Attending university remotely — whether you’re about to finish high school, are a few credits shy of a degree, or are looking to go back to school after years outside the classroom — is a viable option.
With education technology on the rise, universities around the world are adapting to meet the demands of students who prefer online learning to on-campus education. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that more than one-quarter of students at American postsecondary institutions were enrolled in at least one online course in 2012 (the most recent year for which data are available).
And these figures are on the way up; according to NCES, 8 percent of undergrads were enrolled in such classes in 2000, a figure that had risen to about 20 percent by 2008. It seems that every year Web-based learning becomes ever more accessible, affordable, and convenient.
That said, there are still great benefits to the typical on-campus college experience as well.
Before you make a decision, take a look at some of the pros and cons of each method to discover the option that’s best for you. Whether you choose to pursue an education on campus or in cyberspace has everything to do with your individual needs, preferences, and study habits.
If you are looking for the traditional, four-year “university experience" after high school — with clubs, Greek life, athletics, and dining halls — on-campus education is probably what you’d gravitate toward.
Being on campus means that you’ll have a large network of students to interact with, professors’ offices to visit, and spaces for studying, socializing, and meeting. While the Internet now offers more opportunities than ever for communicating in real-time, it’s still not quite the same as interacting face-to-face. It may be something of a cliché, but the on-campus experience will probably lead to lasting friendships — and maybe even professional relationships.
If you feel like you require a good deal of hands-on experience, plenty of guidance or tutoring, or you prefer to study in a group setting, e-learning might not be the right option for you. Assistance from peers, professors, and TAs can be tougher to obtain when you’re working remotely.
Another set of advantages that comes with on-campus study is an increased potential for experiential learning, which includes studio access, labs, and more. For this reason, courses in majors like nursing, engineering, and chemistry (to name a few) may require you to spend at least a few hours a week on campus.
Although campus-based education may offer better access to resources — and may be the better fit for many individuals — it does have its downsides. This traditional model lacks, for example, the flexibility that online courses offer (both in terms of tuition and scheduling). Depending upon your location, it may also require a commute. And, perhaps most importantly, the classroom-centric, lecture-style instruction that has become the norm in traditional college courses may not suit everyone.
As noted above, more students than ever are completing digital coursework, and universities are offering ever-greater numbers of online courses that cover a very broad range of topics. While I noted some of the disadvantages of distance learning in the previous section — a lack of facilities like libraries and gyms, a dearth of extracurricular activities, limited social interactions with peers — there are plenty of benefits, too.
One major plus is its ease of access: You can attend lectures, do readings and other homework, speak with your fellow students and professors, and take tests — all from the comfort of your own home (and typically at a low cost). Another advantage is the ability to complete work on your own time.
For nontraditional students especially, these benefits are compelling. The flexibility that accompanies online learning has led many people to go back to school, or to earn a college degree while pursuing a passion or traveling the world.
Speaking generally, e-learning tends to be a good fit for those who are capable of managing their own schedules and learning processes — people who do not need a great deal of guidance from instructors. It also doesn’t hurt to be tech-savvy.
After reviewing the strengths and drawbacks of both online and on-campus learning, there are a few things you’ll want to consider before you make your choice.
Are there accessible and affordable colleges or universities near you that offer high-quality degree programs in subjects you’re interested in? If so, you should think about the benefits of attending. If not, check to see whether the courses you want to take are readily available online.
What would you like to do for work once you’ve finished school? Will your potential employer see an online degree in a positive or negative light? Answers to this question will differ based upon your career plans, so it’s a great idea to take a look at the educational backgrounds of people working in a given industry or at a particular company.
Do you have a good undestanding of the ways you learn best? This is probably the most important factor in deciding between virtual or face-to-face learning. If being in a classroom setting with peers is helpful to you, or you prefer sitting through lectures to augment your reading assignments, or you need a teacher to keep you on a tight schedule, an on-campus university experience is probably the right choice for you.
But if you feel comfortable managing your own time, don’t live near a college, learn best at odd hours, and won’t miss the social aspects of a campus, online learning may be perfect. You’ll be able to work on your own time and at your own pace, you’ll ultimately spend less money on school, and (if you’ve got good time-management skills), you’ll find that you have more free time than the average student pursuing a traditional undergraduate education.
Since so many factors and variables are involved, no one can give you a step-by-step answer with 100 percent confidence. Choosing a degree program and a method of pursuing it is a highly personal process that you will have to make on your own.
Do your research, consider your options, and don’t forget that it’s possible to mix and match online courses with classes on campus. With so many resources out there, you’re sure to find the perfect fit.