Online Education: What You Need to Know

Students today have all kinds of online learning opportunities. You can take an entire degree program or enroll in a single course to add to your skillset.

But when we talk about online education, it is important to understand certain terms.

Types of Online Courses

Synchronous: Synchronous classes are live. They offer a structured learning environment in which you and your fellow students are all online at a certain time to watch presentations or participate in discussions. You interact with your instructor and peers via text or livestream video.

Asynchronous: Asynchronous classes do not happen in real time. Instead, they feature prerecorded lectures and self-guided assignments. This allows for more flexibility, since you can access course materials and work on assignments as your schedule permits. The instructor is tupically reachable for feedback and guidance, but you complete the course at your own pace.

Hybrid: Hybrid or blended courses combine in-person instruction with online learning. For instance, you might study from home two or three days a week and come to campus on the remaining days. Or in programs like nursing that require supervised hands-on work, you might do the written part online but then go to a hospital or other workplace to complete your practicum.

Advantages of Online Education

There are many advantages to online education. You're not limited by geography, so you can take a course from a school thousands of miles away. With asynchronous classes, you can also study at your own pace and fit coursework around your work or family commitments.

Also, some students are shy about speaking up in classrooms. Some are afraid to ask questions in case they look "stupid." With online learning, you can ask questions and "speak up" by private chat.

There is another advantage. Your fellow students are likely to live in other locations, or even in other countries. They have different cultures and different ideas. This allows you to have a truly international learning experience.

Studying online can also be cheaper. Tuition costs may be similar, but if you're not commuting to campus, you won't have expenses like gas, parking, vehicle maintenance, or transit passes. You also won't have to move to a new city or pay for a dorm room or campus meal plan.

Disadvantages of Online Education

There are some disadvantages to online education. For one thing, not everyone has a great technical setup. Slow internet connections can pose problems for some people, especially those that have to rely on public Wi-Fi. Latency issues can make it hard to keep up with video chats.

Another challenge is that online learning requires a great deal of self-discipline. Some students find it difficult to stay motivated and focused without the structure of a traditional classroom environment.

But the greatest con is that online education can be isolating. If you enjoy the experience of hanging out with your classmates and maybe going for pizza with them, you may not like it when the only interactions you get are through videoconferencing platforms.

Questions to Ask

Students considering online education are smart to do some research before enrolling. Start by asking yourself:

  1. Are you organized and self-disciplined? With no one telling you when and where to study, you need to be able to hold yourself accountable. Time management is key here. You also need to know how to minimize distractions--for instance, by leaving your phone in another room while you study.
  2. Do you have basic computer skills? You don't have to be a technical whiz, but you should be able to navigate the internet and create and save files with ease. Many online courses provide training on the specific learning management system and videoconferencing platforms they use.

You also need to get information about any specific school you're considering.Find out:

  1. Is the school accredited? If a U.S. college grants a degree and claims to be accredited, check with the U.S. Department of Education or the Council of Higher Education Accreditation. Find out if these bodies recognize the accrediting organization.
  2. Can you get financial aid? You may be eligible for the same financial aid as if you were taking all your classes on campus. Contact the college's financial aid counselor for details.
  3. What is the school's refund policy? Read the contract carefully to see what is included and what is not. Find out when you can cancel and what fees would be involved.
  4. Who hires the school's graduates? Check the school website for information on graduate employment rates. Approach employers you'd like to work for and ask if they hire graduates of that school.

So is Online Education for You?

Self-motivated people who can manage their time and commit to a program will do well in an online course. The experts agree that the skills you develop in online learning will serve you well for the rest of your life.


  • Council for Higher Education Accreditation
    This organization recognizes accreditation agencies. It has a database of accredited schools in the U.S.

  • U.S. Department of Education
    Provides information about accreditation and accredited schools in the U.S.


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