With our list of pros and cons, find out if an online degree is a good option for you.
Earning an online degree is a popular move these days, with 31 percent of higher education students taking at least one online course during the fall 2010 term, according to a 2011 report by the nonprofit Sloan Consortium.
That's a total of 6.1 million students engaging in online learning, notes the report, titled "Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011."
But just because online education is popular doesn't mean that it's the right fit for everyone, according to Sam Govea, executive dean of social science and distance learning at Brookhaven College in Texas.
"I think students have been bombarded too often with the pros of online education to the point where everyone believes they will have an easy time getting a degree in their pajamas in their spare time," says Govea, who teaches both on campus and online. "Students need to be prepared for what they will face."
Are you unsure of what to expect from online education? If so, take a look at our list of pros and cons...
Pro #1 - Flexibility
While individual schools and programs will vary, it's likely that going to school online will allow you more control over when and where you study.
For example, if you're employed and don't want to give up your day job, online education may be for you. "Eliminating the need to come to campus, online classes are great for working adults," Govea says.
This is also ideal for students who don't have access to degree programs due to where they live. "I've had students taking my classes from their station on a submarine in the Indian Ocean," Govea says.
All you need is reliable Internet access - dry land apparently isn't necessary!
Con #1 - Online Ed isn't Easy
If you're looking for a shortcut to a quality education, keep looking.
"Online classes are college-level classes," Govea says. "They will be difficult. They should be difficult. In fact, many instructors purposely make their online classes more rigorous to dispel the myth that online classes are easy."
"Many first-time online students aren't prepared for the amount of work required," he adds.
Pro #2 - Online Options Abound
There are plenty of online degree programs out there - whether you're interested in criminal justice, business administration, computer science, nursing, or health care administration, to name just a few.
There are also plenty of schools involved in boosting the number and variety of online programs.
Consider this: 89 percent of four-year public colleges and universities now offer online classes, while 60 percent of private schools offer them, according to "The Digital Revolution and Higher Education," a 2011 report by the nonprofit Pew Research Center.
Con #2 - Murphy's Law
As Murphy's Law tells us, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. And while the dog won't be eating your virtual homework (at least let's hope not), technical problems may flare up on occasion.
"Computers stop working, disks run out of space, networks fail," Govea says. "It will be up to the student to contact tech support and get assistance. Most of the time, the issues occur during a test or when trying to submit an assignment, not the time when patience is plentiful."
Pro #3 - Reputation
Think that online degrees don't matter? Think again.
A 2010 study by the Society for Human Resource Management, titled "Hiring Practices and Attitudes: Traditional vs. Online Degree Credentials," found that 90 percent of employers view online degrees more favorably than they did five years ago.
Con #3 - Self-Discipline is Key
Here's the thing about online degrees. You have to earn them, and it will require self-discipline to do so, according to Govea.
"Online classes can have deadlines set monthly, weekly, or at the end of the term," Govea says. "While online education provides flexibility, deadlines do exist and it will be up to the student to keep up."
What's the thing to remember here? Flexibility is great, but with it comes greater responsibility.
Pro #4 - Online Schools are Accredited
While diploma mills do exist, you can avoid them thanks to various independent and government bodies. The key here is to make sure that the school's online program is properly accredited.
Check with the U.S. Department of Education, which maintains a list of national and regional accrediting agencies that are worthy of your trust. You can find that information at www.ed.gov.
Con #4 - Academic Opinions Vary
There are many studies and reports that hail the benefits of online education, but the simple truth is that some academics remain unconvinced that it can compete with classroom-based instruction.
The 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning reports that 66 percent of academic leaders rate online education as the same or superior to traditional education. In 2003, that number was 57 percent, so online education's reputation within academic circles is apparently improving.
Sloan refers to the reputation boost as "a small but noteworthy increase."
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