Because the perception is so wide and varied, it is important to clarify the distinct differences between what normally gets lumped together under the heading of online education. There are traditional campus based academic institutions that also offer classes online, exclusively online based colleges and universities without campuses, and, while they are not really academic institutions at all, diploma mills. Traditional schools that offer online classes are extending their curriculum typically to students that also attend their campuses. Exclusively online based universities offer 100% of their courses online. This is what most people think of when they mention an online education. Diploma mills are dressed up as “colleges” and “universities” but simply sell a customer a piece of paper and sometimes fake transcripts to make it look like they went to college.
Exclusively online based universities offer students the flexibility and convenience of an almost ‘on demand’ type of learning. This makes it extremely convenient for working adults or for students that are too busy or for other reasons cannot attend a traditional campus. The travel time and other costs associated with commuting and room and board are not an issue. Older adults going back to school do not have to be concerned with sitting in a classroom with a rambunctious crowd of younger people who may or may not be concerned with the class at all. Recorded lectures are a huge advantage for slow writers or poor note takers as the sessions can be listened to over and over again as many times as needed. As far as homework and tests, a student has the advantage of open-book learning without having to memorize the material.
On the other hand, the convenience comes with a list of downsides that, for most, will outweigh the advantages. The savings of not having the expense of a commute is more than made up in the high cost of tuition. Most if not all exclusively online based institutions are for-profit and the tuition is drastically higher than their campus-based counterparts. The support staff may help a student include the cost of textbooks in their student loans, but these are loans that accrue interest and need to be repaid. The class sizes are huge and the students need to be disciplined and self-motivated because the access to instructors and support staff is extremely limited. They will often times advertise that someone is “available” 24/7, but the ratio of support staff to the number of students is overwhelming. A student should expect a 48 hour response time to be reasonable. Transferability of credits is not a given simply because the institution holds accreditation. If a student decides to transfer to another school or attend a traditional campus at some point, it is never a guarantee that credits earned at one school will transfer to another.
When investing in your career, contact the employers that you would like to work for and ask them if they would hire someone with the credentials that you hope to earn from an online school. For example, there are many online universities offering degrees in Crime Scene Investigation. Many students are misled to believe that they can become a CSI after graduation. This is not the case. While this one step that may help a student’s career in the future, the degree itself will not help a student achieve that goal. Other online degree programs that cause a lot of grief for students are programs in the medical field. It should stand to reason that a student that has spent no time in a lab is not qualified to draw blood from someone or perform other functions that require on-site training. Think carefully before choosing both an academic institution. Convenience is a good thing, but nothing that is worth doing is ever easy.