The Pros and Cons of Online Courses

Updated April 10, 2015
The Pros and Cons of Online Courses
Thanks to modern technology, students can now attend class from the comfort of their homes. While online courses were once deemed inferior to lecture halls, the stigma has seemed to fade as technology advances and becomes a greater and greater part of a standard academic curriculum. The virtual classroom is here, but are online college courses right for you?
The virtual classroom is here, but are online college courses right for you?
 
Thanks to modern technology, students can now attend class from the comfort of their homes. While online courses were once deemed inferior to lecture halls, the stigma has seemed to fade as technology advances and becomes a greater and greater part of a standard academic curriculum. Students, young and old, now have the choice to pursue online learning, whether through a single class or a full online university course load. But are there benefits to online learning? Or is something lost in translation when education becomes virtual? We examined both sides of the equation with several leading educational professionals.
The Pros of Online Courses 
 
Flexible Learning 
 
A flexible schedule is one of the main benefits of taking online courses. Mary Stephens, Founder and CEO of PrepForward.com, points out that online education “allows individuals to study at their own pace and on their own schedule.” Digital “classrooms” can be accessed anywhere, at any time. Mary, who teaches online courses at institutions across the U.S., believes this is a prime benefit to online learning in a world chock-full of so many hectic schedules.  
 
Professor Linda Williams, Founder and CEO of Whose Apple Empowerment Center, goes on to add, “Online courses do not require classroom attendance that can be disruptive to family and career obligations. The basic requirements in the virtual course room are clearly delineated and meeting deadlines can be scheduled into the student's routine.” 
 
Individualized Learning 
 
Students taking online courses can learn in a way that benefits them. Alexandra Mayzler of the Thinking Caps Group believes this is ultimately conducive to learning. “When students are doing independent work they have more opportunity to adjust how they study based on their learning preferences and proclivities.” Online learning can help students harness their strengths and minimize weaknesses. 
 
Shy students do not have to worry about being penalized for not speaking up. As Mary mentions, taking an online class “alleviates [the] intimidation that individuals may experience when speaking up in class about material they are unfamiliar with.” Students aren’t boxed into a one-size-fits-all approach.  
 
Opportunities for Students of All Ages and Needs 
 
Obviously, students who have children or elderly parents to take care of will find it hard to drop everything and attend courses in person. Online courses offer a wonderful alternative to those with obligations. Kiara Smith, a North Lake College academic advisor and the founder of Year O.N.E. College Consulting, recommends online courses for students who are pursuing education at an older age. “Non-traditional students [such as] those that did not recently graduate high school…returning to school for additional training might feel more comfortable in an online class versus attending class with younger students they may not feel they can relate or connect to.”  
 
Linda speaks of her younger sister as one example of how this method of learning is useful to those with physical challenges. “She was determined to complete her Bachelors. It took some convincing, on her part, to get the university to allow her to complete all her classes early. [However], she graduated from Capella University with high honors less than a year and a half before she lost her battle with cancer.”
 
The Cons of Online Courses
 
  Reputation (In Certain Fields) 
 
Non-traditional methods of attending college may be looked down upon, especially in more traditional fields of business. “Although taking online courses is picking up speed with many students, the courses still carry a stigma when assessed by a recruiter or committee for a competitive position,” admits Dr. Deborah Bedor, CEO of College Admission Central and pre-college counselor. She cites the fact that businesses look for soft skills in graduates such as “collaboration, inspiration, and intellectual sparring,” which may be better developed in a physical classroom. 
 
Requires Personal Discipline 
 
Staying motivated and keeping up with assignments may prove more difficult for online students than for those attending traditional classes. Alexandra Mayzler reports that “online courses create a challenge for students who struggle with executive functioning. The free form nature of online classes means that students need to be organized and manage their time well.” It is fundamentally important for students taking online classes to be on top of their time management skills. Make a schedule to complete work and studying, and stick to it. On a tight travel or work schedule? Sorry, you’ll need to make the right adjustments or you will feel the effects in your course work.  
 
Kiara recounts a story that sums up the need for personal accountability and discipline. “I am married with 2 young children, work full-time and took many of my classes for my Master’s degree online. Knowing when to study and how much time I had in between assignments for each of my classes at the beginning of each semester was crucial. Checking for emails, messages, announcements, etc. from the instructor was also important in case there were changes to due dates or assignment details. Having a good support system is just as important as your discipline. When you have family responsibilities and you need a few hours to get school work done, having someone to lift the extra weight off of your shoulders is vital to your success!” 
 
Lack of 1-to-1 Teaching 
 
Online students do not get the one-on-one interaction with their peers and college professors that they would in traditional settings. It is also more difficult to find people to study with when taking courses online. Kiara Smith says that this can pose a serious problem. “If questions arise, the student has to wait for a response, which depending on the instructor could take several days. Students in online classes are sometimes left to guess what to do for certain assignments when the directions are unclear, especially if they never get that email answer to their question.” 
 
Online Courses are Not Available For All Subjects 
 
Online accreditation may not always match up to a student’s degree goals. Professor Linda Williams cautions, “I would encourage anyone seeking to complete or start a degree to investigate the online experience. Be sure to review the school's accreditation overall and more specifically to your chose discipline. Look at the national requirements for your chosen career to ensure that the school's curriculum meets their national guidelines.”  
 
Conclusion  
Sometimes, it’s possible to get a full education online. Other times, a few select courses online may be the right way to go. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to work with your supporters and advise to decide on a plan that makes sense for your personal ambitions.  Photo Credit: United States Navy | Wikimedia Commons 

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