50 Reasons Why Online Learning Deserves Respect

August 5th, 2013 No Comments Features

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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 62 percent of the schools surveyed now award degrees entirely through distance education.

Still, online learning suffers from a stigma of sorts. And I’m not just talking about the usual suspects—concerns over face-to-face interaction, regulated curriculum standards, plagiarism and dishonesty, etc.

I’m talking about the way we regard every online institution with the same skepticism and disdain with which we regard the University of Phoenix Online.

News flash: Online learning providers offer quality education. Not all of them, to be sure, but more than you think.

This is the reason why MOOCs and Open Education Platforms are such a big deal, aside from the scope of their accessibility. Coursera, EdX, and MIT Open Courseware offer Ivy League lectures to anyone, anywhere, anytime. And they’ve appeared to have gained considerable respect from educators for doing so.

But what about full degrees earned online? You may not be able to receive a B.S. in computer science from MIT from your living room couch, but you can receive an online, accredited, quality B.S. in Information Technology from Western Governor’s University.

The problem is, even accredited programs like those at Western Governor’s University haven’t yet earned the respect they deserve from educators, students, and –perhaps most importantly—employers.

In fact, the United States lags behind its competitors on this front. In Australia, for example, online learning programs are highly respected by students and employers alike. A large part of this is due to the fact that many programs are accredited under the same set of national education standards. Another reason is that trade and vocational careers—which comprise the majority of careers supported by online learning—are seen as key to a healthy economy.

Nations harboring stigmas against online learning have a long way to go in order to catch up with the current movement.

Below are just a few reasons we should all re-examine the potential of online degree programs and help them achieve the status they deserve.

1. Motivation. Online learning is self-directed learning, meaning it requires even more focus, discipline, and drive than traditional classroom learning does. The motivation you summon from online learning will follow you into other parts of your life.

2. Bridging the gap between business and education. Businesses can also benefit from online learning. Online learning not only trains the workers of the future, it can also provide a career path for someone employed who needs to learn new skills. Employers should recommend online courses that will help with career advancement and, if possible, offer tuition re-imbursement.

3. The very best instruction, delivered. Online learning makes it possible for students to receive the very best instruction on any particular topic or lesson without having to travel thousands of miles to a high-tier institution. Harvard Business School no longer teaches its students entry-level accounting, instead requiring them to use an online accounting course from a professor at Bringham Young University, simply because it is “just so good.”

4. Anywhere, any time. You create your own schedule. Have to work in the morning? Take your classes at night. Can’t study on Monday night because of a fundraising event for your French Club? Don’t sweat it.

5. Cost effectiveness. Eliminate travel expenses, registration costs, consultant fees, and other expenses associated with seminars and on-site meetings. And online learning can save school districts the expense of hiring substitute teachers.

6. Growing prestige. Due to the widespread popularity of MOOCs and open courseware, the education community is beginning to realize just how much potential online learning has. This is just the beginning.

7. Anonymity. Where students and teachers may face biases towards appearance, race, or other factors in a traditional classroom setting, the anonymity of an online learning environment affords freedom of expression and encourages creativity.

8. A spot for everyone. You don’t have to worry about reserving a spot in the class of your choice or making the waiting list when you take courses online.

9. Lifelong learning. Online learning promotes lifelong learning. Once you earn your degree, you can take classes—oftentimes for free—on any subject of your choosing, at any time. And you’ve already learned the ropes.

10. Remaining competitive in the job market. Online learning allows professionals to remain competitive in their respective fields without having to take time off of their jobs to update their skills and expertise.

11. Free training in digital technology. By enrolling in online courses, you will be forced to learn a little computer science. Even something as simple as understanding how to navigate a learning portal expands your knowledge of how digital technology works.

12. Mobile learning. You can study not only from your laptop at home, but also on-the-go from your phone or tablet. The learning never stops.

13. Increased accountability. Online learning can be even more accountable than traditional professional development because assignments, assessment scores, activities, course completions, and participant progress can be monitored online.

14. Take full advantage of interactivity and multimedia. When online learning experiences take full advantage of the interactivity and multimedia power of the Internet, they can engage you with videotaped classroom scenes, interviews, and online demonstrations of concepts. This wide variety of activity and question formats offers a more valuable learning experience than a typical workshop or textbook-based courses.

15. Promote the transfer of learning to the workplace. Instead of one-shot workshops, you can use the flexibility and lower costs of online learning to follow-up on learning activities with support that leads to implementation of new practices.

16. Reduced “administrivia” around course management. In addition to the pedagogical benefits of online learning, there are also several time and money saving advantages. Students can save and print items as needed when provided handouts and readings online. The direct result is a reduced institutional expense for both the cost and time associated with copying, collating, and distributing these materials. Instructors can also use e-mail to send messages directly to students or the Announcements feature to communicate with the entire class.

17. Enhanced sense of equality. Each individual has the same opportunity to “speak up” by posting messages without typical distractions such as seating arrangements, volume of student voices, and gender biases. Shy and anxious students feel more comfortable expressing ideas and backing up facts when posting online instead of speaking in a lecture room. Studies prove that online discussions provoke more confrontational and direct communication between students.

18. More accessible instructors. Online communication also benefits students by providing additional layer of instructor accessibility. Students in courses that are supplemented by products like CourseInfo no longer have to worry if they cannot make an instructor’s regular office hours, as they still have the ability to submit inquiries via e-mail at any time. This is good for the instructor too, as they can respond at his/her convenience instead of being tied to a desk or office. This is particularly helpful when a student’s schedule conflicts with office hours or if a question arises at the spur of the moment.

19. Facilitated sharing of student perspectives. Online forums provide public spaces in which to post information. Each student can view another student’s answers and learn through the exposure to different perspectives. This benefits students because they can combine new opinions with their own, and develop a solid foundation for learning. [Read more about peer teaching.]

20. Accommodation of different learning styles. An instructor can also present these materials in many formats to accommodate different types of learning styles. For example, if an instructor puts both lecture notes and slides online, both visual and auditory learners benefit. Students who prefer to focus on “listening” and “watching” during lecture do not have to worry that they are missing important concepts while scrambling to take copious notes. They can focus on understanding the material and concepts as they are presented. Students with attention difficulties or those who get overwhelmed by organizational tasks also benefit, because materials provided show how the instructor has grouped and prepared materials in the handouts, and indicate what items are most important.

21. Continual access to course materials. When course content and activities are provided online, students no longer need to worry about accessing course materials. Students can complete assignments during their most productive times. Busy students can choose to download readings or take practice exams whenever it is most convenient, in the evening after kids are put to bed, or at 4am during a bout of insomnia. Continual access to course documents also insures students can obtain materials at any time, removing the opportunity for frustrations such as “The library was closed,” “All the copies of reserve readings were checked out,” or “I missed that handout during your lecture.”

22. Reduced faculty workload. Instructors and TAs can also save time using web-based educational products. When a Quiz/Survey generator is used to deliver tests, all the grading and analysis is automated. Time previously spent correcting, formulating statistical deviations, and analyzing specific questions can be used for other things. Even student records can be exported directly into spreadsheets for turnover to the registrar.

23. More efficient use of time. The time saving elements introduced by web-based education tools apply to both the instructor and the student. Students benefit because they have immediate access to course materials at any location. They do not have to spend time walking across campus to the instructor’s office or searching for a reading in the library. Instructors can minimize time spent in office hours, and address student concerns online instead.

24. Frequent assessment and immediate feedback. From the student viewpoint, frequent assessment provides concept reinforcement and increases motivation. Instructors can post practice exams and end-of-chapter reviews without worrying about finding the time and resources to analyze results. Students can access these assessments at any time, privately and in the comfort of their home. Since grading is computerized, students receive immediate feedback. This may also help students who suffer from test anxiety relax and minimize embarrassment for those that do poorly. [Read more about giving student feedback]

25. Less reliance on physical attendance. In traditional education, students working on group projects must coordinate schedules. In distance learning environments, this may not even be possible, forcing participants to work independently. When web-based collaborative tools are available, coordination is no longer an issue. Providing a project team with asynchronous discussions and file uploads, students can work in groups without the constraints of meeting together at a certain date, time, and location.

26. Specialized degree programs. In many online degree programs, students are not required to take elective classes unless required by their major. This allows students to focus on and study specifically what they need to learn for their job. For many students who want to just learn information relevant to their major, online degree programs work best, as this approach will save time and help students earn their degree faster.

27. Easy transfer of credits. Students can also choose to earn some of their college credits online and some in a traditional college setting. For college students who want to attend summer classes, but who live too far from their colleges or have to work summer jobs, taking online classes from an accredited college and transferring the credits to their primary college is a good idea. Students will be able to earn college credit while still enjoying their summer vacation or fulfilling the responsibilities of their seasonal jobs.

28. The most up-to-date content at a lower cost. The sticker shock associated with the textbook market is not news to anyone who has enrolled in even a single college course. And yet, despite the cost, our knowledge of most subjects continues to grow and evolve, making $200 textbooks unreliable with a few years, and eventually of no use at all. The remote delivery of curriculum allows instructors to keep materials up-to-date, and the lower costs over time remove what for some are insurmountable obstacles to furthering their education.

29. Build virtual teamwork skills. You’ll learn innovative strategies for virtual teamwork by using electronic communication to interact with a group. Employers highly value this skill.

30. More individual attention. Because you have a direct pipeline to the instructor via e-mail, you can get your questions answered directly. Many times you think of a question after class or while you are studying. Rather than trying to remember to ask it or forgetting it, you can send an e-mail to the instructor. Your opportunity to learn is enhanced.

31. Development of real-world skills. Learning how to get information via the Internet opens up a world of possibilities for your personal and professional life. You can find jobs online, get college applications online, make travel plans online, get dealer costs for cars online, comparison shop online, access great works of art and literature online, meet people from around the world online, follow sports and movies online, and so on. The possibilities are practically endless.

32. Become globally connected. While there is still a huge disparity between those who have access to the Internet and those who don’t, the mere fact that any of us can communicate across the globe speaks to the importance of this medium. Many times the web sites you visit in a course will be based in another country. What better place to find out about the works of Michelangelo than to go to Italy (virtually, of course)? What better way to learn about the Amazon rain forest or the history of China or the customs of islanders in the South Pacific than to visit those places online? And if you participate in global learning days or other online events, you may even meet and make friends with someone in another country.

33. 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.

34. 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 (DOE, 2010): “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.

35. 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. [Read more about student’s demand for more affordable textbooks.]

36. Customized learning. Online learning allows students to choose the level of their courses based on what they already know and have yet to learn. This enables students to feel responsible for their own education in a way that isn’t possible when teachers place them without asking for input.

37. A student-centered teaching approach. Because every student has his or her way of learning that works for them, getting an online education may help in ensuring that each lesson or material is completely understood before moving on to the next, which in turn, could result to better learning.

38. A chance to test your interests.  A student who is interested in journalism now has the chance to try out a class online before committing to a major, without the fear of wasting time.

39. Faster learning. At a time when change is faster than ever, a key advantage of online learning is that it has faster delivery cycle times than traditional classroom-based instruction. There is a practical limitation on how fast learning can be rolled out with classroom-based instruction, as the capacity to deliver learning is limited by the number of available classrooms and trainers.

British Telecom delivered e-business training to 23,000 employees in three months, at a cost of £5.9m, compared to £17.8 million and a five-year time span for classroom training (Taylor, 2002).

40. Lower environmental impact. Online learning is an effective way for organizations to reduce their carbon footprint. A study by the Open University, “Towards Sustainable Higher Education: Environmental Impacts of Campus-Based and Distance Higher Education Systems,” found that, on average, the production and provision of distance learning courses consumed nearly 90 percent less energy and produced 85 percent fewer CO2 emissions per student than conventional campus-based university courses. The main savings were due to a reduction in the amount of student travel, economies of scale in the use of the campus site, and the elimination of much of the energy consumption of student housing. In other words, studying from home and using a home computer was far more energy efficient.

41. Enhanced communication skills. Online learning is perfect for flexing those communication “muscles.” Just because you don’t get to sit next to your classmates doesn’t mean you won’t still have to work with them.  In fact, online group projects are very common and carry their own unique communication challenges. As a result, you have to make every one of those words count. Your communication skills have to be sharp. You want every message, every paper you submit, to communicate your thoughts as clearly as possible. Simple written misunderstandings can lead to bad grades. Online learning teaches you to communicate well and often.

42. Organization and time management. It doesn’t matter how motivated and eloquent you are if you can’t juggle your schoolwork with the rest of your life. As an online student, you have to develop a time management plan and prioritize your coursework— otherwise you can easily get left behind. This habit will follow you into other parts of your life.

43. Better retention of knowledge. Student processing of material learned in online courses can be far richer than in a traditional face-to-face course, simply because students are asked to generate some kind of product on every topic they learn.

44. Recognition of prior learning. Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) is the recognition of knowledge and skills acquired through work experience, education, training and life experiences. The RPL process matches knowledge and skills to the learning outcomes of a course to determine any possible credit for study units. If you have studied previously or have significant work experience in a particular field, you may be eligible for credit towards a new course, allowing you to finish your study sooner.

45. Greater support. Many online education providers offer outstanding support, not only from instructors but from tutors and system administrators as well. Find answers about specific courses, the enrollment process, or study tips with the click of a button.

46. Nationally recognized programs. Although the United States is slow to catch up, several distance learning providers in Australia have been recognized under the Australian Qualifications Framework, which ensures that their certifications and degrees meet national education quality standards.

47. Reaching remote areas. Teach Outback is an online school that reaches students in the remote Australian outback who wouldn’t otherwise have access to a quality education. This is an extreme example, but the benefits of online learning’s widespread reach cannot be denied.

48. Cheating is not the issue you think it is. Employees at ProctorU, a company that offers remote proctoring, watch test-takers by using screen sharing and webcam feeds at offices in Alabama and California. ProctorU recently signed an agreement to proctor new credit-bearing MOOCs from Coursera, including one in genetics and evolution offered at Duke and one in single-variable calculus at the University of Pennsylvania. This type of technology is becoming more and more widespread.

49. Facilitation of learning analytics and big data. Because a majority of online learning activity occurs on the Internet, it is much easier for educators to round up and analyze data that may inform them of areas in which they need to improve their presentation.

50. Moving toward a competency-based model of learning. The higher education sector is moving quickly from a model of ‘time served’ to a model of ‘competency mastered.’ How this competency is acquired – whether in online courses, on a campus or in a company administered class –  will increasingly become less important, which ultimately means that online learning will only garner more respect in the years to come.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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