Thursday, May 12, 2016

Re-evaluating the Pros and Cons of Online College Classes - After the First Year.

T (age 18) is just finishing up the last bit of what amounts to his first year of an online college degree.  Before he started in on his first online class (then a long summer vacation, and on into studies in earnest) I posted a list of pros and cons we had considered before he decided to try online studies rather than packing up and heading out to a brick and mortar university.

Now that he's had some time to try out online college classes, I thought it might be good to look back over the pros and cons list, and add a few thoughts.  These are my thoughts, not his.  I'm hoping after his last exam has been turned in, and he's had time to recover, I might talk him into a guest post, so he can give a students opinion (keeping in mind he has nothing with which to compare online classes).  For now, you get a mother's opinion.

From my perspective, it's been an interesting year, or so.  It turns out that the online collegiate experience is about as different from traditional college or university classes as homeschooling is from public school.  I'm inclined to think the differences are for the most part good - but it does require a reorientation of thinking, and a true commitment to learning, over the commitment of the trappings of "school". 

I've reprinted our old pros and cons list below (see the original post for sources), with new thoughts in blue.


  1. Greater flexibility - Instead of having classes at set times and days, in many cases lectures can be watched online, or listened to, at the students convenience.  Classes can be scheduled around work and family obligations, instead of the other way around. This has turned out to be a fantastic advantage.
  2. Convenience - Again, in many cases, a student can choose when they want to start a class, rather than waiting for the semester to officially commence.  While this isn't true for all online programs, it is for the one that T is enrolled in, and has also been a very nice feature.
  3. Can set your own pace for learning - While some classes do still have set time schedules, and all have an eventual deadline for completion, many classes allow students to move faster if they wish.  Instead of taking six months, a class might be completed in 4 months.  In fact, some schools even offer a discount on the next class if you complete one early.  T has played around with taking one class at a time, and completing each in a month, or taking several classes over a four to six month period, finding his own pace, while sticking to his ultimate completion goal for the degree program.
  4. Introverts might be more likely to speak up and ask questions in an email format - The online format allows for slow introspection, and time for thorough formulation of an idea, before it is written onto a chat board, or into an email, as opposed to the quick blurting out of an idea or question, before the professor moves onto the next thought or topic.  This type of communication suits some personalities better than others. I'm still inclined to think that a little more "live" class discussion wouldn't be a bad thing, even for the introverts.
  5. Fewer pressures of limited space - Student numbers are not limited by classroom space, and classes are not limited by classroom availability.  T has found, especially in the newest classes being offered, that it is not uncommon for him to be the only student in the online version of his classes - class availability has not been a problem - but message board discussions have been a little wanting.
  6. Lower costs - in tuition and on campus expenses - parking, room and board, club fees. Very true. Just remember, low price isn't everything - you want to make sure the program is accredited, and the school has a good reputation not only when it comes to their online courses, but also for their physical campus.
  7. Availability - Not only are classes ready when you want them, but potentially, if you can't find the class you want at your chosen school, you could easily transfer in a credit from another school, without changing physical locations.  T is working through a specific degree program, and has not needed to transfer in any credits from other schools - so we can't really speak to the ease of this option.
  8. Continual access to lectures - Can't make out your notes? No problem! Just re-watch that bit of the lecture.  As long as you are enrolled in the class, you can watch the lectures as many times as you like.  True, but listening back through lectures (if the class has them) can be time consuming, so good notes are still important.
  9. Innovations and advancing technology - From video chatting, to message boards, setting up files in the correct format, to taking online quizzes, distance courses are utilizing the latest in technology, and an online student gains a natural familiarity with it.  Again, this is very true, and sometimes a bit of a stretch - but in a good way.
  10. Lack of in class distractions - No person chewing gum loudly behind you, or sniffing every thirty seconds.  If someone is bothering you at home, you can simply pick up your computer, and move to another room.  Whether it's your little sister practicing piano while you're trying to read, or your dad visiting loudly in the next room with your exam proctor (a person overseeing the exam), a distraction is still a distraction, and not always avoidable.

  1. Isolation - Anyone used to homeschooling is familiar with this objection.  While isolation can be an issue for students studying on their own, it does not have to be.  There are plenty of community and church clubs and events to keep a student connected in with people, but you do have to go looking for them.  T works, attends a small college and career group at church, and joins the older homeschoolers (high school and recent graduates) for ultimate frisbee on the weekends, but his opportunities for rubbing shoulders with large groups of other college students are pretty small.  I'm not sure yet whether this is good or bad.  It is how life is after college anyway, does it hurt to join the normal world while still in college?  Time will tell.
  2. Requires self motivation - Again, something homeschoolers are already familiar with.  Although, I'm thinking that brick and mortar schools also require some self-motivation.  I don't remember any early morning wake up calls from my college professors, no one walked me to class, or held my hand while I researched papers.  It was simply expected the work would be done according to the syllabus.  That much works the same for online classes. I'm finding, as a mom, and as the only other person in the house with college experience (and to be honest - as a type A personalty) it has been difficult to step back and force T to be self motivated.   This is more my challenge though, than his.
  3. Limited interaction with professors - While it is true, you cannot stand chatting with professors in the hallway after class, or corner them in their offices with a quick question.  You can email them, or call them in their offices.  Most likely you will have a distance office representative to run on campus interference for you, if you can't get through to a professor as well.  T has found this to vary a lot depending on the professor.  Some email, or even call, to check-up, encourage, or offer feedback. Others are practically non-existent.  But, the distance office has proved to be an invaluable resource.  The staff are always quick to respond, and very helpful as a go-between to the professors, when needed.
  4. No extracurricular campus activities - This is very much like the isolation argument.  And it is true, you won't have football games to cheer at, or chapels to attend.  In the end it really depends on your purpose for attending college in the first place, as to how much this one will matter to you.  True again, but local schools offer plays, lectures, and sporting events, that are open to the public - so you don't have to miss out on everything.  T is hoping to make a trip to the brick and mortar campus of his school later this year, so he can get a feel for campus life, and join with the rest of the student body - if only for a conference or student weekend.
  5. Stigma - Thanks to a "Sally Struthers' school of all things ridiculous" perception still lingering from the days before distance learning had really taken hold in the accredited schools, there is a sense that this kind of learning isn't "real college".  However, if the school, and program are accredited then this is completely a false perception (though one you will still face).  A transcript, and diploma from an online degree program looks identical to what you receive if you attend classes on campus.  It is the same degree.  We found most of the negative reactions to T's decision to be from family members (many of whom are college professors or connected with college campuses in some way).  In the community at large, T has bumped into many adults continuing their educations online, and found a pretty good acceptance.  Anyone who has experience with online classes, knows how to tell a legitimate school from a degree mill, and appreciates real programs for what they are - an education.
  6. Lack of financial aid - Distance programs are not always eligible for financial aid, because of their reduced cost.  We found that the reduction in tuition more than made up for the lack.  The lower cost of tuition does really reduce the need for financial aid.  T has been able to pay his own way - working part-time while in classes and full-time in between.
  7. Natural technology problems - Even under the best of circumstances, internet connections can be lost, computers malfunction, and printers jam.  There are bound to be some frustrations along the way.  Imagine loosing your connection in the middle of a midterm exam - will you be allowed to restart it?  These are things to find out before you sign up for your first class, and to be prepared for.  T has experienced a few bumps and blips, but these have proved to be good learning experiences rather than major obstacles.
  8. Not getting out - experiencing new places - This con could also be applied to attending local colleges.  It is true that you will not have the experience of loading up all your belongings and heading off for an in-dorm adventure with your buddies.  That does not mean you can't join with a short term volunteer organization, or simply travel on your own, along the way.  Going away to college is not the only door out of the house.  An adventurous spirit is always going to find its way out.  It has been an interesting year watching T beginning to test his wings - staying at home has given him a safe haven, and time to move at his own pace, but it hasn't stopped him from maturing, branching out, and making plans of his own.
  9. Degrees are limited - This one is simply true.  In all of the schools we looked at, there were far more degree options being offered on campus than through the distance program.  Hopefully this will change with time.  However, in the meantime, there are still a number of online degrees to choose from, and even if the degree you're seeking cannot be completed online - the basic core classes can.  For the moment T has opted to work towards an associates degree in general studies that will stand alone or allow him to take his core credits on into a more specific degree on campus if he decides to pursue one.
  10. Not able to ask questions in the moment - If the professor says something that puzzles or outrages you, you will not be able to ask for instant clarification.  However, sometimes by listening, instead of speaking, you manage to learn more.  And, not always being able to say what you're thinking, the moment you think it, is a good thing.  Given the rest of the lecture, and time to research and consider, a more complete question or objection might be presented to the professor through an email or chat board.  This has made for some lively discussions around the house, though.  We often work just as well as a sounding board as the student in the next chair would have.
  11. Professors cannot tell if they are “getting through” - A professor lecturing at you through a computer screen will not be able to see your confused look, or glazed eyes, and modify his approach in the moment.  T has found through feedback on papers, that on occasion, he has completely missed what the professor was trying to say.  On occasion it has been frustrating, but there is something to learning to read, listen, and consider carefully to determine if what you're hearing is really what is being said.
  12. It’s new to professors, and not all of them are comfortable with it - Just because a professor is teaching an online class, it does not mean he or she appreciates the format, or understands the technology necessary to make it work.  Educators are often slow to embrace change, especially when the change can bring additional work for them along with it.  Many have very strong opinions about the importance of in class participation.  Again, this varies from professor to professor.  Some are very good at working with online classes, and some are not.

Overall, T has had a positive experience with his online classes, and is on track to complete his initial associate degree this next year.  At that point, he might decide to go on campus to work on a bachelors, but the online option will still be there if he chooses.  As parents, we'll be happy to support either option, feeling confident that he is gaining a valuable education either way.


Phyllis said...

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. I am finding this topic very interesting. If I may ask, through what program is T getting his studies?

Sheltie Times said...

What an interesting perspective. I do think online colleges are gaining more respect as adults returning to college are utilizing them more as a means to get their educations around work/family responsibilities. I know some are even working with some online programs to provide opportunities for employees to get training and advanced education because it is more flexible and affordable, while providing the corporation with a better educated work force.

I suspect this acceptance of online education will reach the younger traditional students, too. After all this is the most highly technological generation to emerge and those that follow are only more likely to be more engaged in technology than your own son. It only goes to follow their preferred modes of learning may include more flexible tech based learning.

I have a family member who returned to school as an adult recently and was surprised to find much of what you are describing is what she is experiencing in her on-campus life. Professors are turning much more learning over to the students through technology. It isn't the complete freedom you describe for your son, but it is far more tech based for assignment, lectures, and other traditional activities that used to be more classroom based. Students are still attending classes, but her experience has been much different than the lecture/lab experience she expected.

An Almost Unschooling Mom said...

Phyllis - T is working on an associates in general studies from Prairie College (formerly Prairie Bible Institute), because he wanted a Christian twist on his core classes - so still history, psychology, writing and so on, but also with theology, and Bible classes. His top three picks were Prairie (in Alberta), Briercrest Bible College (in Sask) and Moody Bible Institute (Chicago). We haven't tried yet to transfer his credits into a state school or private secular university, but are assured most will transfer straight across, with some transferring as elective credits. It looks to me like he's planning on completing a bachelors right from Prairie though, and then all of his credits will work toward that whether he goes up to the school, or continues online.

An Almost Unschooling Mom said...

Oh, and I should maybe add - my bachelors is from Western Oregon State University, and it's my experiences from classes there that I'm using as my basis for comparison with T's online classes.

Natalie PlanetSmarty said...

I can't wait for T's guest post. I think popularity of online degrees will continue to increase as more people resist the price tag and the culture shock of campus life. It sounds like his first year went rather well!

Kendra said...

I really appreciated the first post this was based on, & equally the second one as our eldest is flying towards the end of his highschool years..

Ticia said...

I find the idea of online schools so intriguing. I know it's a few years before I have to worry about this, but I'm enjoying seeing how it goes with you guys.

I can't wait to read T's guest post when he feels up for it.

claireshomeeducation said...

This is really interesting. My C wants to do distance learning so she can travel in between. She is a HUGE extrovert so I don't whether a lack of student interaction would be a problem. I enjoyed reading your thoughts :)

Butterfly said...

That was very interesting! Thanks for taking the time to share all of those experiences and thoughts.

MaryAnne said...

This is some great information. I have a sister who is finishing her Bachelor's degree online and one thing that she is struggling with interviewing for jobs is that companies like people who have held some sort of an on-campus leadership position. She led teams to wins in state-wide competitions, and that helps, but they are looking for student group experience.

An Almost Unschooling Mom said...

Maryanne - That's a very good point, or caution. Depending on the student's career goals, there are a number of possibilities for community involvement (toast masters, Kiwanis, church groups, theater groups, choirs, etc) that I'm thinking would work equally well to a student group. T is working, and will have the work experience to add to a resume, as well. It's only fast food, but we're encouraging him to build a good reputation of dependability, and to seek opportunities of advancement (which in his case require further study, and passing a number of work related quizzes) which will offer a measurement of his abilities to future employers in any career field.