When the pandemic hit the United States, in mid March, there was a flood of articles about loneliness, the tumultuous move to distance learning by schools across the country, and the overall anxiety setting in about how students would cope with online learning. Well, here we are many months later. The notion that online learning is going away after the pandemic abates is foolish. For one, it existed successfully before the pandemic in multiple forms.
Still, the consensus among students seems to be a bit of misgiving about online learning. But online education, when done properly, can actually serve a prospective student better than in-person learning; not only that, in some ways it prepares students for the way the world interacts (zoom calls, telecommuting, etc.) more so than in-person college. How? Let’s find out together.
Let’s start with just a few of the benefits of online learning for students. And there’s an obvious number one reason why online learning can work so well:
An article on online education from US News & World Report describes how “many online learners balance their education with jobs and other responsibilities.” And during the pandemic, that ‘other responsibilities’ category may have seriously opened up to include things like helping teach your own kids, take care of parents or relatives, manage housework, etc. all while living in the shadow of the pandemic itself.
That’s why online learning’s flexibility is crucial. It allows students freedom and opportunity while managing other responsibilities. But what’s the ideal? Look for online programs that offer you the fullest amount of flexibility, while balancing what you want to learn at the same time.
Underrated tip: Think about time zone, the one you’re in, and the one your online program of choice is in, because that will surely have an impact on your schedule.
We’ve all heard the saying ‘old dog, new tricks’ and wanted it to be true, regardless of our actual age. And it can be. With online learning you can access your education from anywhere in a huge range of topics. This article in Wired illustrates that point: “on the Internet, where everything is available, you have access to the best, most unique material from the world’s top scholars.”
There are a multitude of certificates out there on a wide range of topics, from accounting to software and app development to paralegal studies and more. And, if you’re going to the right college, all such programs are accredited and well-regarded by organizations and people in the field.
This is somewhat related to flexibility but worth having a separate section; while the flexibility of online learning allows you to effectively organize your schedule, the customizable nature of it also gives you the chance to learn at your own rate.
A 2019 article in Forbes puts it nicely: “online courses offer students greater control over their own learning by enabling them to work at their own pace.” Furthermore, the fact that online school is, you know, online teaches students to be more accountable and disciplined.
That kind of discipline—making your own schedule, optimizing it, attending classes (when it could be so easy to stay in bed just a few feet away!) at regular intervals of your own accord—creates students that are generally highly engaged and very thoughtful, which brings me to my next point…
We all have this idea that sitting in big lecture halls is the proper way to ‘do college.’ But online learning can actually be quite intimate and engaging, and allow the professor to interact more purposefully with students.
A March 2020 article in Inside Higher Ed by several professors at the University of Illinois’ Gies School of Business write about their one-year-old online learning program and describe how “when faculty and staff members gather to talk about what is working, one theme that arises over and over is the level of engagement.”
The article describes said engagement as not just professor to professor or student to professor, but student to student; and because the program is online, a diverse set of voices and perspectives can be heard and internalized by the whole class. The authors go so far as to call online learning “surprisingly intimate,” versus in-person classes and give a few examples:
“When you create small breakout groups online, you eliminate not only the chair shuffling and wasted time of moving people around, but also much of the awkward social dance that human beings do as they try to find their place in a new group.”-Larry DeBrock, Norma Scagnoli, & Fataneh Taghaboni-Dutta, March 18, 2020, Inside HigherEd
The authors also specify that since most students have grown up communicating frequently online (which will only continue), the students themselves are comfortable with the digital interfacing.
What do I mean by the header ‘bonus features?’ Well, suffice to say that while in-person learning has the usual suspects of learning aides, textbooks, workbooks, the occasional video, etc., online learning by its very nature necessitates a lot of extra content (hence bonus features) for teachers to give to students.
That same Forbes article from earlier mentions the proliferation of “more engaging multimedia content” for online learners. Effective distance learning involves that kind of curriculum; courses and professors that integrate their students into the learning by seeking their opinions, questions, and insights alongside other content will ultimately be successful.
The irony is that the world interacts so virtually and digitally now that online learning is probably closer to real life than in-person education is. Learning online has come a long way quickly, with accreditation as well as intensive, cost-effective, and modern coursework that all seeks to elevate students. These types of learning platforms and models are here to stay. I’m all for it and you should be too.