Individuals may have seen advertisements promising a degree that is “only a click away” and wrongly equate these “diploma mills” with legitimate institutions. Or they may wonder why tuition costs for online programs are often equivalent to campus programs, even though they are not sitting in a classroom. However, as online university degrees become more commonplace, these misgivings are likely to dissipate.
Below we have evaluated a few common arguments against online education degree programs. When weighing the pros and cons of online education, research indicates that online learning is, in many ways, a comparable educational experience to face-to-face learning.
One of the more significant discussions about online education degree courses swirl around the quality of interaction between students, students and teachers, and students and information. Some say that meaningful discussions can only effectively happen face-to-face, but due to technology advances, this is no longer true.
Often, in an on-campus class, a student may sit in back of the room, take notes, and listen to the lecture—all without participating. In online classes, you MUST interact. Students cannot avoid class discussions, because online teachers track who is interacting, how many times they interact, and what they discuss.
Keith W. Miller, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois claims, "I like to answer email at least once a day so students get more feedback than in a class that meets two or three times a week. Students need not ‘store up’ their questions. Both students and teachers can take time to consider what they are discussing; foreign-based students are especially happy to be able to work through language problems in a way that’s impossible in a face-to-face class."
Advocates of online learning point out that discussions are not limited to the 50 minutes of a traditional class time. Professors often comment that the depth of online discussions exceeds what they can achieve in the classroom.
Sometimes, online teachers base part of the grade on student participation. Teachers who know how to effectively manage online discussions can prevent aggressive and talkative students from dominating a conversation and can easily steer the conversation toward their class goal. Additionally, shy students who would not dream of raising their hands in class and are uncomfortable thinking on their feet appreciate the time that email discussions provide.
Larry Keisler, a bachelor’s student studying organizational leadership at Penn State, professes the merits of online education degree programs, “When I was in a [face-to-face] class of 300 people, no one wanted to raise their hands and ask questions. But in an online environment, you don’t mind sending e-mails. It’s no big deal. People are not afraid to ask questions in emails.”
Socializing Online vs. Face-to-Face
Many individual also argue that technology isolates people and online learning only adds to this problem. Undergraduate college students, in particular, do not always go to college simply to acquire information leading to a career. During those four years on campus, they learn social skills and how to be adults and integrate into society. However, while younger students gain more from a face-to-face environment, socialization may not necessarily be a priority for adult learners who have already gained real-world experience.
One advantage to online education degree programs that students cite is the diversity of their classmates. Since students can participate from just about any geographic location, classes often include people from across the country and even international students.
Pami Ahluwalia, a master’s student studying computer information systems at the University of Denver, reports her experiences with classroom diversity, “In my class there’s someone from Japan and someone from Canada, as well as people from all over the US. The discussions we have really add to the class. I don’t think you would get to do that in a classroom discussion, but I feel I do online.”
Virtual Professor vs. Sage on the Stage
When colleges and universities began experimenting with online classes, faculty members had to learn a whole new way of teaching. They soon found that simply putting PowerPoint notes online or tweaking lectures they had used for years was not as effective in the online environment.
Professors reported that going through the rigors of teaching students via the Internet forced them to reexamine how they teach. They had to step back from their familiar patterns and methodology. Online teachers found the new environment exciting and challenging, and in the opinions of teachers who teach online, refreshing.
Now that online education degree providers have more experience in what works and what doesn’t, faculty members use a wide variety of teaching strategies and platforms. Some online providers have a team of graphic designers, instructional designers, programmers, and animators who support the course material with their technical and creative talent. The professors do the teaching, but a backup team helps with everything—down to the fine details of checking links on web pages to make sure they work.
Each time the course is offered, the content and delivery are scrutinized and improvements are made before it is released. In online courses, it can be easier to monitor what is going on, because classes are designed and built by experts in instructional technology. In addition, there is a written record of what has been posted. In face-to-face classes, the lecture hall door is closed and no one knows if professors are keeping their lectures current.
However, when it comes to debating the pros and cons of online education, it still comes down to personal preference. James O’Neill, a master’s student studying computer science at the University of Denver maintains, “For my own personal situation, I prefer the classroom scenario. I am taking programming classes, which is a complex subject, and you need a lot of interaction with your instructors. I find face-to-face much more helpful. For the true distance learner who can’t get to a classroom, online is an advantage, but for someone who has the opportunity to be in a classroom, I think it’s better. In the face-to-face graduate classes I’ve had, where there have been as few as four students, it’s easy to say, ‘Excuse me, I’m lost.’”
Online Learning Outcomes vs. Face-to-Face
Mark Kretovics, PhD, an assistant professor in the Higher Education Administration Department at Kent State University, conducted a study comparing online and campus learners in an MBA program at Colorado State University, where he was then an assistant dean. The purpose was to test learning outcomes of students enrolled in online education degree programs. The online class was 100 percent asynchronous, meaning that students could participate in class discussions at their convenience.
The education statistics gathered through the survey revealed that online students learned as well as, or better than, the face-to-face students. Kretovics admits he didn’t expect the online learners to grasp the theories as well as the on-campus students, but they did. He concluded that the online environment fosters independent learning. Because students aren’t guided by professors or pick up their biases, they depend on their own observations and conclusions in applying theories. One would assume that students learning languages face-to-face would do much better than their online counterparts.
When Vernon Smith first began teaching language online he, too, had his doubts, until he saw nationally normed test-score results for online students, which were the same as or better than campus-based students. Smith is Faculty Chair for Foreign Languages at Rio Salado College.
At Rio Salado, language students are tested on reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills, as well as knowledge of the culture. Students have videos that demonstrate the language in context, including nonverbal aspects such as gestures, which are an important part of learning a language. They can listen to and view lessons multiple times so that the language is slowly absorbed by repetition and practice. The only disadvantage Smith saw was the socialization aspect of language, which he, as an instructor, could overcome with online voice assessments and discussions.
Choosing Online Education
When evaluating the pros and cons of online education, it comes down to your individual learning style. Some students simply prefer the classroom environment, while others benefit from the convenience and flexibility of learning online.
John Dutton, associate professor for the Business Management College of Management at North Carolina State University, weighs in on the issue, “There are lots of reasons for taking online courses. For example, the costs of getting to a campus might be too high. However, for many students, it’s really a pleasure to be in a classroom. Most students would like a campus-based course because of the interaction, especially if it’s a small class. The lecture classes I teach are often large. In such situations, there’s not much interaction and not much contrast between online and face-to-face classes. But in a small class, students have lots of interaction, not just chalk and talk. They can often get a much fuller explanation of something when they can interact with a person.”