The Benefits of an Online Education

The benefits of online education

Online education is a fiercely-debated topic in the US, as critics make headlines deriding for-profit online colleges as manipulative and backward, and respected newspapers opine online classes as “inappropriate for struggling students.” The counter for these arguments is the staggering level of success online schools may now claim in not only attracting attendees, but also graduating them into high-paying and competitive careers.

Rise of Online Education

According to a recent study, the number of students selecting distance-learning courses as a part of their regular college curriculum increased by over 150% between 1998 and 2008. As of 2014, more than 65% of students have taken at least one online course during their college career. The reason simply comes down to the inherent flexibility and convenience of online courses.

In the Department of Education’s study, Understanding the Implications of Online Learning for Educational Productivity, students cited more flexible access to content and instruction as the primary reason for enrolling in online courses. Professors and teachers surveyed across the country made similar observations, stating overwhelmingly that online education offers a more efficient method for assembling and disseminating instructional content.

This convenience extends to the expectations surrounding class attendance and the interaction between the real world and the pursuit of education. According to the Department of Education’s study, 53% of surveyed students are “non-traditional,” or students who are attaining their education at an advanced age or while working a full-time job.

The unique ability for course loads to be worked into an already full schedule is one of the biggest selling points for online schools. This is transparent not only in the demographic of the surveyed student body, but also in the message pressed by television and online advertisements encouraging registration—it doesn’t matter where you are in life or what you do: an online course can fit into any lifestyle.

Blended or Hybrid Courses

However, the freedom of online schooling shouldn’t discourage students interested in pursuing a traditional education from applying. Hybrid, or so-called “blended courses,” are on the rise as well. A survey of community colleges across the United States noted, “more and more, online education is on the rise. 15% of surveyed schools report offering ‘blended’ courses—courses that contain both traditional and online components.” Students attending these colleges are free to choose which classes they take online and those they take in a classroom setting.

A Center for Digital Education survey, of teachers, students, and administrators, Realizing the Full Potential of Blended Learning, found that 92% of respondents agreed on three important benefits of blended courses: the ability to offer alternate learning opportunities, the ability to offer distant learning programs, and increased student engagement in courses. In addition, 54% of respondents also cited increased academic achievement, higher student retention, efficient use of classroom capacity, and reduced costs as benefits.

A popular critique of online learning is that, while these courses can fit into the busy lifestyle of parents and full-time employees, the present education model lacks a driver for these students to complete their education and graduate. According to this myth, the online education graduation rates are lower than those at public and private institutions because most students never graduate, burying themselves in debt with no diploma to dig them out.

This criticism is mired in misinformation. While it’s true that comparing four-year graduation rates between private, public, and online institutions will always “prove” the former as ideal institutions, that thin analytical lens cracks when a wider spectrum of graduation rates is examined. Most students at online universities don’t graduate in four years, but this is precisely the point of online education.

According to the Center for Digital Education survey, non-traditional students take 2-5 years longer on average to graduate due to their part-time schedule. When graduation rates over a six-year time period are compared, online education ranks competitively with public and private schools, with the public school graduation rate at 73%, private at 76%, and online at 70%.

Slowly, with blended courses, online and traditional education have become inseparable. An indisputable fact is that when online tools are used in a traditional class setting, pass rates and graduation rates increase. According to a recent report, the use of blended learning class guides in an introductory chemistry course at Pennsylvania State University’s Breks College altered the traditional lecture to a hybrid format, approximately doubling the pass rate for the course.

Growth Rate of Online vs. Traditional Education

While the number of online students is lower than traditionally-enrolled students, according to a recent study, that’s quickly changing. Already, 70% of traditional colleges report that a third of their enrollment comes from online courses. In the same report, those surveyed colleges reported that retention rates between their traditional and online courses remained roughly the same, at 44%.

More than 6.7 million students, roughly a third of those enrolled in postsecondary education, took an online course for credit in 2011, according to the 2012 iteration of the Babson Survey Research Group’s annual Survey of Online Learning. This survey also points out a dramatic fact that clearly shows the changing landscape of the U.S. education system. Nationwide, the growth in online enrollment has been larger than that for the total higher education student population in every year since 2003, when Babson began the annual reports. The growth of online enrollment between fall 2009 and fall 2010 was 10%, compared with the 0.6% increase in enrollment at traditional degree-granting postsecondary institutions.

The growth of online schools is clearly outpacing that of traditional institutions, and the reasons become obvious when the data is viewed as a whole. Despite its few high-profile detractors, online education is increasingly becoming America’s go-to choice for attaining higher education. With competitive tuition, graduation rates, and retention rates, online education provides a simpler, more flexible path toward a degree than a traditional education.

Wondering where to start your education? Take a look at CareerGlider’s list of Online Schools to find a competitive institution offering your major.

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