Conventional wisdom says that taking classes on campus, tromping across the college green several times a day, and cramming in late-night study sessions in your dorm is the best way to earn a college degree. After all, that’s how people have done it for centuries.
But is online learning making the in-person college experience obsolete? While traditional college isn’t likely to disappear any time soon, there’s good evidence that online education has some significant advantages to the classroom experience—and some of them may surprise you.
1. In the online learning vs. classroom debate, online has one major advantage
Huge strides in technology have made a college education more accessible than ever. With a computer and Internet access, the entirety of the educational world can be yours as long as you have Internet access, no matter where you live.
That’s hardly an exaggeration when you consider that for the past few years, highly prestigious schools, such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, have been offering full, non-credit courses of study online for free through something called MOOCs (which stands for massive open online course). MOOCs generally have the same professors and the same study material you’d get if you were attending the university in-person.
It was probably inevitable that schools would begin wanting to monetize all of the material they were providing online. In 2013, Georgia Tech became the first school to create a MOOC-based degree program. The University of Illinois followed suit two years later. Now, more than 30 brick-and-mortar schools offer MOOC-based degrees, through partnerships with tech-ed companies like Coursera, edX, and Udacity.
But MOOCs are only the tip of the online-learning iceberg. Digital and traditional institutions are also perfecting more-intimate online learning options, with smaller class sizes and more one-to-one professor-to-student interactions. Online degree options abound and if you can't find the offering you want at a local university, you can probably find it at another school.
So whether you’re looking to earn your degree to go nab a 9-to-5, or you’re looking to study the stars with the world’s top astronomers, you can probably find what you’re looking for online.
2. Online learning may be more engaging than classroom learning
A recent article in Forbes offers some insight into the state of online learning. Researchers have begun diving into how efficient online learning is compared to classroom education. So far, the results have been promising.
A study from California State University in San Bernadino found that two different sets of students—one group who studied online and the other who went to class—who received the same instruction from the same professor fared equally well in terms of performance. However, the study revealed that online students were less intimidated about participating, and that there was a higher-quality of interaction between students and the professor.
In addition, the Forbes article notes online classes are more likely to present material in attention-grabbing, multimedia formats that may be better suited to today’s students.
The upshot: Educators have long known that different people take in information in different ways, but educational methods have struggled to adapt. If you're someone whose eyes glaze over during a classroom lecture, you may find that you respond better to online learning approaches.
3. Feedback is faster and more frequent
Believe it or not, online learners may actually have more contact with their educators than classroom learners.
Online students are generally asked to complete more-frequent assessments so that professors can monitor their competence. Because of this, learning gaps can be identified and addressed faster, rather than allowing a struggling student to slip through the cracks until exam time.
Remember, this isn't just about GPAs. When you're paying thousands of dollars for an education, you don't want to hide in the back corner of the classroom. You want to ensure you understand the course material so you can apply it later.
4. Online college can be a cheaper way to earn your bachelor's or master's degree
What’s the biggest difference between online and traditional school? The campus, obviously. If you attend a regular college, you’re probably going to spend several thousand dollars a year on room and board, as well as transportation.
Online college removes all of those expenses from the equation, effectively yielding you a five-figure discount during the course of your studies. Score!
5. You may incur a lot less student loan debt
In addition to not having to pay for room and board and commuting, online study may reduce your costs in another extremely significant way.
Most online programs are structured around the idea that students are employed, and possibly employed full-time. Being able to continue working while going to school means that you may have to take on less student loan debt.
Smaller student loans means you’ll be paying less student loan interest. When you consider that most people take close to 20 years to pay off their student loan debt, reducing your total debt load is one of the most-important strategies you can adopt. Your future self will thank you.
6. You have more control over your schedule
Absenteeism and scheduling conflicts are virtually removed from the online learning equation. While some programs may require participation in online lectures at certain times, those same lectures are generally archived for later reference.
Because online learning is more flexible than classroom-based learning, students can work through material at their own pace. People who need more time to grasp a concept can take it. People who want to work faster may do so.
Schedule flexibility is also a huge asset for people who work full-time or who have childcare responsibilities that would interfere with regular campus attendance. Just think about it—the single mom whose babysitter canceled at the last minute would be out of luck with traditional learning. With online education, she can still attend class with the assurance that her child is being care for.
7. The online classroom is good preparation for a changing workforce
Getting comfortable with technology is an excellent side benefit to online education.
As technology advances, workforces are become increasingly distributed. Whether you’re working with someone across the state or across the world, becoming adept at technology for video conferencing, messaging, aggregating information, and collaborating is a skill set that you're likely to find a need for.
8. Online learning is getting a good reputation
Academics have seen the value in online education for quite some time. A 2012 study from Babson/College Board showed that 77% of academic leaders believed that online education offerings were just as good, if not better, than classroom-based educational offerings.
Employers are also getting that message. A recent article in U.S. News & World Report shows that more hiring managers are seeing the value in online degrees, as long as they come from properly accredited institutions.
See also: FAQ: Are Online Degrees Respected?
Our prediction about the future of online college
Online college options are going to continue to increase in popularity as costs get lower (thanks to better technology) and quality of instruction continues to evolve and improve. Within the next generation, online learning will become more of a norm and less of a novelty.
Want to learn about the most affordable online college options? See our roundup of the 20 best programs here.