Online Schools: Do They Stack Up?

August 14th, 2012 No Comments Other

A recent survey by the Federal Government found that education was one of the biggest factors in determining a person’s wealth in Australia.

This probably isn’t a surprising fact to most people. After all, higher learning opens up a world of opportunities – better jobs, above-average salaries, and status. Luckily, today there are more options than ever before when it comes to pursuing post-secondary education: private universities, public institutions, vocational programs, and, most recently, online schools.

So how does the newest entry into this field stack up compared to more traditional institutions? It turns out that online schools may actually be better equipped to provide their students with the education needed in the job market than brick and mortar institutions. Even more interesting, online schools continue to do better even when compared to online coursework provided by prominent colleges and universities.

What This Means For You

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What does that mean? Well, that it’s not the fact that a school offers courses online that intrinsically makes them better. The research is showing that the actual courses offered by online schools better prepare today’s students for the workplace than those from traditional schools.

Why is this the case? Because when these renowned universities pick and choose amongst their courses to offer lectures online, they tend to select those professors with the funniest, most charismatic, or most prestigious personalities.

Harvard University in the United States is among those who have entered this field, drawing a lot of attention for providing access to such distinguished experts. But just because these professors are highly accomplished in their fields, does that make them better teachers? Not necessarily.

Harvard physicist and professor Eric Mazur recently discovered that his students weren’t actually absorbing what he taught, forgetting much of what they learned right after learning it! Lecturers with the most dynamic personalities may be the most entertaining, but they’re not necessarily the most effective at sharing information. But because the vast majority of Harvard’s business model is geared toward getting students to attend courses in person and pay for things like dorm rooms and meal plans, how well their online classes actually work isn’t their number one priority.

This is where online schools have an advantage. Because their entire institution is designed for teaching coursework over the internet, they are in a unique position to not only offer quality education online – but also to study the way that people learn.

The Online Advantage

Unlike traditional classrooms where it can be hard to monitor students’ behaviour and its outcomes, online schools can gather data every step of the way: assignments, quiz results, video views, forum discussions, pages viewed, and more. They can go so far as to track every keystroke made by students in an effort to better understand their learning experience.

This ability provides online schools with a wealth of data that has never been available before, allowing them to learn more about how information is processed and what methods are most effective. And since their focus is solely on the digital setting, they are better equipped to optimizing that learning experience, developing online environments that can maximize their students’ learning and retention.

They also have the ability to customize coursework. A recent study of e-learning by International Education Studies found that demographics and other factors – age, program of study, comfort level with technology, and previous level of education – have an effect on how well people absorb lessons.

Online schools have the ability to tailor classes for a person’s particular learning style, demographics, and personality, even adjusting as the student progresses in a particular course based on their past performance.
In the end, online schools might just be better than traditional universities at producing graduates who have a thorough understanding of their subject matter. Even better, they may be able to do so in less time by studying how their individual students learn best and utilizing the most effective methods to relay that learning.

Teaching in the future may not be about who has the most distinguished or stimulating lecturers but instead about who offers the best overall design for learning – and traditional institutions are already behind in that game! In fact, some experts predict that online schools will eventually lead to the end of brick-and-mortar institutions.

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Additionally, online universities have lower overhead costs. Once a course is designed, the cost of offering it to hundreds or thousands of students is relatively low. Instead, they can focus on improving the course (taking advantage of the data provided by those hundreds or thousands students) – and also expanding their course offerings.

As a result, many online schools are actually able to offer more fields of study than traditional universities at a lower cost to their students – and they have the added advantage of offering far greater flexibility.

Rather than their students being required to attend a class at a particular time or even finish a course within a certain window, online schools allow you to progress at your own pace in a way that best fits your particular schedule and needs.

Students are also not limited by location with online schools. Those who live in rural areas far from any university have the same access as those who live in urban areas, and if work or family needs force a student to move, it will not affect his or her ability to continue the coursework.

All of these factors can open up access to higher learning to a wider range of people – those with lower incomes, full-time jobs, caretaking responsibilities, or other factors which can interfere with their ability to afford or find time for classes at a traditional institution.

Even better, since they may actually be taking advantage of classes that are more effective at training them for their chosen field, eventually a certification or course completion through an online school may be more sought-after than a degree from a traditional university.

Images by Borderlys and Ragnar1984


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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