By Ben Davis
I want to offer my two cents worth in the online vs. traditional classroom debate. I do this as both a student who has completed online and traditional degrees and as an instructor who has taught in both modalities. Both approaches to education have their strengths and weaknesses, but right at the outset I want to confirm that I have found that online courses and degrees are fully equivalent to traditional classroom-based degrees in terms of content, depth of learning, and student outcomes.
My experience as a student with online learning is extensive – I have earned six accredited degrees from five different colleges. I selected online learning because of its flexibility and because I could complete degrees that met my specific learning goals without uprooting my family and moving across the country to go to school. I could also continue in my job, and on that latter account studying in online programs was a real advantage.
The coursework and learning in online programs are certainly as rigorous as in the traditional classroom, so a student doesn’t have to feel that he or she would be unprepared to compete with those who studied in the traditional way. As long as the institution has accreditation from one of the recognized national or regional accrediting bodies, you can be assured that the school meets the same standards as other accredited schools. And, because some people have concern about online programs, these programs tend to get an extremely thorough assessment during both the accreditation and reaccreditation process.
As a “mature” student, chronologically, if not in other ways, I found online programs to be extremely beneficial. First, my work experience gave me a good background to bring into the courses. I certainly was not at a disadvantage with regard to my fellow students.
Second, I found that what I learned in my courses could often be applied immediately to what I was doing at work. Actually, I looked for ways to make this happen. What is learned in the classroom can be taken right into your job and applied to problems or situations you are dealing with at the time.
Third, and perhaps even more importantly, I found that what I was doing on my job could be taken into the classroom. Things I needed to understand more about at work or problems I was dealing with there became topics for a number of papers that I wrote and were brought up in the discussions. This latter allowed other students and even faculty members to comment on my topic and make helpful suggestions for me to think about.
Speaking of faculty-student and student-student contact, one major surprise for me with online education was discovering that I actually had morecontact with my professors and other students in my online courses than I did in my on-ground courses. In an on-ground course, you go to a classroom, sit in a seat for an hour or two, and then leave, not to see the professor or other students until the next class session. In an online course, you are in constant contact with your professors and other students. Discussion forums are a major part of online programs, and these give you regular, on-going interaction with students and faculty members as well. I am always amazed by how quickly these discussions move from being just academic to becoming personal and connective. A number of times I have seen students who had been in previous courses together pick up with each other where they left off some months earlier (e.g., “How’s you mom doing? Is she out of the hospital yet?”). In addition, most online course formats provide a “discussion” box on the course website that allows unfettered discussion among students. Here there is always a lively discussion among students here, and the discussions are completely uncensored by the faculty and administration. You may even find a few people in your local area with whom you can connect for face-to-face interaction if you want.
What are the downsides to online programs? Only two, and the student is actually in control of both.
First, online programs require more personal discipline than do classroom-based programs. While online courses are structured on a week-to-week basis, they tend to be fairly flexible within each week. It is very different from having to appear in a face-to-face classroom two or three times each week. As a result, it can be easy to let things slide if you are not careful. On the other hand, if you areself-motivated, the program is ideal because you can structure your studying and coursework around your personal and professional schedules. If you are not naturally compulsive-obsessive, it can be very helpful to set a weekly schedule for yourself and let a friend/boss/whomever serve as a point of accountability.
Second, despite what I said earlier, the direct student-to-student and student-to-professor contact can slide if you let it. You really need to lean in and take advantage of the connectional opportunities that the online environment offers. Instructors provide class discussion forums with specific questions or topics to be addressed each week, and these are included as part of the course grade, so you will always be interacting with other students throughout the course – how much is up to you. Doing just the minimum will result in getting a lot less out of your courses than you otherwise would.
With regard to concern about the validity of online degrees, the online degree process is a fairly recent phenomenon and is becoming much more accepted as time passes. With any change in academia, there are always those who drag their feet. It wasn’t until the 1900s that engineering programs were felt to be academic enough to warrant a real degree, and those with a few years on them may remember the flap over Black Studies, Women’s Studies, and General Studies degree programs when they were first introduced. Engineering and Black, Women’s and General studies programs are now in existence at most major universities and are considered to be genuine. In the same way, most of the major institutions now offer online programs (the figure is 98% of public universities), so the snobbery will eventually go away.
Bottom line? I am sold on online leaning. I have benefitted tremendously from my studies and I would encourage any skeptic to, in the words of the now-classic Alka Seltzer commercial, “Try it; you’ll like it.”
About the Writer: Dr. Ben Davis has served as Vice President for Legal and Academic affairs at a university that offers both online and on-ground programs. He holds multiple degrees including two accredited doctorates, one from an online and one from an on-ground institution.