Are you feeling anxious about deciding whether to study online? You’re not alone. That’s why I’ve summed up here for you the distance learning pros and cons.
I’ve been an online university teacher for 5 years – here are my candid thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of online learning. In this post, I’ll tell you some stories from an insider’s perspective of some of the little-known advantages and disadvantages of online learning.
Sure, you’ve already heard some of the key facts – like that distance learning is flexible and convenient. But you haven’t gotten the chance yet to hear some real-life stories of the pros and cons of online school from someone who’s there, in online classes, every single day.
You’re Not Alone.
Online learning is growing – fast. Today, 75% of US colleges offer online courses. Long gone are the days of mail correspondence where assignments are literally posted to your professor in the snail mail. Today, online learning is as dynamic and interactive as on-campus learning.
In 2019, over 6 million students in the United States are doing at least one online module. Over 3 million students are studying a fully online degree.
There are similar statistics in Australia, the UK, Ireland, New Zealand and Canada. Online learning is here to stay. In fact, it’s growing fast while on-campus learning is actually decreasing.
Nonetheless, online learning is not for everyone. That’s why you need to balance up the pros versus cons of online education before you make your mind up about whether to embrace the advantages of online education.
Ride the wave.
Pros of Online Learning: 17 Top Online Education Advantages
Let’s start with the pros of online learning:
#17: Flexible Learning means you Can still Live your Life
This is by far the greatest element of distance learning. Here’s the magic of distance learning: you can actually weave-in an entire university degree between raising children, holding down a full-time job and caring for an elderly parent. Now, my reason for wanting flexibility may seem trivial compared to those above, but it’s important for my lifestyle. Here’s my favorite part of flexible online learning: I can ski every day that it snows. Even if it’s a super busy day online, I’ll make sure I wake up and ski between 9 and 11am before I log-on. This alone has increased my happiness a thousand fold.
#16: Gamified Learning
One of the great aspects of learning through digital technologies is that your course content is often gamified. Teachers are increasingly integrating content in online courses into online games. Games not only make learning fun, they also help you to measure your progress.
Contemporary online learning games are also increasingly more personalized. They remember which questions you got right and wrong, then modify upcoming lessons to ensure you focus on improving on your weaknesses.
Games could be as simple as point systems for completing an element of a course or gaining points depending on the scores you get on quizzes. Usually these point scores don’t contribute towards your final score in the course, but they do help you to measure your progress and make learning a heck of a lot more enjoyable.
#15: You have more time to Think
Here’s one has got to be one of my favorite things about online classes. When someone asks a question in a forum or sends me an email, I don’t need to reply instantly. I can spend 10 minutes thinking about my response and editing my paragraph before pressing ‘send’. The amazing thing about this is that students (and teachers) can contribute to conversations in an informed, thoughtful way. It creates a professional and – importantly – relaxed environment where interactions and communications tend to involve thoughtful commentary, not endless nonsense from the noisiest guy in the class. It also helps to allay any anxiety about being ‘put on the spot’ in class.
#14: You can make Friendships with People like You
Yes, you can make friends in online classes. I currently have a group of 4 students in one of my classes that live near one another and go out for brunch every Saturday. They’re all stay at home mothers who live in a pretty remote part of the state, and they’re all working online for the same reason: they have kids, busy family lives and no University nearby!
While Lauren, Alisha, Sam and Carmel might not have realised it, online classes helped them make friends who they relate to. The fact is, there’s lots of different types of people who do online classes, but there are also some key categories: stay-at-home-mothers, people working full-time, mature-age students who don’t want to deal with young kids in their classes, and people living remotely. If you fit into those categories, you might just find your online class could be a very familiar place.
#13: You will Learn in Comfort
There’s nothing like ‘going to class’ in your pyjamas. Heck, I’ve taught classes in my pyjamas! I often run my online classes just doing a voiceover over the top of lecture slides.
The students can’t see me, and I can’t see them. Every now and then a student will accidentally leave their microphone on, and you can tell they’re in their own, private space! A TV is on in the background, a dog is barking, or a kettle is boiling.
These people are able to learn from their comfortable space.
Leave the cheap plastic chairs and 1980s lecture theaters with bad lighting to the suckers studying on campus!
#12: Your Teachers will be eLearning Experts
Online learning is often a ‘specialty’ that only certain universities specialize in. In Australia, it’s increasingly Swinburne University. In the UK, it’s the Open University, and in the US it’s Western Governors and Phoenix Universities.
Because universities tend to specialize in online learning, they attract specialists in online classes. Take me, for example: my job for the past 5 years has almost exclusively been to become a pro at online teaching.
Yes, I can put together a snazzy infographic or YouTube video and craft a pretty decent email. But, I am also pretty well tuned into the needs, anxieties and desires of online students.
The point here is: when you go to online classes, you’re usually in pretty good hands. Your teachers are more often than not tech-savvy, have well-honed online teaching skills, and ooze confidence in the process. You’re likely to be in good hands.
#11: You will save a Lot of Time
If you’ve read any other posts on the pros of online learning, you’ll probably have read that you can save a lot of transit and wait time when you study online. Yes, that’s true.
You don’t have to drive to campus, search for a parking spot, pay for the parking spot, walk to class, wait for the professor to arrive, and so on. So you save time there. But! There’s more.
Online courses usually involve some reading each week and a video or two. Here’s a few tips:
- Reading through the weekly materials has no down time. You’re not going to be sitting through tedious seminar discussions about goodness-knows-what. Everything you read will be relevant and on-point. I recommend you perfect the art of reading journal articles and speed reading;
- Watching videos in real speed is for suckers. If the video is hosted on YouTube, click the ‘settings’ button in the bottom-right hand corner of the video and change play speed to 1.5 time. I just saved you 50% of your study time by speeding up your teacher’s voice. Now you can spend more time making dinner. In your pyjamas, of course. Here’s a screenshot of how to speed up a YouTube video below:
#10: You can Hide when you need to be Left Alone
Ever sat in a class just praying that your teacher won’t select you to answer the next question?
You’re unlikely to find yourself in that situation while studying online.
Even when I run live lectures online, I never call on students.
Instead, I encourage students to write ideas on the shared screen or type questions and answers in chat boxes.
This doesn’t mean students aren’t expected to participate. It means that students participate at their own pace and when they feel comfortable about participation. Sometimes, distance has benefits!
#9: You can learn at your own Pace
I’ve taught online at several Universities and all of them follow a similar formula.
It goes something like this: the teacher posts a task on Monday and students are expected to reply by Friday. You’ve got a full working week to read the reading materials, think of a good answer and type your response.
Furthermore, many institutions also allow students to ‘fall behind’ by a few weeks specifically because all the learning materials are already there! They’re sitting there, ready for you to participate when you want to.
Busy week? No worries. Just email your teacher and let them know you’ve got some stuff going on and that you’ll reply next week. Easy!
Every now and then I also get a student completing all the forum tasks in the first week. Look, I don’t encourage this but it’s worthwhile mentioning.
You can also zip ahead!
If you know something’s coming up next week, just watch the videos and do the readings a week in advance. There are rarely set online classes each week. Therefore, you can self-pace your learning.
#8: You can be Anonymous
Anonymity is more than just being able to hide.
Being anonymous sometimes mean you can gain even more confidence to post your thoughts on forums.
In my classes, students often have the opportunity to post their own photos and names on their profile. Most don’t post a photo. They like to be anonymous.
You can be as vocal or quiet as you like in online classes. Many students come back to forums every second day to participate in conversations.
Others hide away, remaining anonymous by not revealing any personal details.
The great thing is that you can control how much information you give away about yourself. It’s way easier to control how much data about yourself that you share when you’re in control behind the keyboard.
#7: You can take Advantage of New Learning Technologies
Did you know 67% of students who study online complete at least some of their coursework on their smartphone?
Online courses are increasingly becoming integrated with mobile technologies so you can do your course while watching TV, sitting on the bus or walking to class!
Lectures are also increasingly being replaced by podcasts and videos, making learning more student-centered and ensuring you can learn in your own time and space.
The ‘tyranny of distance’ is increasingly being decreased, and you might even find your online class is dynamic, interactive and enjoyable!
#6: You will have Freedom to Travel
In the Summer of 2017 I taught a class from a yacht in the Mediterranean.
You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.
I was literally lying on the deck of the boat, smartphone in hand, giving a lecture to over 100 students all the way back in Australia. I’ve taught classes from all sorts of crazy places.
All you need in an online course is a laptop and an internet connection.
It’s not just me.
One semester my boss was doing a road trip around the United States. I’ve had students teaching English in Korea and taking their university degree at the same time. I’ve had one student taking a course from a military base somewhere on the other side of the world.
All you really need to do if you plan on travelling is let your teacher know in advance and arrange to make sure your assignment submission dates are acceptable.
A quick side note: if your online class involves groupwork, it’s harder to alter submission dates for travel purposes. Make sure you check with your teacher to ensure everything will go smoothly!
#5: Location, Location: Choose where you want to Live
Many of my students are remote students who study online so that they can enjoy the benefits of living in their local rural communities.
I distinctly remember one student from two years ago who lived on an island off the south coast of Australia. The island had only one ferry in and out per day.
Remarkably, she was able to both study online and run her online business all from her remote homestead.
In fact, I live between Australia and Canada. Heck – I go back and forth between Vancouver and Sydney regularly and yet I teach for a university in Melbourne! I’ve only ever been to Melbourne once!
If you want to live where you want but not forego university, online learning is for you.
#4: You’ll have access to Year-Round, Accelerated Courses
Many universities offer online courses on a more regular basis than offline courses.
Usually, there is a summer semester at universities that serve online students.
Just by taking an extra semester per year, you can reduce the length of your degree dramatically.
Often times on-campus students embrace online classes during the Summer semester to accelerate their degrees and get out into the workforce as soon as possible.
With accelerated 2-year degrees recently approved by the UK parliament, my British readers might want to take note of the 2-year degree options that will be rolling out for online courses in coming years.
#3: University Competition means you get Great Perks
Online learning is growing even while overall university enrolments continue to fall. Translation: universities are working really hard to attract students to their online courses. Universities see that they can attract students from far and wide with online degrees.
The upshot of this is that there’s a ton of competition between universities wanting to attract you! In all three universities I’ve worked for in the past decade, there was a big push to try to attract students to online classes. We’ve put in place a ton of strategies including new personal tutor services, new communication technologies, and ever more engaging content.
Online degrees are progressing in leaps and bounds. If you sign up to an online degree, you’re signing up to a type of course that’s got a lot of money being poured into it by universities vying to win the title of ‘best online degree provider’. In reward for your money, the universities will be working very hard to retain you in their courses.
#2: A greater Choice of Universities
This one follows-on from the previous one.
You aren’t just restricted to the universities in the towns surrounding where you live. You can make a choice of a huge number of universities.
For British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand students, you’ve got the pick of any university that offers online degrees in your whole nation.
For Americans, you’re likely going to want to take advantage of State-based funding to go to a university in the state in which you live.
Either way, you’ll have a ton of options. You can select a university that offers the degree program that you like the most. Look around and find one with the best reputation or a special focus that appeals to you and your future career goals.
You’re not restricted to your local university if you’re looking at studying online.
#1: You will Develop a Digital Skillset
Whenever a student asks me for a reference at the end of their degree, I always include an important paragraph about the student’s digital skills.
When you graduate with an online degree, you will have experience using online learning tools such as Google Docs, Canvas, Blackboard, Webinars, Group Wikis and Forums.
Graduating with an online degree signifies to future employers that you’re a future-facing, technology-capable, 21st Century employee.
You’ll have a selling point that on-campus students are less capable of making. This digital skillset will be front-and-center in your job application and might just get you into the shortlist to sell yourself on interview day.
Cons of Online Learning: 16 Top Online Education Disadvantages
You probably liked a fair few of those pros!
But wait, you’re better off knowing the cons of distance online learning as well. And there are many.
While I personally love online classes, you need to think about what stage in life you’re at and whether online learning is right for you at this point in time.
So, let’s check out the top disadvantages of online learning:
#16: You’re Statistically more Likely to Drop Out
Multiple studies, including this one have highlighted that online students are more likely to drop out of university than on-campus students.
This is largely due to the lack of social contacts that online students are exposed to, as well as the need for self-discipline and self-motivation in online learning.
The study cited above highlights that the key to persisting with online courses is adopting a growth mindset. The uptake from this study?
Set yourself small, progressive goals to strive towards week-in and week-out.
One strategy you might want to employ is to set new goals at the start of each semester and get into positive study habits early on. Here’s a great video on what a growth mindset is:
#15: You’re Always Checking your Time Zones
While learning online can be great for people living a long way away from university, you’ll often also find you’re constantly trying to re-calibrate your watch to figure out what time zone the university works on.
I have this problem. My online course is based in Melbourne Australia. I live in Vancouver Canada. It’s an 18-hour time different. Usually. Then sometimes daylight saving time pushes this out a few hours each way, meaning that time difference that I thought was 18 hours suddenly becomes 19, or 16, or 17 … really, I lose track!
When an assessment is due at 5pm Friday, I’m constantly googling “What’s the time in Melbourne?” to figure out how long until that assessment is actually due. It might be due 3am on Thursday morning my time.
The time zone struggles can get pretty tedious. If you live in the same state or time zone as your university, you might be okay. You Brits: you’re in luck with your single time zone country wide!
#14: You need Self-Discipline as Online Courses are Less Structured
You most likely won’t have a specific hour set aside for a lecture, seminar or tutorial each week. Your best bet is that your teacher has recorded a lecture, assigned some reading, or provided a video to watch.
This means self-discipline is a must. I once had a student who didn’t realise the course had started until 7 weeks into a 12 week semester. I had emailed him on his student email – a lot – but he did not check it regularly, if at all.
Setting aside the fact that email pushes on your phone or laptop are a must for online students (see my point below on emails), this student also lacked the self-discipline for online learning.
Here’s another case: and one that’s more common.
Students usually start out optimistic and enthused for their online classes. The first week’s discussion board is full of joyful comments about how excited students are to learn about one concept or another. Then, as the weeks tick by, I see less and less of the students on the discussion boards. Often, the discussions dwindle to a core group of about 30% of the students who are genuinely engaged each week.
The rest? They end up trying to play catch-up at the end of the semester.
I’m sure you can guess which students get the top marks.
#13: Your Study Time and Personal Time Clash. All. The. Time.
Without set class times, you’ll find that you’re often interrupted while studying. Four days ago my partner went off to her workplace and I stayed home to work online all day. Now, let’s be fair: she does a lot of the chores around the house and I’m grateful for that.
Nonetheless, I got a list of home chores to complete during the work day.
Look, I didn’t grumble. I should do the chores. But the point is this: the distinction between personal and work time is blurred when you’re studying from home.
That story about being given a list of chores continues. The chores I was given included things like “shovel the snow off the deck” and “take out the bins”. Neither of them got done. That’s because half an hour later I got a phone call: my partner had a flat tire.
Again, there’s the pro: I could attend to family emergencies without hinderance (HUGE pro). And there’s the con: I got no work done that day, because my personal and work lives clashed.
When you have the freedom to study from home, you also have the added issue of needing to juggle, separate and divide work time from personal time. Let me tell you: it’s not easy.
#12: There can be Regular Communication Breakdowns
Remember when I said it’s great that you don’t have to respond to your teacher right away? You can craft a balanced, professional forum post or email to ensure you get the message right. Well …. There’s a downside to that, too.
Sometimes you’ll send an email to your teacher and wait … and wait … and wait for a response. Three days pass and you finally get an answer that’s vague at best. So you email back, asking for clarification. Another 3 days pass, and you get another answer that you just don’t quite understand.
Almost a week has passed and you’re still stuck in the dark.
That’s the reality for many students with teachers who aren’t tech-savvy.
Fortunately, this will only happen once or twice in your online degree. The advantage of online degrees is that the teachers are usually quite switched-on when it comes to technology.
But wait … even a well-connected, tech-savvy teacher might misinterpret the tone of your email. Similarly, you might struggle with the tone of theirs. The reality is, there’s no type of communication quite as good as face-to-face.
For me as a teacher, I do sometimes wish I had my student by my side so I could see their facial expressions and ensure that yes, they really do understand what I’m saying.
#11: You won’t get many Social Interactions
Online course designers work very hard to make your learning experience as engaging and sociable as possible. Social learning is often cited as the best form of learning. It helps you broaden your horizons and have your viewpoints challenged.
Nevertheless, it can be hard to get a genuine conversation going with someone via an online forum. Students often post their response to a weekly task and never check the forum again. This means they’ll miss out on the opportunity to reply to each other’s posts, challenge one another, and have their ideas critiqued.
In on-campus seminars, you’re forced to communicate and work together on ideas. On online forums, you’ll be hard pressed to find the same sort of collaborative, social learning environment. The reality is, you’re often on your own to learn by yourself.
If you’re an introvert with some quality learning skills and confidence in your ability this can be great. If you need that social interaction to really understand concepts, you might be in trouble.
#10: You will have Regular Tech Issues
Once I had a live online lecture with over 100 students in the class when my internet modem decided to reset. Disaster!
Hey, I’ve got worse: this wasn’t once. I’m a pretty techy guy and I’ve had this happen probably once a year for the past 5 years. A storm, a car crash at the end of the street, or just a faulty microphone can cause all sorts of trouble.
You might want to invest in high-speed internet.
Similarly, if your laptop crashes as an on-campus student, you might need to go to the campus library to complete your essays. If your laptop crashes as an online student, you can’t even complete your weekly tasks. You’re in extra trouble.
Technology issues will arise during your online degree. Be prepared. Do you have a partner whose laptop you can use? Does your teacher record their live lectures for you to view later?
And of course, are you comfortable with learning how to use basic online technologies like Google Docs and Canvas or Blackboard learning management systems? You don’t need to know how to use them right now but you need the confidence to be able to learn how to use these tools in the short-term future.
#9: The ‘College Experience’ is Missing when you Study Online
If you’re a young person 18 – 24 considering going to university, what are the key reasons you’re headed to university? Do you want to join clubs, make friends and go to parties? Are you interested in using university to meet your potential partner and make contacts for future jobs?
The social experience of heading to university is amazing. I loved my four years living in my college dorm and enjoying being young. I loved debating politics and drinking perhaps a little too much.
A fully online degree won’t give you any of that social coherence.
That’s why online degrees attract alternative students. They attract students who are mature age students, who work full time, or who have their own well-established family and social lives and therefore don’t need or want that ‘college experience’.
You need to ask yourself whether you really want that fun university experience or if your priority is the flexibility of studying while continuing on with your current personal life.
#8: You’ll go through Ruts
Without the regular motivation of dragging yourself along to class each week, there’s a good chance you’ll go through periods of time when you just dread the idea of logging-on. The first few weeks are motivating, fun and exciting. You’re exposed to a new form of learning and excited to meet your class and teacher.
Then, as the first assessment tasks start coming up, you’ll find yourself sucked into a rut. You’ll be juggling online learning with the rest of the pressures in your life (that’s a reason you chose online learning in the first place, right?) and those other pressures will start to take over.
Look, you’ll get through it. I go through the rut every single semester. If you manage that self-discipline I mentioned earlier, you’ll get through it. You will need to perfect the art of using the key scientific strategies to prevent procrastination.
But the ruts will arrive, the gloss of online learning will wear off, and logging-on a few times a week will quickly become a not-so-fun task. Be warned.
#7: Online Group Work can be a Drag
This. Is. The. Biggest. Challenge.
Nowadays most university degrees enforce group work as a requirement for passing the degree. The capacity to work in teams is a workforce readiness skill that employer groups insist are embedded into a degree.
When it comes to online learning, you’re not except from having to do group work.
Students dread group work online. They dread the idea that they can’t organise meet-ups after an on-campus class, they’re working with someone they’ve never physically met, and they’re very reliant on their partners to log on regularly.
The trick with group work online is to try to find a partner who posts on the forums regularly and early in the week. If you partner up with one of these diligent learners you’ll do okay. I would also recommend using Skype meet-ups to get to know one another personally.
#6: You’ll feel Isolated
Without being forced into a classroom with a whole bunch of other wide-eyed nervous students, you’ll find that you won’t have nearly as many friends and contacts to get a hold of when you’re struggling with your studies.
What results is a sense of isolation. You’ll find that when you aren’t sure of an essay requirement you won’t have a pal to tap on the shoulder and ask for their interpretation. You’ll be all on your own a whole lot of the time.
There’s also not likely to be many local networking opportunities. I know for my university there’s a meet-up group in every capital city of Australia. But if you don’t live close to a capital city, you’re out of luck.
To address this issue, I do recommend contacting your teacher as often as possible. They’re there for you via email. I also recommend joining facebook groups and putting yourself out there to make friends with other students. Add them on facebook, chat with them on facebook messenger every now and then, and share your thoughts and ideas with them generously.
#5: There is a lack of Practical Training and Experiences
If you’re aiming to get a degree where there are practical, hands-on skills as a core requirement, then you might be out of luck.
As a person who teaches people how to be school teachers, I struggle educating students about some of the hands-on elements. I’d love my students to be able to participate in mock lessons, practice teaching one another, and try out different teaching tools. Unfortunately they don’t have that opportunity because all classes need to be digital.
Now extend that to a degree like nursing or paramedics. If you’re expecting to learn how to cannulate a vein, you might be in a bit of trouble.
Online universities have some clever ways of getting around this. One key method is to have intensive weekends where online students fly-in for 8-hour-a-day courses. Conduct research into whether this is a requirement in your online degree, and calculate the cost requirements of transport and accommodation for all of those intensive training sessions.
#4: There may be Limited Course Options
Then, of course, some degrees are just too hands-on for an online option to be available. That’s why you don’t see too many medical degrees going online.
But here’s a con even worse that tens of thousands of students have likely faced:
Imagine if you got 90% of the way through your degree and realised that the last three courses need to be taken on-campus.
Now, imagine all these courses are offered in different semesters so you can’t even squeeze them all into the one semester.
What are you going to do? Quit your job for the last 12 months of the degree? Travel long distances to get to class? Take night classes? Or, is it just not possible to continue?
You need to have a clear path to graduation. Know it before you agree to start your degree.
#3: You’ll be Glued to your Email
Did I tell you earlier that constant access to student email is a must? You’ll get announcements and one-to-one emails from your teacher via email. It’s your lifeline for direct questions and teacher support.
You really do need to ensure your laptop or smartphone informs you of any email updates immediately.
This means you’ll find yourself watching TV at 8pm with your partner when an email comes on through reminding you something’s due the next day. In other words, you’ll be constantly tuned-in and switched-on.
An online degree can consume your life. It’ll creep into your personal life and force you to be disciplined about self-managing to ensure you don’t get burnt out and graduate on time.
#2: Be Prepared to Read and Watch a Lot of Videos
Once upon a time online courses involved a heck of a lot of reading. You were expected to read a chunk of text then write a response.
Nowadays teachers put in a huge amount of effort to create and share videos and podcasts for students. But then again, you might not like videos, either!
I used to make a lot of videos for my students, when I got a review at the end of one semester with a student complaining: “I don’t learn well through videos and there were so many!”
Just be warned: reading and watching videos remain the two key formats of learning. While videos can be great, you aren’t exposed to a ton of other ways of learning. There won’t be too many markers and flip-chart paper activities or problem-based learning collaborative tasks.
You’ll still find most weeks involve a whole lot of reading.
#1: Finding a way to Sit Exams can be Tough
My partner studied online courses for her Canadian university when we lived in England. At the end of each semester, she needed to find an invigilator / proctor to watch her while she took her exams.
Let me tell you: they’re not easy to find. There was one university in all of England that would accept her. She’d spend £80 to catch a train down there and another £130 to pay for someone to sit and watch her write her exam.
Really, it was a nightmare.
You might find it easier to find someone to oversee your exams if you live in the same city as your university, but be warned that this can become quite a nightmare. Make sure you ask about how the exams take place before you sign-up for any online courses.
I’m a convert to online learning. Personally, the pros of online education outweigh the cons. I can live where I want, wake up when I want, and don’t have to waste my time messing around with face-to-face activities. I feel like my time is my own and I’m in control of how to manage it.
Others – including my partner – would hate it. They want structure and control and a sociable environment. That’s fair enough.
I hope this list and my personal stories in this post have been useful. Personally, I think it’s the most comprehensive outline of what online learning life is like.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.