information from 2017.