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Online College: An Old Idea with New Possibilities

by studyabroad

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Are you thinking about attending an online college to pursue either a degree or a specialized certificate—one that can help you advance in your career?  Does the “newness” with regards to this type of educational model make you a bit wary about its effectiveness and legitimacy?  If so, recent studies show that your worries are grossly misplaced, and believe it or not, this type of learning model is anything but new.  In fact, the only thing that’s new about this type of education is that it relies on the Internet and other technologies—aspects that, ironically, have only enhanced the distance learning process and made it much more effective.


While the notion of an “online” college is still relatively new, the process known as distance learning, which is exactly what an online college offers, is anything but a novel idea, dating back, according to many sources, to the early 1960s. Distance learning was first offered by a select group of colleges and universities across the country in the 1960s and 1970s, and quickly became popular because it allowed students to attend the college of their choice—one that offered a particular course of study that appealed to them—without having to relocate to that area in order to take the required classes in the more traditional “brick and mortar” setting. 


In those times, the process associated with distance learning was quite simple.  The instructor would send the class materials to the student via the US mail, and once the materials were received the student would do the appropriate reading, complete any relative assignments and coursework, perhaps even take an assessment of some kind, and then package it all up to send back to the instructor—again via the US snail mail.  It was a great concept, but unfortunately it had some glaring disadvantages, not the least of which was the inability for teacher and student to communicate in a timely manner.  For example, if a student had a question about an assignment, or if he/she wanted to have a term paper looked over before submitting the final copy, the process could take days—two days in the mail to send the question or paper, and another two for the reply.  These types of issues made early distance learning programs a bit ineffective, but fortunately, with the introduction of the online college, and all the relevant technologies associated with it; those issues have now been resolved.


Studying at an online college, while certainly still a form of distance learning, gives you around-the-clock access to instructors and fellow classmates via technologies such as email, instant messaging, video conferencing, forums and bulletin boards.  You’ll attend virtual classrooms and hear lectures in real time without ever having to leave the comfort of your home or personal office.  It affords you all the advantages of being an on-campus student without the hassle and the expense of commuting.  You can schedule your course work around your job and other obligations, and study only when it’s convenient for you.  And perhaps the best part of attending an online college is the price.  At an online college, because there is less operating overhead, the tuition is usually much more affordable.


According to several studies, there is no significant difference in terms of the effectiveness when comparing the traditional classroom model to the online college, and in many cases, the motivated student can actually achieve more academically through this type of education delivery, simply because it allows him/her to complete the coursework at their convenience, during times when they are more relaxed and ready to learn.

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  • Convenience.  Studies show that the majority of students who opt for the distance learning model are working adults, most with families.  For these students, distance learning affords them the freedom to study during hours most convenient for them, such as nights or weekends—hours that traditional in-class courses are not typically offered.
  • Self-Paced.  One of the indisputable facts regarding education is that different students learn at different paces.  Distance learning allows students to work at their own pace, without being hampered by classroom time restrictions that are either too short or too long.
  • Course Availability.  These days, when budget cuts to higher education seem to be the norm, finding the one or two courses to complete a particular course of study can be difficult, if not impossible.  Distance learning allows colleges and universities to offer a wider range of courses, which in turn can help students finish their degree or occupational program in the shortest amount of time.


Distance Learning:  The Disadvantages


  • Technology requirements and knowledge.  Prerequisites for participating in distance learning programs almost always include the possession or acquisition of the suitable technology (computer, web cam, Internet service, etc) and at least a basic knowledge of working with this type of technology.  Consequently, those who cannot afford a computer, or those who lack the appropriate computer skills may be excluded from participating in distance learning.
  • Isolation and Motivation.  While some distance learning programs include some student interaction—interaction which enhances the educational experience—the majority of the coursework will be completed independently.  Thus, those who lack the motivation and/or organizational skills to work in this self-paced style manner may do poorly with this type of delivery model.
  • Lacks Immediate Feedback.  Classroom discussions and assignments allow for immediate instructor feedback, whereas distance learning does not.  Students who require this type of immediate feedback and/or recognition may have the tendency to fall behind in a distance learning environment.


While research statistics have consistently shown no significant difference between distance learning and traditional classroom instruction, it must be noted that those statistics assume a well-constructed program, one that utilizes appropriate and relevant materials and includes opportunities for both student and teacher feedback.


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