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Should I Take Online College Classes? – Pros & Cons, Various Programs



According to College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2012-2013 school year was $8,655 for state residents attending public colleges, $21,706 for out-of-state residents attending public universities, and $29,056 for students attending private colleges. These expenses don’t include the cost of housing, meals, books, school supplies, clothing and personal needs, or transportation expenses, which can equal or exceed the cost of tuition.

Accordingly, many students and parents are considering the use of online long distance learning (LDL) courses as a method to reduce the expense of college education. The question is, can LDL courses realistically replace the benefits of an on-campus degree?

Advantages of Online Courses

According to a recent survey by the The Sloan Consortium, more than 6.7 million students (32% of all college degree-seeking students) took at least one online course in 2011. There are a number of reasons why online classes are clearly an appealing alternative to traditional learning:

1. Courses Are Flexible and Convenient
Not all college students are recent high school graduates – many have full- or part-time jobs, families, and other responsibilities, so having the flexibility to log onto a computer at any time day or night, during lunch, or when children are napping, is a major advantage.

Online colleges can also benefit students whose disabilities make navigating large college campuses more difficult. Having the option to log in for class rather than fight the crowds between classes can improve an otherwise stressful situation.

Finally, not all college students have access to reliable transportation. For students without cars or those who don’t live near public transportation, online learning opens up options that otherwise might not be available.

2. Courses Provide Technical Advantage
Businesses and other organizations increasingly rely on the Internet and technology for employee, vendor, and customer communications. The opportunity to work with constantly evolving technology, such as video conferencing and educational content management systems, may be an advantage of the online learning environment that the traditional classroom doesn’t offer.

3. Courses Reduce On-Campus Expenses
While tuition to an online university costs about as much as tuition for courses taken on-campus, additional expenses – such as transportation, parking, room and board, and other campus-specific fees – are minimal. Do expect to purchase textbooks in either environment.

Online Courses Advantages

Disadvantages of Online Courses

While online courses have their advantages, they’re not for everyone. There are a number of possible cons you need to weigh before signing up for an online course:

1. Online Courses Aren’t for Everyone
An April 2013 study published by researchers at Columbia University suggests that community college students who take online courses are less likely to complete or perform well during the courses. These results were pronounced for students with prior learning difficulties. Online courses are best suited for students willing to be responsible for their own learning. They’re generally self-sufficient and have good time-management skills, so the support of a classroom isn’t needed.

Generally speaking, online courses are binary: you either sink or swim. For this reason, students who are older and have some work experience are likely to perform better in an online environment than those fresh out of high school.

2. Online Degrees May Not Carry as Much Weight
While employer perception of online degrees has improved over the last decade, many continue to reject applicants with online degrees due to publicity about “diploma mills,” lack of legitimate accreditation, and the perception that students only get a fraction of the learning experience online. A 2009 study indicated that “gatekeepers” – receptionists, HR recruiters, and resume screeners – had an overall negative perception about online undergraduate degrees.

On the other hand, the perception of a program may vary based on the field of study. For instance, a study by Dr. Jeffery S. Bailey and Dr. Larry V. Flegle indicated that half of hiring managers felt there was no difference between an online or on-campus MBA, while spokespersons at Intel and Texas Instruments noted that online studies for degrees in engineering, math, and science are less valued because “there are no real online engineering courses that can simulate the hands-on courses you need.” For this reason, degrees in humanities and business may be more readily accepted, while those in engineering and science are not.

3. Degrees Are Limited
The number of full online undergraduate degree programs offered by recognized universities and colleges still remains small. Fortunately, most traditional colleges have online and classroom courses so that students can move back and forth between the two. Many online schools also complement their online curricula with classes on proprietary campuses.

The movement between platforms makes it almost impossible to differentiate a partial online degree from a traditional brick-and-mortar degree. And, as more universities further develop their online curricula, online degrees will continue to gain esteem with employers.

Accreditation Makes a Difference

Accreditation is a non-governmental peer process designed to assure minimum standards are met while helping higher education institutions assess and improve themselves. In the United States, colleges and universities are accredited by one of the 19 recognized institutional accrediting organizations that have been reviewed and approved by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the U.S. Department of Education.

Before enrolling in a course or with a particular school, students and parents should check the accreditation status of the institution and the course of study. This process helps ensure that you’re getting the education for which you are paying.

Sponsors of Long Distance Learning Courses

There are a variety of online courses available in virtually every field or subject. These courses are sometimes sponsored by the most well-respected learning institutions in the country, while others are sponsored by unaccredited, less-renowned online schools. Some classes offer credit toward a degree, while others are non-credit courses available for free.

In either case, online courses are typically pursued by those who are:

  • Simply curious and want to broaden their knowledge
  • Seeking specific knowledge and workplace skills
  • Supplementing traditional classroom courses for credit
  • Pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in a variety of fields

Some online classes require prerequisite courses prior to enrollment, while others are available to everyone. Online courses are available in most major languages, including Arabic and Chinese, and are taught by some of the most renowned professors in the world. Some come with a degree, others with a certificate of completion, and others with only the satisfaction of new knowledge.

Free Courses

The newest entry to online education is the MOOC, or massive open online course, developed by schools such as Harvard, Stanford, and MIT. These courses have been, and continue to be, developed as part of each college’s mission to improve overall knowledge at little or no cost. A typical class includes several short, recorded weekly lecture modules and supplemental reading assignments. There is usually homework (graded by computer or other attendees), and possibly a few online meetings where you can speak with other students or the instructor.

MOOCs are different from most online courses because of the number of students involved (thousands at a time), the prestige of the professor, and the status of the school offering the course. While these courses are free, they don’t offer college credit, but are still an excellent way to supplement or prepare for traditional credit courses.

Some of the larger organizations offering free courses include:

  • Coursera. Coursera was founded by two professors in the Computer Science Department of Stanford – Dr. Daphne Koller and Dr. Andrew Ng – and funded by famed venture capitalists John Doerr and Scott Sandell. According to the website, more than four million students have taken a course to date.
  • Academic Earth. Academic Earth connects users with free online resources from the world’s top universities. The site is linked to 750 online courses and 8,500 individual online lectures. The site offers playlists combining video lectures from a variety of schools on different evolving subjects, as well as thought-provoking videos.
  • edX. edX is a nonprofit founded and governed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. The consortium includes courses from 28 universities around the world including such institutions as Kyoto University, Australian National University, IIT Bombay, and the Ècole Polytechnique Fèdèrale De Lausanne. The number of courses offered at any time are limited and are constantly being updated.
  • Udacity. This for-profit venture was born from a Stanford University experiment in which Professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig offered their “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online for free, attracting more than 160,000 students in 190 countries. Udacity courses are limited to specific categories and are developed exclusively for Udacity students. Course instructors range from college professors to such luminaries as Steve Huffman, the co-founder of Reddit, and Steve Blank, veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

Accredited Online Degree Programs

Hundreds of schools offer online degrees. Each of the following accredited online schools are accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) and are members of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

Several accredited schools include:

  • University of Phoenix. Founded in 1976, the school has more than 100 campus locations across the country. The University of Phoenix is reputed to have the largest enrollment of any online school, with more than 284,000 undergraduate students. According to its website, the school has been placed on notice by HLC that it is out of compliance with one or more criteria for accreditation.
  • Kaplan University. Now a subsidiary of the The Washington Post, Kaplan was founded in 1937 as the American Institute of Commerce. Today, there are 15 campuses predominantly located in the Midwest serving more than 45,000 students.
  • Capella University. Capella University was founded in 1993 and currently serves 36,000 students with 1,500 faculty members. Capella acquired Sophia Learning in 2012 to develop free, customizable, innovative teacher tools and academic tutorials for students from the fourth grade through college.
  • American Intercontinental University. The university was founded in Europe in 1970 and has physical campuses in London, Atlanta, South Florida, and Houston. American Intercontinental University has more than 75,000 alumni, and the school was included in Military Times Edge Magazine’s 2013 “Best for Vets” edition.

College LDL Courses

Many, if not most, traditional universities and colleges offer self-paced, online versions of their curricula for full college credit, but require a majority of on-campus courses in order to obtain a degree. The online courses replicate those taught on campus, often with the same instructors. Students interested in supplementing regular studies with online courses should contact the registrar of the college from which they hope to graduate to get details on the courses available and any specific degree requirements.

Curricula Online Version

Before Enrolling

College counselors and HR professionals, while recognizing the value of an online education, caution that students and parents should exercise due diligence before selecting an online course of study. Questions to answer before enrolling include:

  • Is the School and Degree Program Accredited by a Reputable Accrediting Body? The U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator allows students to verify accreditation of any school, and provides useful information about graduation and retention rates.
  • Can Credits Earned Be Transferred to Another College? To find the answer to this question, you may need to contact the potential college where the credits would be transferred. If the credits can’t be transferred, the student should question the wisdom of taking the course if a degree is his or her objective.
  • What Academic Assistance Is Available to Online Students? When a course lacks the give-and-take of a classroom, students may require opportunities to communicate with the instructor and other students. Before signing up for a class, you should find out whether interaction is encouraged, and how it is facilitated. Anne Johnson, director of Generation Progress says, “If you’re having a hard time…getting information about what it would be like as a student at that school, that’s going to tell you a lot about what your experience would be.”
  • How Many On-Campus Courses Are Required to Earn a Degree? Many degrees require that students attend some courses on campus. It’s important to find out how many on-campus courses are required so you can account for the additional costs of on-campus fees when setting your education budget.

Final Word

“There is a tsunami coming,” says Stanford University President John Hennessey, discussing the future of online education. “The ground is shifting under us in higher education,” echoes Kevin Reilly, president of the University of Wisconsin system. Gaining a solid education and earning a college degree has never been more valuable, and will continue to grow in importance. At the same time, the opportunities to learn have never been greater, as technology leverages great teachers and simplifies complex relationships.

Online courses should be part of every student’s educational journey, regardless of age, area of interest, or attained degree. Investigate the opportunities available to you and enjoy the experience of gaining new knowledge and making the most of your education.

Have you ever taken an online course? What was your experience?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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