What Is Online Learning?

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Table of contents:

  1. Is Online Education Effective?
  2. Is Online Learning Better Than The Classroom?
  3. What Are The Types Of Online Education?
  4. How Do Online Colleges And Universities Work? 
  5. What Are The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Online Education?
  6. Why Is Online Education Important?
  7. Do Employers Look Down On Online Degrees?
  8. Is Online Education More Expensive?
  9. What Is The Easiest Online Degree Program?

Tools for learning online have come a long way in recent years. These days, it’s possible to get your whole education through the internet, from pre-kindergarten through higher education and even a graduate degree.

What is Online Learning

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But just what is online learning, and how do online colleges work? Online education refers to any educational instruction and assessment that happens via the internet. This type of learning may be utilized by anyone – children, teens and adults.

Some examples of online education programs include:

  • Homeschooling online learning programs for grades K-12
  • Individual online workshops or courses
  • Collaborative learning programs
  • Internet-based online college degree programs at the undergraduate

In this complete guide, we will focus on postsecondary online education programs.

Is Online Education Effective?

Yes! Online education is just as effective as on-campus education because it provides the same foundation, skills and training.

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In fact, some test scores and other metrics show that in many cases online students perform better than those in the classroom. There are many explanations for this.

  1. Online learners are able to complete coursework when and where they perform best.
  2. They are able to review lectures and discussions at any time. Online learners don’t have to hope they caught important tidbits in their notes; rather, they can actually go back and re-listen to a lecture or find a classmate’s points in a discussion forum weeks later.
  3. They have no wasted time. For example, if the on-campus student requires an hour to get to and from class each day, the online learner saves that amount of time, giving them an extra five hours of study time per week!

Online education programs are also effective in teaching additional skills – tech skills, time management skills, the ability to self motivate and work independently – that are extremely valuable to future employers.

Is Online Learning Better than the Traditional Classroom?

College students in a traditional classroom setup

Better is a subjective term; it depends on you and what type of learner you are. For many, online learning is better because it offers the freedom to complete coursework in whatever environment works best for them. If you prefer to wake up, grab coffee and study in bed, you can. You can write reports at your office while on your lunch hour, listen to lectures on the evening commute, or take an exam at a coffee shop late at night.

You can listen to classical music or take a break to exercise every half hour. Online learning simply offers a lot more freedom. But, of course, with freedom comes responsibility. You will be responsible for managing your time and making sure you get your work done. If that’s not something you can handle, online learning may not be the best choice for you.

What are the Types of Online Education?

When it comes to online education, there are two formats: synchronous (in real time) and asynchronous (self-paced).

  • Synchronous: Synchronous courses require you to be online at a scheduled time each week to participate in live lectures, discussions and presentations. Some students appreciate that this format so closely resembles a traditional classroom experience. They like the live discussions, and the structure helps keep them from falling behind.
  • Asynchronous: In asynchronous courses, the lectures, course materials, tests and assignments are available for you to access at your convenience. There are still strict due dates for assignments and exams, but overall students have more freedom and flexibility to progress at their own pace.

Asynchronous learning is the more common format especially for adult learners who want to fit education around work or family commitments, but both formats have advantages. Many instructors create a hybrid learning environment to accommodate all types of learners.

How Do Online Colleges and Universities Work?

The structure of online courses vary by program and school, so you will need to do some research. Most programs will require you to log in regularly to the learning portal. This portal is where you will access course materials, view lectures, participate in discussions, complete assignments and exams, and monitor your progress.

To learn more about what a virtual classroom looks like, how students communicate with professors and classmates, or what assignments and exams are like in an online format, check out this article about how online college works.

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In some fields – especially those in which hands-on learning is vital, such as nursing – there may be additional clinical or internship requirements that cannot be completed online. If you enroll in a school that is not nearby, you will need to find out how you can meet those requirements in your area.

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Education?

Man attending his online class

If you are not familiar with online learning, it’s important to examine the advantages and disadvantages to determine whether it would be a good fit for you.

Top advantages of online education:

  • Flexible Scheduling : Online learning means you don’t have to put your job, family or other commitments on hold to focus on your education. Instead, you can fit your education around everything else. Coursework can be completed anytime, anywhere.
  • Lower Cost: Most schools charge the same tuition for on-campus and online students. But online students may save by avoiding dorm expenses, meal plans, parking fees, commuting costs, text book fees, activity fees, athletic fees and so on.
  • Career Advancement: Earning an online degree will show current or future employers that you’re ambitious, driven and committed to your field. It could help you earn a raise or secure a new position!
  • Convenience: Obstacles such as traffic, lack of transportation, health issues, childcare conflicts, inconsistent work schedules, travel and more do not interfere with online learning.
  • No Commute: Online students can avoid the hassles of driving through traffic, as well as the dangers of driving through snowstorms, ice storms, thunderstorms, threats of tornados, hurricanes and more.
  • Self-paced: As an online learner, you set the pace. You can earn a degree quickly by choosing an accelerated program, or if you’re too busy you can take just a few credits at a time.
  • Transfer Ability: As long as you are enrolled at an accredited school, your online classes should easily transfer to another accredited school. They will count just the same as credits earned on campus.
  • Fewer Distractions: There are a lot of distractions in a traditional classroom. Classmates may be on phones, talking, typing, fiddling with pencils, eating and so on. Learning online, you don’t have to deal with all that! You can control your environment.
  • Rolling Admission: While traditional types of colleges have a designated start date for their semester or trimester, most online programs allow you to start at any time or at multiple starting points throughout the year. You may be able to start tomorrow if you want to!
  • More Classes / More Degree Options: If you are only looking at degree programs near your hometown, your options may be pretty limited. Online learning opens the door to programs throughout the entire country!

Even with all those advantages, there are some drawbacks to consider.

Top disadvantages of online education:

  • You will need certain personality traits…
    Online learning is different. In order to be successful, you must:
    • Be organized – No one will remind you about classes, assignments, exams, etc. It’s up to you to know the expectations and meet them.
    • Be self-motivated – Without a set schedule, it’s easy to procrastinate. You will need to make sure you are staying on top of things.
    • Manage your time well – Some students get overwhelmed by the work for one class and neglect others. You must manage your time and balance your priorities.
    • Know yourself – It’s up to you to determine your course load, the pace you work at, how you learn best, and so on.
    • Be pro-active – Professors and advisors won’t come to you, so you will need to reach out if you need help understanding the material or choosing classes to take.
  • Not all degree programs are available online.
    Some subjects just don’t lend themselves to an entirely online format. Those subjects may require hands-on training or the use of specialized equipment, and for that, you will need to be on campus or at another in-person site.
  • Not all schools are accredited.
    Unfortunately, there are phony online schools out there. Do your research to ensure a program is legitimate by checking the school’s website to see that it is accredited and by which agency, and then verifying that by visiting the accrediting agency’s website.
  • There is interaction, but it’s different.
    There’s something to be said for face-to-face interaction. In a traditional classroom setting, you can read your professor’s mannerisms and tone, which can help you understand and later recall the material. While online classes encourage interaction, it’s not quite the same as it is in-person.
  • It may be harder to “network.”
    When you attend class on campus, you meet professors, faculty, guest lecturers, and other students who share the passion for the field you’re in. You can even join campus organizations that can connect you to real-life professionals. These connections can be very valuable in shaping your future, and could even lead to job offers down the road. This networking opportunity isn’t quite the same online, so you may need to be more resourceful by making connections at work or through professional organizations.
  • You will need proper equipment and the ability to use it.
    As an online student, you will need a reliable, up-to-date computer and a fast internet connection. You may also need other related items, such as a printer, webcam, and headset, flash drive, or other software or tools related to your field of study. Check the school’s website to see their specific requirements.

Overall there are more advantages than disadvantages when it comes to taking college classes online, but it’s important to understand the key differences in order to make the right choice for you.

Why Is Online Education Important?

Student taking an online education

Online education is important because it makes post-secondary education available to more individuals. There are many people for whom it is difficult or even impossible to attend regular on-campus classes. For example:

  • People with demanding jobs
  • People who have changing work schedules
  • Parents / Single parents
  • Military members
  • Disabled people
  • People who suffer from chronic illnesses
  • People who care for others with chronic illnesses
  • People who live in remote locations
  • People who travel for business or pleasure

Online education makes it possible for these individuals to pursue higher education and better their career prospects.

Do Employers Look Down on Online Degrees?

Not at all! Twenty years ago people questioned the validity of distance education programs, but today, employers recognize the quality of online education.

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As long as the school you attend is accredited, a degree earned online is just as valid as one earned on campus. In fact, unless you’re attending an online-only school or you tell them directly, employers will have no way of knowing whether you earned your degree from your couch or a classroom.

Is Online Education More Expensive?

No, it’s not. Online education costs the same or perhaps less than traditional education. Most reputable colleges and universities charge the same tuition rate for online and on-campus students. Online learners are able to save money over traditional students by avoiding charges like:

  • Out-of-state tuition rates (some universities waive these for online learners)
  • Dorm expenses
  • Meal plans
  • Parking fees
  • Commuting costs
  • Textbook fees
  • Activity fees
  • Athletic fees

Though online students may be charged an additional technology fee, they often still come out ahead!

What Is the Easiest Online Degree Program?

Man taking a degree via online education

Easy is relative; which degree is easy for you really depends on your own interests and aptitude. That said, we can get a sense of how easy a major is by looking at how high the average GPAs are. If a majority of students are maintaining high GPAs, it might be because the field is easier than others. Studies show students in the following majors have the highest GPAs:

  • Education
  • Foreign Language
  • English
  • Music
  • Religion
  • Arts

This, of course, is no conclusive evidence that these majors are easy, but it does give us something to consider. Generally speaking, easy majors tend to be those in which the work cannot be objectively evaluated (like the arts) and those that require fewer hours spent on homework and studying. This may explain why subjects in the math and science fields are not usually considered easy!

Ready to start your journey?
Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.