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It's been close to two decades since colleges and universities began offering online education, in the form of online degrees, residential programs with online components and standalone online courses. How do these offerings measure up against each other and against traditional on-campus programs?

Last year, I engaged in an experiment to see if it was possible to learn the equivalent of what one would potentially get from being enrolled in a four-year liberal arts degree program in just twelve months using only online courses and other forms of free learning.

While that project was designed to assess the equivalency between MOOCs and traditional college-level courses, it also laid bare a changing dynamic between taking an online degree program versus taking individual online courses.

Hardware concerns

The steps needed to get into an online school: from application and acceptance, to filing for financial aid and payment of tuition and fees, are not that different than applying to go to a residential school (although for online students, most of these steps are performed at a distance). But a school's Learning Management System (LMS), a behind-the-scenes software component of many residential college programs, is the vital lifeline for students participating in a 100-percent online institutional education program.

In our feature on some of the tech features of online courses, we noted that synchronous courses, where students log in at a set time and participate in a live lecture or seminar led by an instructor, typically require an additional layer of hardware and software.

Today's LMS are increasingly flexible and powerful, enabling a range of teaching components, like recorded or real-time video lectures, assessments and assignments. But the technical limitations of such systems, coupled with the need for large-scale, fast course creation at institutions releasing hundreds of courses taken by thousands of students, can lead to a template-heavy design process, which can create some sameness from one course to another.

One-off online courses: full-time students vs. professionals

Some online schools also offer the chance to take individual courses as a one-off, although those courses also tend to be taken for institutional purposes, such as building up transfer credits or providing teachers the chance to fulfill professional development (PD) requirements. A Pew Research survey from 2011 stated that around one out of every four college graduates have taken an online course at some point in their college career, and that over the following ten years the amount of students taking online-delivered classes would increase. Regardless of institutional purpose, it would seem online courses are becoming a viable option for more students.

But professionals looking to "skill up" to advance their careers have a variety of resources to draw upon that don't require being enrolled in an online academic institution. Casual learners interested in studying academic subjects can participate in adult education programs, or combine lectures from sources like iTunes U with independent reading.

Online degrees: comparisons and contrasts

online degreesMOOCs, currently underwritten by educational institutions and (for now) patient investors, are unmoored from having to meet the immediate needs of the marketplace. So while online universities must decide which classes and programs will draw enough paying students to be viable, schools that are under the Coursera or edX umbrella are offering courses in liberal arts subjects like philosophy and poetry alongside professional subjects such as computer science and public health, all of which are drawing tens or hundreds of thousands of students.

Keep in mind, however, that massive open learning isn't without its downsides. The nature of such classes means that recorded (vs. live) lectures are the only practical modality for content delivery, and the sheer scale of MOOC classes makes direct communication between teacher and student impossible. Discussion forums are too overcrowded to replicate the give-and-take of classroom conversation. And successful completion of a MOOC leads to a certificate that may have questionable value with important audiences like employers.

In contrast, one of the major benefits of pursuing a "traditional" online degree program is much greater potential for interaction with both instructors and classmates. Additionally, as mentioned in a previous comparison of online degrees and traditional on-campus degrees, a 2013 Public Agenda survey of employers found that while 56 percent favored graduates from on-campus programs, 45 percent of the same sample believed completion of an online degree actually requires more discipline than a traditional degree. That's a contrast against the less-demanding nature of MOOCs.

Takeaways

My own Degree of Freedom project demonstrates an interesting future potentially opened up by online learning options that -- despite shortcomings -- are currently bringing rigor, quality and depth to courses taken by tens of thousands of independent learners.

Like a majority of MOOC students, I already have a BA (in chemistry, earned years ago). But later in life, I decided I wanted to study philosophy (a liberal arts subject). While the socially acceptable choice would have been to enroll in a graduate program, I was interested in learning the subject at the undergraduate level, and MOOCs allowed me to do that at my own pace for free.

One can debate whether my One Year MOOC BA, or an online degree program offered by a traditional university is equivalent to a four year residential one. But the chance to string together enough one-off courses to match the degree requirements of a BA in philosophy just a few years into the online education era means that educational opportunities being opened up beyond the institution are just starting to be understood.

If you're looking to find out more about the kinds of online programs and courses that are available to you, check out our listing below or use the tool on the right to get matched to a custom list of schools.

Sources

"Degree of Freedom," Degree of Freedom, August 26, 2014, http://degreeoffreedom.org/

"The One Year BA! -- The Defense," Degree of Freedom, December 19, 2013, http://degreeoffreedom.org/one-year-ba-defense/

"A One Year BA? -- The Prosecution," Degree of Freedom, December 18, 2013, http://degreeoffreedom.org/one-year-ba-prosecution/

"Not Yet Sold: What Employers and Community College Students Think About Online Education," Public Agenda, August 26, 2014, http://www.publicagenda.org/files/NotYetSold_PublicAgenda_2013.pdf

"Online learning," Pew Research Center, August 28, 2011, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/08/28/i-online-learning/#sthash.nlCou0np.dpuf



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