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The Challenges and Advantages of Online Degree Programs

Recognizing the experience and passion that adult learners bring to the classroom is fundamental to supporting students.

– Joshua Steele, Arizona Online (University of Arizona)

One is never done learning—especially today. With the advancement of educational technology, it is easier than ever to further one’s education online. Scores of universities now offer fully-online programs for students who wish to pursue an undergraduate or master’s degree via distance learning.

Students and academic institutions alike have found numerous benefits with this style of learning. However, online education is relatively new in the world of academia and as it continues to evolve, so does our understanding of its advantages and challenges.

Featured Interviewee

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Joshua Steele

Senior Director of Online Student Success, Arizona Online
University of Arizona

Joshua Steele is the senior director of online student success at Arizona Online, the University of Arizona’s Office of Distance Learning, which strives to increase educational opportunities for fully-online students at the university through student-focused processes, operational excellence, and a comprehensive support strategy.

Steele has ten years of experience in online education, covering a wide range of roles, such as director of online student success, where he developed student support culture and structure for the launch of the University of Arizona’s fully online undergraduate degree programs. He has a bachelor of science in psychology and a master’s degree in history from the University of Arizona. He also has a master of arts in adult education and training.

The Advantages of Online Degree Programs

Technology is created to solve problems and make practical tasks easier. Thanks to educational technology, more people than ever have access to learning valuable information and earning degrees from the convenience of their laptops.

This technology makes education more accessible and is a growing medium for students around the world. According to a report by LearningHouse and Aslanian Market Research, 60 percent of students who had the choice of taking a course in a classroom or online chose the online course for its convenience.

For someone wishing to further their education, enrolling in an online program can be the perfect solution. Here are a few ways online courses add value to both students and universities.

Access to a High Quality Education

Among the advantages of educational technology, the most significant is increased access to valuable learning. Traditionally, students pursuing a degree would have to take into account the physical location of their classes as well as the cost of commuting or relocating to attend classes. More often than not, these two factors become major deterrents to completing a degree.

“The majority of our students choose online specifically because they are working, or have other obligations that prevent them from completing their education in an in-person format,” explains Joshua Steele, senior director of Arizona Online.

Educational technology relieves many students of the burdens that come with completing an on-campus degree. Online classes allow students to access course material, communicate with peers and instructors, and complete exams from any location with reliable internet. This means that students with other responsibilities such as a family or full-time job—as well as those living in rural areas or near schools without their desired program—are able to complete courses without having to relocate.

Online education can also be more affordable. The report by LearningHouse and Aslanian Market Research stated that 86 percent of students felt the value of their online degree exceeded the cost they paid for it.

Better access to education benefits students and the institutions themselves. By increasing enrollment, universities can increase revenue and invest in programs to improve the overall quality of the education they provide. Universities can choose to allocate that extra money to hire more qualified teachers, implement more advanced educational technology, or add more in-demand programs and courses.

Increased Flexibility and Academic Autonomy

“The flexibility and ability to dictate the times in which you access coursework are some of the largest advantages to earning a degree online,” says Steele. “For in-person formats, often students are at the mercy of the institution and the timing in which courses are offered.”

Being a student at any level is a big responsibility. Not only is a typical student’s schedule full of classes and study time, but many students work part-time jobs or get involved in extracurricular activities. Since coursework is often the top priority, students adapt their daily lives around their course load.

Online classes allow additional flexibility and autonomy for both students and instructors. With course materials readily available on the internet, students can learn at their own pace and study anywhere, anytime, any day of the week. The only schedules students may need to adhere to relate to exam dates, project and homework deadlines, and an end-of-year practicum or capstone.

Location independence is another key benefit of online education flexibility. By accessing course material from anywhere with a reliable internet connection, students can choose to spend their time learning from the comfort of their own homes, offices, cafés, or even when on vacation.

“I’ll also say that graduates of online programs typically have built a competency in self-regulation and discipline,” Steele adds. “You know that someone who has finished an online program has demonstrated commitment over a long stretch of time while typically physically isolated from the institution. That is a marketable skill set that I’m not sure we speak enough about.”

Easier to Maintain Career and Family Responsibilities

It has long been believed that pursuing a degree is best done before career and family obligations take priority. Once individuals have started to work full-time or tend to the demands of raising children, it can be incredibly difficult to focus on earning a traditional degree.

“We recently surveyed our fully-online undergraduate population and found that about 70 percent of these students are working more than 30 hours per week, and about 48 percent have children,” says Steele, “so the 11:00 to 11:50 a.m. three-days-a-week course is not a possibility for them.”

Most online masters degree programs are specifically designed for professionals who are balancing a 9-to-5 job and already have a demanding schedule. Even for those whose busy work schedules are not always predictable, the flexibility of online degree programs makes it easier to manage both.

Before the rise of online education, pursuing a traditional degree was not possible for many with careers and families. Thanks to distance-based educational technology, however, hardworking students, parents, and professionals really can have it all.

The Disadvantages of Online Degree Programs

Although online degree programs are designed to eliminate some of the challenges of the traditional educational environment, there are several hurdles that students and instructors must overcome. According to a 2016 report from Purdue University, between 40 and 80 percent of students enrolled in online classes drop out before completion.

Despite increased accessibility and flexibility, the online learning environment is not for everyone. Before applying for an online program, there are a few challenges to consider.

Lack of Interaction with Peers and Instructors

Accomplishing any goal can feel lonely. When it comes to pursuing an education, on-campus students have better access to moral support through face-to-face interaction with peers and professors. As traditional educational environments involve class discussion and group projects, the lack of interpersonal communication for instructors and classmates poses particular challenges for some students.

According to the Learning House and Aslanian Market research report, 57 percent of online students said that interacting with classmates is very important to academic success. Although students have the ability to email professors and classmates and participate in forums and discussion boards, many students have trouble learning without personal interaction.

Isolation from peers and instructors can be a significant factor for students to drop out of online courses. Although the lack of interaction might not affect an instructor’s well-being, low retention rates can hurt an institution’s finances and reputation.

For this reason, personalization is critical to effective online education, explains Steele: “It’s important for us to ensure that students understand that their instructors are real faculty at the university, who are just as interested in getting to know them as they are to know their instructor,” he says.

“We want our students to interact with each other to build their personal network and support system. Engagement with the instructor, engagement with the content, and engagement with each other are cornerstones of the Arizona Online experience. A variety of tools are used to create this learning environment, including video discussion boards, conferencing technology, and adaptive learning elements, to name a few.”

Students Must Hold Themselves Accountable

The feeling of isolation can lead many students to feel unmotivated about keeping up with their studies. Without having to be prepared to discuss course material in-person or meet professors face-to-face, holding oneself accountable is another significant challenge for online students.

Although on-campus students are responsible for studying outside the classroom, many feel that the in-person obligation to attend class and contribute to class discussions is a motivator for learning the material. As participation is often not a requirement, the material is always available, and the only deadlines are usually exams, it can be easy for students to procrastinate and not force themselves to learn the curricula.

Also, being surrounded by friends, family, and colleagues who are not furthering their education can also be a challenge in keeping motivation. Even if the people a student interacts with daily is supportive of their educational pursuit, it can be tempting to abandon hours of study to spend time with loved ones.

Instructors Must Adjust to an Online Environment

Because isolation and proactive time management can be a challenge for students, educators designing the coursework must adapt their teaching approach to these obstacles so students will remain engaged. This can be particularly troublesome for instructors who are not trained in using educational technology and teaching online courses.

As students have different learning styles, transitioning from the classroom to the laptop is more difficult for some than others. According to a report by Brookings, students who already have trouble learning in a traditional environment are more likely to fail an online course. Without being able to ask questions during a lecture or collaborate with peers, a student struggling with course material may have a harder time catching up.

Most university professors are not experts in educational technology, but in the subject they teach. For this reason, the best online programs hire teams of professionals to assist faculty in the development of online courses and create a more seamless online learning environment. Arizona Online takes a consultative approach, where the online learning team provides the necessary tools and resources for faculty to tailor their programs to an online format while still promoting each professor’s expertise.

“The team includes instructional designers, graphic designers, developers, videographers, instructional technology support—all to ensure that we can provide pedagogical choice and allow for the ability to think about the best way to meet course learning objectives while not being constrained,” explains Steele. “It allows us to innovate and rethink the ways we deliver content for online students.”

Technology for online courses is relatively new to the world of education and there is still much for universities and academic institutions to learn about its effectiveness and potential. As the number of students enrolled in fully online programs is expected to grow, institutions must be prepared to adapt to providing quality education through new technology and methods. Meanwhile, students who graduate from fully online programs can be set up for success.

“The challenges for online students are well documented. We do not talk enough about the strengths that online students bring to the classroom. Recognizing the experience and passion that adult learners bring to the classroom is fundamental to supporting students,” Steele says.

“We’ve found that our students choose the University of Arizona because they want to learn, and they appreciate the rigor of a program that supports their long-term professional and personal goals. Scaffolding support so that students feel supported is integral to promoting the success of an online population, and it takes a widespread institutional effort.”

Stefanie Veneziano

Stefanie Veneziano is a freelance content writer and editor based in Tbilisi, Georgia. Originally from Maine, she left her political career in the United States in 2015 to travel the world and has since been to over 40 countries. When she’s not working on her laptop or posting her adventures on Instagram (@stefanieveneziano), she likes to conduct culinary experiments, study vexillology, and play a game of backgammon.