Online degree programs have changed the college marketplace for degree-seeking students. While many students still prefer the social and academic experiences available at a traditional campus-based college, others find the flexibility and convenience of online classes a better opportunity for them. Each type of program has its pros and cons, but students generally benefit from the ability to choose the best fit for them.
The format for online degree classes is quite different from that of classroom-based courses. In a traditional class, students meet at regular times and received direct instructor and assignments from faculty. Learning takes place in a lecture, lab or hands-on experience in a classroom. With an online degree, students complete classes using a computer and Internet connection. Assignments, quizzes and tests are normally provided to students through a virtual classroom software program. Students access assignments online, complete reading and work independently and then usually submit assignments electronically. Quizzes and tests are completed through online portals.
A common drawback noted about online degrees is the limited face-to-face social interaction with instructors and peers. Online degrees do offer peer and instruction interaction, but in different ways. Whereas campus learning allows for classroom-based interaction and informal relationship-building outside of class, online class interaction takes place through technology. Students participate in class discussions through online forums, text other students and e-mail peers and faculty with questions or comments.
Online degree programs commonly target nontraditional working adult students. This is because of the flexibility to work during the day and complete school work during the evenings and weekends. Instead of set class times, instructors put deadlines on assignments, papers, quizzes and tests and students have the ability to complete the work as it fits into their lives. Campus degree programs involve a more structured class time with meetings anywhere from one to five days per week. Students must regularly attend in most cases to succeed and to get the benefits of learning through this format.
Views on technology and its use in online degree programs varies significantly from campus courses. Online degrees are technology-driven. Students need reliable computer and Internet access to do their work. Mobile devices and social media are often used for class participation and communication. In traditional classes, some schools or instructors maintain policies against the use of cell phones or laptops in class to motivate students to engage more actively in the face-to-face learning experience and avoid distractions.
Accreditation is a process colleges go through to gain official recognition as a higher education institution. Getting a degree from an accredited institution is important, as graduate programs and employers may not accept educational experience from non-accredited institutions. However, a large number of online colleges and degree programs have been accredited by agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.