Access to information online has changed our lives forever, and it can be difficult for even Gen Xers to remember what life was like before the internet. While there was some skepticism surrounding the earliest efforts to create online educational platforms, they are now widely accepted and used all over the world. Additionally, online education programs came to the forefront in 2020 as a global pandemic shifted a tremendous amount of in-person learning to web-based learning instead.
Even before the pandemic, many people were opting to complete degrees online for various reasons, including the flexibility of scheduling and affordability of tuition. Online education has transformed educators’ reach and created the opportunity for people from all walks of life to have access to valuable tools, whether that means completing a specific degree or simply staying engaged in the educational process over the course of a lifetime. Thanks to the internet, millions of people can have access to a Yale (yes, THAT Yale) course on “The Science of Well Being.”
We have taken a look at some of the best online education programs and the benefits and challenges of an online education and laid out the information here as a guide to get you started and help you make an informed decision about the best program for your specific needs.
The Benefits of an Online Education
We will present both the “pros” and the “cons” of online education, starting by highlighting its numerous benefits to students and lifelong learners. Some of these may seem obvious and already factoring prominently in your own lists of “pros,” but there may be some unique benefits to an online education you had not yet considered.
The bottom line is that the benefits are many, and they extend beyond what is listed here. Still, this overview should give you an idea of why online education programs have continued to grow in popularity, with roughly 20 million students enrolled in degree-granting online programs.
While a four-year (or longer) experience on a college campus has many benefits to young students, including exposure to people from other parts of the country, greater independence, and an environment in which to hone life and relationship skills, the traditional campus route simply does not work well for everyone.
Some students are unable to attend a four-year college in person due to various financial constraints. Others are unable to leave home because of family commitments (for example, a student may share in the responsibility of caring for an elderly or handicapped family member).
There are myriad reasons why on-campus learning is not always feasible or the best choice for every student. Online learning presents a useful alternative, making a college degree accessible for those who are still focused on earning one, despite whatever challenges may prevent them from moving to campus.
Nothing sends shivers up the spine of on-campus students like the dreaded 8 a.m. class. Many go to great lengths to avoid them, but it is usually impossible to graduate without getting stuck with at least one early morning class because you needed that specific credit, and it was the only timeslot available.
Being inconvenienced by an early alarm clock in an idyllic campus setting is a luxury and a true “first world problem,” It is also a very different problem for many of the individuals pursuing online education.
Regular, daytime course schedules, like those of most full-time on-campus students, are not doable for a single mother juggling young children’s demands while also trying to complete her degree. There is also a young mechanic, working full-time in an automotive shop during the day to finance his studies at night. Or perhaps you also have an individual completing a degree in her retirement years, longing to set a positive example for her college-aged grandchildren, but not wishing to take more than one class at a time.
The flexibility afforded by online education, with opportunities for many asynchronous courses, means students can work at their own time and pace. (Some may pause here to shout, “Hey Siri…what is asynchronous?” Rest assured; we will explain that in more detail in another section.)
Online education is not cheap: we will start there. Prospective online students assuming that it will cost “next to nothing” may be disappointed to find that online education is still a considerable expense.
However, when you factor in NOT having to pay for on-campus room and board, there are tremendous savings. Online education still requires a tuition payment, but all of the “extras” associated with campus life are not relevant.
Each school is different, but a general rule of thumb is that you can expect to pay somewhere between 50 and 75% of the in-person tuition.
So, if it costs $20,000 a year (in tuition) to attend in a campus environment, and that same institution offers an online option, your online tuition would likely be between $10,000 and $15,000.
Remember, the student paying $20,000 in annual tuition is also likely paying $10,000 or more on top of that for on-campus expenses.
Skill Development and Independent Learning
Online coursework promotes the development of numerous skills and enhances independent learning, which undoubtedly translates into added value in the job market.
The drive it takes to work independently and complete tasks without tremendous oversight is not insignificant. Future employers will certainly take note of the skills you honed during your online education, including
- Enhanced time management skills derived from working independently
- The ability to shift between a variety of web-based platforms with ease
- The ability to coordinate with others through online platforms
- Specific skills unique to your online coursework
The technical skills so many employers are looking for in today’s job market, with employees who have experience in tasks such as coding and search engine optimization, can all start with online education.
An Accommodation for Severe Social Anxiety and Other Unique Scenarios
Another benefit of online learning is that it creates a path to a degree for those with special challenges related to crowded campus environments.
Whether a student suffers from general social anxiety, some type of post-traumatic stress syndrome, or other conditions that make it difficult to attend school in person, online courses offer a welcome alternative.
A Temporary Alternative in a Global Pandemic
In 2020, many students across the world experienced online or distance learning for the first time once Covid-19 necessitated schools’ temporary closing in many areas. From K-12 learners to undergraduate and graduate degree earners, students had to quickly adapt to courses shifting to online platforms.
The benefits of online education were realized more than ever before when our collective educational hand was forced to use it. This period may also prepare students who will opt to earn degrees online in the future.
The Challenges of an Online Education
When it comes to education, one size does not fit all. Online education is not for everyone, just as attending a four-year college for a bachelor’s degree is not for everyone either.
As you consider and explore the opportunity to either complete a degree or simply enhance your skills via online coursework, it is important to recognize the challenges associated with this learning style.
First, though, we will tackle one misconception: online students do not necessarily have a performance disadvantage. Sometimes it is assumed that online students do not perform as well as those in the classroom, which is not necessarily the case. Online learners can perform just as well as (and sometimes better than) their peers in a campus setting.
That said, it is not always easy, and an online education requires a tremendous amount of commitment from determined self-starters. That takes us to our first challenge.
The Need for Accountability
While an 18-year-old freshman enjoying his freedom may hit “snooze” one too many times, he does have some built-in systems around him to nudge him along with the roommate who might toss a pillow at him and yell at him to “wake up.” The resident advisor in the dormitory checks in on him to ensure he is getting to his classes every day. The freshman advisor lectures him on the dangers of flunking out after skipping too many classes.
The online student typically has only herself to function as the “accountability police.” Her job is to make sure she “gets to class,” whether that means attending an online class live or simply watching a pre-recorded lecture. Holding oneself accountable to attend class and complete assignments are uniquely challenging in an online education, which requires a consistent level of discipline.
Building Connections and Relationships
One of the drawbacks of online education is missing out on students’ connections and relationships in a traditional on-campus setting, whether that means peer friendships, romantic relationships, or mentoring relationships with professors and advisors.
While these things may be secondary to the initial purpose of earning a degree, they are still significant. The communication and problem-solving skills we learn by living with others on a college campus are building blocks toward how we relate to others throughout our professional careers.
Additionally, naturally extroverted and social people can find an online education challenging as they are simply used to more interaction with others.
Access to the Internet and Computers
Many of us take for granted that we can always find a way to connect to WiFi and that a device is never far out of reach, be it a laptop, cell phone, or other device.
However, this is not the case for every American, and lack of internet access and access to computers can stop a would-be online student dead in his tracks.
There is simply no way to successfully participate in an online learning environment without these things, but we have some ideas about overcoming such challenges.
How Can You Overcome the Challenges of an Online Education?
Create Your Own Accountability Program
Whatever you need to stay disciplined and focused as you start an online education, do it routinely and make it a habit. This could mean sharing your online schedule with friends and family (“I will be in online classes every night from 6 to 9 p.m., so I will not be able to respond to messages during that time.”)
It could mean setting up a dedicated workspace in your home for online learning. Even if space is at a premium, you can devote one quiet corner of a bedroom or living room as your workspace. Try to eliminate clutter; make sure your desk is well-lit, and make sure you have a chair that promotes comfortable posture as you work.
Make use of either an online calendar or a traditional paper planner to keep up with important dates, such as final exams. If you are working while attending school online, make sure you use a calendar system that overlaps, so you can be sure you do not create conflicts between your work and school priorities. For example, you may not want to volunteer for extra shifts in the same week as your final exams for the semester or a week when a long paper is due.
Connect with Others Online
Just because you miss out on meeting other students in real life does not mean you cannot connect online. Find out if the online school you are attending has any student message boards or other ways to meet your peers with shared interests.
With the growth of online learning, there has also been a growth in “virtual study groups” or apps designed for online students to share resources. Make it a point to connect to a few other students digitally (and in-person when time allows). You never know when other online learners may be good resources as you network in the future, and it also helps to have the camaraderie and support of others working to earn a degree online.
Seek Out Opportunities for Access and Financial Aid
Because access to the internet and computers can be as problematic as tuition itself, explore all opportunities for access and financial aid when it comes to online education. One of the best starting points is your local library: not only could they be a point of access for computer and internet use, but your local librarians might know of other resources at a local and state level you can tap into specific to online education.
The Costs Associated with an Online Education: How Can You Get Financial Aid?
Online learning can come with various price tags, from Yale’s aforementioned free course to a full-tuition program based on earning a bachelor’s degree.
Each program and school is different, and it is important to thoroughly examine the “fine print” before you commit to an online education. Bear in mind there may be additional fees beyond tuition, and the school should be upfront about those in its literature.
If you are confused about the financial commitments, try to set up an appointment to speak to someone who works in the school’s financial office. In many cases, you will be directed to “FAQs” or websites but push back until you can get an actual human being on the phone to go through your questions one by one. If the school wants your tuition dollars, they will take the time to do this!
Financial aid for college comes in many forms, and you should consider applying for:
- Scholarships, both inside and outside of the school itself
- Financial aid from the school
- A student loan
If you are already working full time, you should also determine if your employer has any financial assistance for employees to complete degrees. Leave no stone unturned when it comes to asking: there is no harm in trying, and there may be funds available for you to use from a variety of sources.
While student loans can be daunting if you enter a field with a fair amount of job opportunity, it may be less scary to take on the loan. Let’s say, for example, you are completing an online program in accounting.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for accountants was $71,500 in May 2019. If you require a $40,000 loan to complete your degree, you can be fairly confident that you will be able to pay it back over time based on your potential earnings.
How Online Education Works
There are online education programs available for everyone from home-schooled elementary-aged children right up to those seeking doctorate level degrees. There are online courses for hobbyists and those who need specific certificates or degrees, and best of all, there are plenty of free educational opportunities online.
Types of Programs
With technology changing at what seems like the speed of light these days, so are online educational programs. They are continuously improved upon, both for the benefit of educators and students alike. As of now, the main ways we utilize online education are
- Attendance at fully online schools and colleges
- Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs, like the Yale course mentioned in the opening of this article)
- Online Access to a Traditional Class (such as a student participating in class from home during a period of quarantine)
It is not uncommon for students to combine traditional and online learning throughout their educational experiences and careers. For example, a student may earn a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing at a four-year university, studying on campus.
Later, after he has worked as a registered nurse for five years, he may decide to complete a master’s in nursing online, increasing his ability to seek administrative or higher-paying positions in his field.
Synchronous vs Asynchronous Learning
Online education programs are typically comprised of both synchronous and asynchronous learning. Here’s what that means:
Synchronous online education or courses mean that both the instructor and the students are online simultaneously. In other words, you might think of these as “live” classes.
Asynchronous online education or courses mean that lectures are pre-recorded, and class materials are made available to a student when she has time to access them, be it at 6 in the morning or 11 in the evening.
The asynchronous elements of online education are what make it so much more flexible than a traditional on-campus setting.
We should point out here that “asynchronous” is not synonymous with “take as long as you need.” Just because elements of the class can be accessed at times convenient for the student does not mean the class is without specific deadlines or commitments.
Likely, the online learner will still be required to submit assignments and papers by specific course deadlines, which are communicated upfront by the online teacher.
Accreditation in Online Education
Anyone seeking a specific degree from an online college should be sure to look into the accreditation needed to secure employment post-graduation.
What Is Accreditation?
Accreditation means that an institution has received a “stamp of approval” from a regional or national organization, indicating that it has met or exceeded certain standards related to both academic practices as well as its financial and operational procedures.
You might think of this as you would a health department rating at a restaurant: just as you would be reluctant to buy a smoothie from the store with a C- rating, you should be extremely cautious when it comes to accreditation. Plus, we are talking about a $5.99 fruit-and-cream concoction in the former and an investment of tens of thousands of dollars in the latter!
As far as regional accreditation goes, that is the more rigorous standard set for colleges. And any list of the “best” online colleges and universities will only include regionally accredited schools.
Your search for the best online education may include a mix of schools located in different parts of the country that offer online classes as well as schools that are fully online, and you should be familiar with the six agencies that are responsible for regional accrediting:
- Higher Learning Commission
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
- Western Association of Colleges and Schools
While there are also some national accreditations, we would advise you to be extremely cautious if considering schools that do NOT carry one of the regional accreditations, especially if you are going into a specific field that may require a degree from a regionally accredited school.
While there are many wonderful opportunities for students in online education, the reality is there are also plenty of scams. Take your time and do your research to seek out a reputable school that will not only meet your needs but will meet the needs of a future employer as well.
Our Final Tips for Online Education
Online education opens up a world of possibility, connecting students to teachers and resources in a format that accommodates families’ special and unique circumstances, be it the need to work while funding education or the need to stay home to care for a loved one.
While you may be eager to get started and dive headfirst into online education, it is important to do your homework before choosing a school or program, so make sure you do not skip these important steps:
- Look for the schools or programs that specialize in your intended area of study
- For each school, research the tuition and fees, seeking out specific answers from the school’s financial office if needed
- Explore any and all opportunities for scholarships, financial aid, and/or student loans
- Map out a budget for how you will pay the tuition and pay back student loans if necessary
- Ensure you have access to the internet and the appropriate equipment (such as a laptop and printer). Find out if the materials for the program are all online or if you will need to purchase any textbooks
- Make sure the school carries the appropriate regional accreditation
- Investigate course scheduling and timelines to ensure the balance of synchronous versus asynchronous coursework suits your schedule
- Reach out to friends, family, work colleagues, and neighbors to find out if they participated in an online educational program and whether or not they would recommend the school they attended
- Read online reviews from students who have attended the schools on your list
Once you have thoroughly researched these items for each school on your list, you will be in a better position to choose the best online education for your specific needs. We can also help by pointing you in the direction of some of the best and most affordable online schools to review.