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College: Is Online or Traditional Classroom Right for You?
College: Is Online or Traditional Classroom Right for You?
So you’re getting ready to hit the books, are you? How will you decide if you should attend classes online or in a traditional classroom setting? I may be able to help you with that decision, but first, let me share my personal experiences that may lend credibility to my suggestions.
My Student Experience
If you’re not fresh out of high school, chances are you’ve already started to go to college one or more times. I started about two and a half years out of high school, while I was in the Air Force, taking my initial course at Rollins College, a small, private college near my air base. I then shipped out for an overseas tour of 18 months and returned for my final 15 months at a different base. When I was discharged, I returned to Orlando and began a 30+-year career with IBM.
A year or so after leaving the Air Force, I did resume classes and went on to finish my bachelor’s degree at Rollins, thanks to CLEP and credit hours earned in my Air Force training programs, in only five years…as a full-time employee. Rollins used a traditional classroom environment, these are typically three to four-month semesters or quarters and if you’re not going to be a full-time student, it can take a long time to complete your program. It was grueling taking classes whenever I could get them, often Saturdays, evenings, or directed individual studies. Just get it done was my mantra.
Some 20 years later, I decided to go back for a Master’s degree, this time at Webster University, where the programs were somewhat accelerated with only nine weeks required for each Masters class. After my lengthy experience with the undergrad program, I doubled up, taking two courses each term. I was still in the traditional classroom setting…but accelerated by attending class periods of greater length. In my second term, I discovered that I could earn a dual Master’s degree by carefully selecting my electives from the core requirements of the second program and taking two additional courses. That turned out to be a very worthwhile decision because in 17 months I earned an MA in Management and an MA in Computer Resources and Information Management.
Jump forward another 10 years and I enrolled in an online MBA program at Northcentral University, which is an all-online school. While Northcentral is regionally accredited, as are Rollins and Webster, its programs are directed individual study…you receive a syllabus online, you post assignments on a rather rigid schedule and, within a few days, receive a grade and rather cursory feedback. While students are typically allowed up to 12 weeks to complete each course, many are completed more quickly. Normally, there is very little interaction with the faculty, although I did have a couple who were readily available. My stats professor was actually quite proactive…I offer my thanks to that man, as graduate-level stats can be a killer. Since there are no classmates, no team interaction with other students and limited interaction with faculty, this model is only appropriate for very dedicated self-starters. Oh, I also enrolled and completed one graduate course in technology management at the University of Phoenix, just to experience the online student experience in their accelerated, six-week format with its requirement for working on team assignments in addition to individual course work (while teaching an online undergrad class).
A quick segue, I mentioned regional accreditation in the paragraph above and I would highly recommend that you carefully weigh any decision on a school’s accreditation status. The highest form of accreditation is by one of the six regional accrediting associations (MSCHE, NEASC-CIHE, NCA-HLC, NWCCU, SACS, WASC-ACSCU). A school that is proud of its accreditation will normally make that information readily available on its website. The “value” of a degree from a nationally accredited or state-licensed school may prove restricting in application later on. Some businesses may not honor them as meeting hiring or promotion requirements and most colleges and accredited universities will require a graduate degree from a regionally accredited school as a credential to teach their students. There are also accrediting bodies for programs in the fields of nursing, business, technology, etc. that may be a consideration for prospective students as they may be weighed in hiring or program-funding decisions by some organizations. For further information, check out the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) website at http://www.chea.org/Directories/regional.asp.
My Teaching Experience
My final credential to help you mentally justify my recommendations is my post-secondary teaching for the past 15 years in traditional classrooms and for 14 years in the online environment for two different universities. This, by the way, was made possible by choosing only regionally accredited schools. As you can see, I’ve been there and done that on both sides of the classroom, as both teacher and learner, online and traditional.
Teaching in a Classroom
In a typical adult educational experience, classes usually meet once a week for 3-4 hours, most often on weekday evenings or Saturday mornings. Depending on the school chosen, there may be additional requirements for team projects for completion outside of the normal classroom hours. These extra teamwork projects often reduce the number of classroom “contact” hours required and may be a significant element in reducing the overall time required to complete a degree program. The traditional classroom setting offers direct, face-to-face interaction with faculty and classmates and, perhaps, a more social environment. I feel these aspects are more important to the younger, single, and less organized students, but some students do feel it is important to get away from the family atmosphere for their classes. However, since most of the actual work for the various assignments is normally done at home or in a place other than the classroom, I do not really see that as a major benefit. This modality can allow students to hide in plain sight; they can be in attendance, but never really participate in classroom discussion unless singled out for a faculty question. They blend in and their more open and outspoken classmates will tend to dominate classroom activity. When asked a question, they sometimes have a mildly panic-stricken look, as they are not accustomed to being contributors and may not have prepared for this possibility by reading their assigned materials. They sometimes feel that everything they need to learn will be in the professor’s presentations and they will just absorb it by listening in class. Nothing could be farther from the truth, there is no possible way that all of the relevant material can be covered that quickly. There is so much more knowledge available in the various associated materials and online that cannot be addressed in classroom lecture.
The online environment allows students maximum flexibility in their scheduling of school activities; this may be of particular value to students who tend to travel in their employment and this also allows many international students and members of the military forces to attend programs at American schools. As discussed in the section on traditional classrooms, depending on the school and/or accelerated completion programs, team projects may be required in addition to the individual requirements.In either case, these are often managed via team wikis, IM, online forums, text messages and cell phone chats. One can perform classroom activities, research and write from any location with Internet access. All that is required is a laptop and an Internet hotspot at a coffee shop, McDonald's, a library, military base or their hotel room. In today's connected world, course research is most often conducted online. The online classroom may or may not require interactive participation by students; if it does, then all students will have a full opportunity and expectation to provide their input to the ongoing discussion threads.All students should use this opportunity to improve their writing skills-- a real benefit in the workplace, especially as one moves up in an organization. I see this as a distinct advantage over the traditional classroom in that all students will participate and, when directly asked a question by a classmate or the professor, they will have an opportunity to do a bit of research before answering. This will allow the students to learn more about this particular area and to present a far better response; both of these can build knowledge and self-confidence in the students. In my experience, students with a true desire to learn and gain greater knowledge from the college experience, rather than those solely interested in receiving a degree, will find the opportunities for learning and research excel in the online environment. While I fully understand students’ desires to earn their degrees, I feel they are seriously cheating themselves if they do not go beyond the minimum requirements. The online college experience can enhance this option, while allowing maximum convenience for learners.
Technology Requirements and Cost
Typically, classroom students will require a computer, a printer and an Internet connection, much the same equipment as the online students will require, so there will be little, if any, cost difference in technology requirements. Students may or may not have a personal issue to resolve with the cost variance between online and local classroom costs, based on their choice of schools. If one is interested in getting the most available from the degree program, I feel online programs offer the greatest opportunities.