According to a recent article by EdTech Magazine, between 1998 and 2008, there was a 150% increase in the number of students taking online courses as a regular part of their curriculum.
Online learning has clearly resonated with the American audience—so much so, that according to the National Center for Education Statistics, three of the top five postsecondary learning institutions with the highest student enrollment were online-based (University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, and Ashford University) as of 2010.
Even among traditional campus-based universities, 64% offer at least some online courses, while 62% offer fully online degrees. If we look at this statistic more closely, it means that even traditional educational models have been impacted by the access that the internet provides.
It’s clear that due to the increasing complexity and overall pace of our lives, online learning has become a more attractive option for those of us who aren’t able to attend traditional classes but still recognize the importance of obtaining a college degree.
But despite the meteoric rise of online education over the past 15 years, it still represents a different approach to education, especially in light of the fact that higher education has been taught in the same manner for centuries.
As a result, we felt it would be a good idea to go over the basics of online on on-campus learning, so that when it comes time for you to choose, you’ll be better informed.
The Basics of Online Education and Learning
As we can see from the previous data, online learning is a huge trend and is one that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere but up. In fact, as of 2012, 18% of undergraduate students received 80% or more of their education through online courses.
So what’s the deal with online learning? What does it look like, and how does it differ from on-campus learning?
The primary difference (other than how classes are attended) is that the majority of online universities are classified as for-profit, while most traditional universities are not.
However, an entire article could be written about these differences alone, so it will suffice to say that online universities are basically businesses—in other words, they exist to make a profit—whereas most traditional universities take any profit earned and roll in back into the school (e.g. building new facilities, hiring more professors, etc.).
Because this for-profit model in higher education is relatively new, it has caused quite a stir in the industry, including a wide variety of lawsuits and scam allegations.
From an educational standpoint, nearly all online universities provide students with access to a central hub where they can check classes, weekly assignments, academic forms, course announcements, grades, and even enter into discussions with peers and instructors.
This means that, in order to excel in an online learning environment, at minimum you’ll need a newer-generation computer that works well with the university’s online system—and if you lose your internet connection (or experience some sort of other technological problem), you’re effectively cut off from learning.
Also, some online universities are quite strict about when students should log in to their central hub, while others are not, so if a consistent schedule is something that is important to you, keep this in mind when making your decision.
From a cost perspective, many online universities have lower tuition rates compared to private universities, and even out-of-state rates for numerous public universities.
However, when compared to in-state public universities and community colleges, online university tuition rates can be much higher. As a result, if you’re looking to obtain a generalized degree (e.g. Business), it may be more cost effective to attend a community college, obtain your associate’s degree, and then transfer to the university of your choice and complete your program.
With this said, it’s important to factor in some of the cost savings associated with an online university, including not being required to drive, pay for parking, hire a babysitter for your child, etc.
Finally, if cultural diversity is important to you, online universities typically have higher numbers of students from all over the world, giving you more opportunities to interact and engage with them.
The Basics of On-Campus Learning
Because it’s been the norm for several centuries, most people today are aware of what on-campus education entails: Learning is very structured, with classes that take place at a certain time (typically lasting between one and three hours, one to two times per week), and at a specific location.
Instruction is conducted live, and students have the opportunity to interact directly with their professors. On-campus learning offers students the “classic” college experience, where they are away from home (often for the first time), have the ability to experience a new city or town, to meet new people, to network, to attend social and sporting events, etc.
It’s important to note that even though online universities invest a great deal of time and money into making their central hubs as user-friendly and efficient as possible, face-to-face interaction with students and faculty is very low; even non-existent in some instances.
With this said, if the benefits of becoming part of a physical community are attractive to you, on-campus learning should be a consideration.
But despite the enormous and ever-increasing popularity of online universities, there seems to be a divide between what students find most effective, and what university faculty finds practical.
According to a U.S. News article earlier this year, “Only 30.2 percent of the officials surveyed in fall 2012 said their faculty members accept the value and legitimacy of online education.”
Some other points to keep in mind when considering whether to attend an online or on-campus university are tuition, technology, and scheduling.
Traditional state universities typically have lower tuition rates, but this may not be the case if you’re thinking about attending a private university, or even a public college if you’re located out of state.
On-campus universities also have a strict learning schedule, so if you have a busy work or home life, it can be tough to juggle class times with your real life.
Lastly, if you thrive in a very organized, scheduled learning environment, and have difficulty creating this organization on your own, an on-campus university may be better suited to you.
Five Questions to Help You Decide Between Online and On-Campus Universities
If you’re still on the fence as to whether or not you should attend an online university, here are some questions that should help make your decision a little easier. Ask yourself the following:
1. Is the Online University Accredited?
In short, accreditation is a quality assurance method that distinguishes universities who adhere to a set of educational standards, from those that do not. This is important because accredited universities overwhelmingly carry more weight with prospective employers, which means that this increases the chances of landing a job in your field of study. Also, if you decide to continue your education at some point in the future, it’s much more likely that your credits will transfer.
2. What Are the Costs Associated With the Online University?
When compared to traditional universities, especially private and out-of-state colleges, online universities typically have lower tuition rates. However, when compared to community colleges and in-state universities, online colleges often have higher tuition rates. If you’re thinking about obtaining a generalized degree (e.g. Business), it may be more cost-effective to attend a community college first, and then transfer to the university of your choice thereafter.
3. What Other Commitments Do I Have?
If you’re already a working professional, and/or have family obligations, attending an online university may offer the flexibility you need to succeed since most offer students the ability to log in and study whenever is best for them. However, if you are someone who requires structure in order to learn, an on-campus education may be the best choice.
4. What Level of Student Services Am I Expecting?
While nearly all online universities provide students with access to students services such as academic advisors, employment assistance, as well as a financial aid department, most communication is handled through email and/or telephone. If having face-to-face access with your Student Services department is an important factor for you, an on-campus education may offer a better choice.
5. What Do the Numbers Tell Me?
When researching online or on-campus universities, there are countless statistics available online to help make you decision easier. Pay close attention to things such as the university’s graduation and dropout rates (e.g. the number of students who enter the program, versus the final number who graduate with a degree), the student loan default rate, as well as employment rates for graduates.