When a course of study is offered virtually, it’s considered an online school. The ability to take classes virtually can offer benefits like flexibility and convenience to students. On the other hand, online learning can make it difficult for students to connect with their peers and professors and can make it challenging to teach concepts that require more hands-on learning.
What is Online School?
Online school is a format of education where classes are conducted virtually. Some colleges are designed specifically for online learning. Other colleges and universities may offer both in-person and remote learning options for students. Depending on the program, classes may be offered synchronously, where students attend via an online forum at a specific time; asynchronously, where lectures are recorded and can be viewed at a student’s leisure; or a hybrid model of the two.
Online learning is a nuanced topic that has had a niche position in higher ed for over a decade. And while detractors of online learning say that it can be a pale imitation of in-person learning, there are several key advantages, including convenience and cost. Here, how to consider the pros and cons of online school.
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Pros of Online School
When schools pivoted to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the experience was generally set up ad-hoc and created to ride out the crisis. But many online programs have been constructed with online learning at the front of mind. This means that they may be thoughtfully constructed in a way that supports distance learning.
When considering online schools, make sure that the program is accredited by an organization recognized by either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accredited. This can help students avoid any online scams.
Part of analyzing whether online school will be successful for you is knowing yourself. This past year allowed a lot of people to obtain deep insight into whether working remotely—either at work or school—was productive or even enjoyable. It has also given some people confidence that, even if in-person is preferred, online is doable and may not be as challenging as they may have thought in the past. That said, if you think online school might be right for you, here are some other factors to consider.
Cost and Affordability (Potentially)
No buildings and no in-person instruction means less expensive tuition, right? Not necessarily. While some institutions that specifically invest in online learning may be less expensive, you may find that online tuition is commensurate whether or not you go in person, depending on the program.
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If cost is the primary factor in pursuing online education, it may be a good idea to look at universities and degree programs that specialize in online learning, as they may create pricing based on an online-first business model.
A huge benefit to online school is that many programs are structured knowing that students may also be juggling career and family responsibilities. This can translate into asynchronous learning—lesson modules that can be done on your own time—rather than a mandatory lecture to attend.
Still, the time commitment to online school can be intense when you’re going to school and working. Even if you don’t need to be in class at a certain time, there will still be due dates, studying, and exams to contend with.
Self-Directed Course of Study
On a similar note, many fans of online courses like that the course can be more self-directed, allowing you to take control of your education on your own timeline. This may mean you need to be more proactive about scheduling office hours with professors, blocking out time to study, and making sure that assignments are turned in on time.
Cons of Online School
While some people thrive in an online environment, some people want to have in-person interaction. Here are some cons of online school:
Limited Hands-On Experience
Some degree programs that have a lab component may be harder to mimic online. Some degrees accept virtual labs, while other degrees may require a “wet lab” (aka a hands-on lab). Make sure you know what your degree needs, and confirm that all coursework can be done entirely online. It can also be helpful to speak with current students in the program to hear any of their frustrations.
Lack of Community
Some people find it hard to connect with classmates and may find group projects or virtual small groups to be much less engaging than they might otherwise have been if they had been in person.
Harder to Connect with Professors
Some professors maximize online interaction, while some may be harder to pin down and connect with. Heading to office hours, even if they are virtual, can help you build a connection and get to know the professor.
More Difficult to Access On-Campus Resources
If the online school you’re attending also has a brick-and-mortar campus, there may be resources for career development as well as on-campus events related to your department. It may be worth assessing how virtual students can tap into these resources and what resources are accessible to them.
The flip side of a more convenient schedule means that courses may be more spread out. What could be a one or two-year program in a full-time setting could take several years if done virtually.
Additional Considerations for Online School
Being able to pursue higher education remotely can open up possibilities for many individuals. But it can be a good idea to consider how online school will fit into your life. These considerations can help you find your best fit.
Talk with Other Students
It can be helpful to speak with current students who are in a similar position as you. Talking with a student who is also juggling family or a career can help you see how the process plays out in real life.
Sit in on a lecture
Will the program allow you to virtually sit in on the lecture or see some course materials? Doing so can help you see how the program plays out in real life.
Take an Online Course
In some cases, online school can be an expensive undertaking. Prior to applying to an official degree program, consider taking a virtual course, either for fun or as a credit program towards your degree. Taking a virtual course without the pressure of a degree can help you take stock of the pros and cons for yourself, and assess whether or not online learning is right for you.
Talk with Your Employer
If you are planning to do a degree program alongside working, speak with your employer. It may be possible that they can subsidize the cost of the degree if it is relevant to your career.
Consider the cost and potential salary advancement you might get out of the program. Talking with the financial aid office, as well as the department, can help clue you into scholarships and grants, as well as filling out the FAFSA® and considering private student loan options can help you begin to get your finances in order as you figure out what your schedule may look like with online school.
Going to school—whether it’s online or in-person—is a major decision. It’s important to consider pros and cons, including cost, as you assess whether it’s right for you. Speaking with people who’ve done the degree, people within your department and people in your career field or future career field can help you assess how this program could be successful for your career goals and aspirations.
Taking the time to do the research, and potentially dipping your toe into online learning with one or two courses, can help you decide how online school may fit into your life and career goals.
If you’re in the process of paying for school—online or otherwise—private student loans can help fill in any gaps between the cost of attendance and all other sources of funding like savings and federal student loans, grants, or scholarships. However, private student loans may lack many of the borrower protections that federal loans offer borrowers in case of economic hardship or unemployment.
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