Online learning is on the rise. According to a 2013 report by the Babson Survey Research Group, over 6.7 million postsecondary students were enrolled in at least one online class in 2011, compared to only 1.6 million in 2002, and higher-education institutions continue to refine and enhance their online curriculum. In 2002, about 72 percent of these schools offered some form of online learning, and that number has steadily increased to nearly 87 percent in 2012. Colleges also have emphasized the creation of fully online degree programs, and 62 percent of the schools surveyed now award degrees entirely through distance education.
Student demand is among the many factors contributing to the growth of online learning. Students are also seeking the opportunities for flexibility of scheduling and cost efficiency that online studies can offer.
Possible advantages of online learning
Convenience and flexibility
- Schedule Flexibility: Students can access their course at any time, from anywhere they can log on, in most cases. This means that parents, working students, and professionals on the move have the option of attending classes no matter their work schedule. Students only need a computer and Internet access to take online classes.
- Ease of accessibility: Courseware can be accessible for students when they need it. Students can review lectures, discussions, explanations, and comments. Individuals can also share notes with each other to help facilitate community learning.
- Range of options: Students may be able to choose from a wider breadth of degree programs. Some online colleges develop and offer degree programs that might not yet be available through nearby public or private institutions.
- Students control study time: On-campus courses are typically scheduled in a more rigid format, with shorter classes running 50 minutes, and others running longer. Night classes may last for nearly three hours. One of the benefits of online education is that students may not have to sit for long periods of time. Lessons can be paused when needed, and notes read at will.
- Chance for interaction: Online courses may be less intimidating than the brick-and-mortar classroom setting, and could help to increase student interaction. By allowing everyone to have a voice, shared ideas grow diverse as well. Students can also think longer about what they want to say and add their comments when ready. In a traditional classroom, the conversation could have moved past the point where the student may be willing to comment.
- Online communications: Instructors can be more approachable in the online setting. Students may feel more comfortable talking openly with their teachers through online chats, emails, and newsgroup discussions rather than face-to-face. Online correspondence also cuts out having to wait for office hours that may not be convenient for either party.
- Time to absorb material: Positive results are reported for students enrolled in online classes, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Education: “on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” Using over 1,000 empirical studies, the DOE found that time was the additive that helped students perform better. The report noted benefits in studies in which online learners spent more time on task than students in the face-to-face condition.
- Money saving option: Students may be able to save money by not having to physically attend classes. Online courses may help individuals cut down or eliminate costs of transportation, babysitting, and other expenses incurred by attending classes in a traditional setting.
- No more expensive textbooks: Some web-based classes may not require physical textbooks, as reading materials may be available either through the school’s own library or their partnerships with e-libraries and other digital publishers. E-textbooks might offer substantial savings for students, adding up to hundreds of dollars a year.
Opportunities for convenience, cost-effectiveness, and student enrichment are just some of the variables that have contributed to online learning’s growth. Distance education has gained steam in these areas, and advocates are continuously looking to improve upon these as well as other facets of the experience.
One concern is the lack of face-to-face interaction with the instructor and fellow classmates. Students may experience a disconnect with the rest of the classroom, but schools are proactively looking into ways to alleviate the issue. The adoption of video conferencing technologies, and even free-to-use group chats, for example, can help students interface with teachers and other students.
Another worry is that online degree programs are viewed as less optimal instruction for students, with no real standards to regulate the curriculum. However, online instruction is subject to academic scrutiny like on-campus schooling. Accrediting bodies exist to review and accredit online institutions as well as traditional colleges and programs. It’s always a good idea to check that a school has been reviewed by an approved accreditation organization.
Student plagiarism and dishonesty are areas of concern as well. Some critics feel that it is easier to plagiarize or share answers because of reduced surveillance and increased connectivity. Institutions have begun to find ways to fight against these concerns with technologies to tackle cheating, like Turnitin and iThenticate.
Distance education has come a long way since its beginnings, and more advancements are likely to come. Advocates are finding ways to tighten up the perceived shortcomings of e-learning, and new technological developments continue to add to the advantages that online learning may offer for students.
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“The Evidence on Online Education,” Inside Higher Ed, June 29, 2009,
“Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011,” Babson Survey Research Group, 2011,
“More Pupils Are Learning Online, Fueling Debate on Quality,” The New York Times, April 5, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/06/education/06online?pagewanted=all&_r=1&
“Online Education Programs Tackle Student Cheating,” U.S. News and World Report, November 26, 2012,