With technological advances and increased access to the Internet, enrollment in online universities has increased faster than overall higher-education enrollments, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Such growth fosters both critiques and defenses of the online education system, and many question which is better: online or campus-based coursework. However, a comparison of the two reveals that despite the different media used, they are not so different after all.
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- Delivery Methods.Unlike with campus-based courses, students enrolled in online programs can choose when to dedicate time to class and homework, but you still have projects and group work. These are completed over the Internet, via email and message boards on course sites and learning management systems such as Blackboard.At Liberty University “you’re learning from actual textbooks you can hold in your hands,” explained Michael Wright, an online student at the university. Wright also said that Liberty uses Blackboard to post PowerPoint slide shows, documents, and to facilitate discussions.At the University of Phoenix, some professors even encourage their students to use Skype as a means of face-to-face interaction “so that they get a chance to interact, bringing the difference experiences together and really cementing that learning bond,” said Daniel McCrobie, an online facilitator for the University of Phoenix. The Internet provides the tools necessary for you to interact with your classmates and your professors outside of a campus atmosphere.
- Challenges.One of the common myths about online education is that it is easier than campus-based education. This is not the case. While it’s true that the difficulty of coursework involves many factors, such as models of curriculum development, the type of course, the level of education, and the learning objectives of the course, it is also true that online education presents some unique difficulties. In particular, you must be self-motivated and very good at time management.”While online learning is convenient in terms of one not needing to be present at a campus for lectures, a good online program will not be easier if it requires the same academic integrity and intellectual challenge as the regular face-to-face courses,” said Michelle Rogers-Estable, a certified instructor with online education experience.It’s therefore arguable that online coursework can be even more challenging than campus coursework for some students. “Online programs can provide a level of convenience in accommodating a student’s schedule, but I find that they require a relatively increased level of interaction on behalf of the student and the instructor,” said Dr. Becky Takeda-Tinker, an online instructor. Students enrolled in online classes do not have the opportunity to hide at the back of the classroom, and need to remain in steady contact with professors in order to be successful.”An online class requires more direct participation,” explained Colin Murcary, an online instructor for the University of Phoenix and Ashford University. “The convenience can also get them into trouble if they procrastinate. Assignments can quickly stack up if they aren’t staying on top of them. And if they aren’t doing the reading, they usually will struggle with the assignments.”
- Examinations and Projects. Examinations are also handled differently with online courses. Tests may be timed, open-book exams. Online universities may also hold proctored examinations through your local community college, local campus, or office facility, or through professional testing services.At universities such as Northcentral University, there are technological systems in place for the construction, proposal, and defense of a thesis or dissertation. “Dissertations are handled online through technology systems that allow for submission and committee member review at every step of the process,” said Takeda-Tinker.Some professors test online students to ensure they are on top of assignments and deadlines. This is because online students do not have the imposed structure provided by a physical class schedule. “My first quiz is always on the contents of the syllabus,” said Ernie Weeks, a former instructor for Lincoln Memorial University and the University of Phoenix.
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But these differences are paltry compared with the shared characteristics of online and campus education. In fact, the similarities between online and campus-based courses outnumber the differences. Online degree programs provided by universities that have concurrent traditional options are very similar in quality and content. Jennifer Vancil, a graduate advisor for Colorado State University reminds us that in the long run there is “no difference because the degree is identical.”
- Commitment. Online degrees require the same college-level work and time commitment. Degree requirements must be fulfilled no matter the medium used. You still attend classes, take exams, and write papers. Graduate students still complete theses and dissertations for their programs.
- Interaction. Online coursework may also require live-interaction components, just as the physical classroom does. “The CSU-Global online technology allows for group meetings, live interaction, student participation via polling and small group interactive discussions, so in addition to email, i-chat, and telephone I am able to interact with students in multiple ways for continual contact,” explained Takeda-Tinker.
- Quality of Learning.You might wonder whether or not the medium used to access coursework affects the quality of education. “The delivery format does not make the difference in quality learning,” said Rogers-Estable. “One may have a good or poor learning experience in face-to-face or online courses if the learning is not designed well.” In other words, the quality of a course is determined by the curriculum and the dedication of the professor, not by the medium used to access the course.As with traditional campuses, there are various accreditations across the sphere of online education, and online schools are accredited by the exact same agencies that accredit traditional institutions. Most schools, such as The University of Phoenix and Capella University, are accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Some specific online programs have additional accreditations as well. Accreditation by The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business is widely sought after by universities offering business degrees, as AACSB is internationally recognized. The AACSB has accredited many online programs, including Colorado State University and Pennsylvania State University, in addition to campus-based programs.
- Support. Despite the distance component of online education, some programs offer the same types of programs found at their campus-based counterparts. For instance, American InterContinental University has a study abroad program for its online students. While an online student can technically “go abroad” anytime they wish as long as they continue doing their assignments from wherever they may travel to, AIU’s abroad program offers online students a more structured abroad experience. You can study at one of the AIU campuses located in London or Paris, though this experience will require you to go to the school’s abroad campus. Online programs also offer other special services like financial and career support.
- Cost. Online education is often rumored to be cheaper than traditional education, but this is not always the case. As with traditional universities, there are many factors that determine the cost of education, such as the cost of each individual program, registration fees, boarding and/or the cost of transportation, and the university itself. Program costs vary across universitiesand, within universities, majors.While travel and boarding are typically not factors that affect the cost of online education, some programs require residential symposiums – a three-to-four day period during which you attend the university’s physical campus for meetings and networking – for which you are financially responsible. Some programs require technology fees as well. Ultimately, the cost of online education, like traditional education, depends on your degree plan and personal needs.
- Rewards.It is true that there are some differences between online and campus-based education, but the challenges and rewards of pursuing higher education are the same, regardless of the medium. In both online and campus programs, students will earn an education that will teach them the skills they need to succeed in the work place. For those who are pursuing careers that require certification, online schools will help you sign up for all of the necessary examinations in order to earn that certification as well. Some online schools will also assist students in finding internships and job opportunities.”Quality learning and achievement is based on the quality of the instructional design, media choices, student motivation and dedication, the quality of the teacher/facilitator, and other important factors,” said Rogers-Estable. With these common challenges in mind, online and campus-based coursework are, at their very core, not so different after all.