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Online Learning vs. Traditional Learning From the Student Perspective

written by: Kathy Foust•edited by: Sylvia Cochran•updated: 12/8/2011

Are you considering online learning as an educational option? Do you need some idea of what this type of study entails? Read on to find out what online students really think about distance education.

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    Expectations of Online Learning

    As a middle age student engaged in online learning, there are certain expectations. If one has never gone to college, there are also other expectations, but there is no clear idea of what is going to be required to attend classes and achieve a respectable GPA. Here are some of the expectations of online students engaged in online learning versus traditional learning that are both realistic and also somewhat unrealistic.

    • Ability to work at one's own pace.
    • Minimal time requirements due to lack of class structure.
    • Simplified format.
    • Minimal interaction with other students and possibly also the instructor.
    • Instant responses to work due to prior educational experience of face to face classrooms where responses to work -- though minimal -- tend to give the student some idea of their progress in the class.
    • General computer knowledge.
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    Evaluate Online Learning vs. Traditional Learning

    As an online learning versus traditional learning student, I myself had the above expectations. The realities of online learning soon became clear. Throughout my experience as an online student, I have found the following to be true.

    • Extensive word processing skills. Virtually every online course requires that the student submits a paper of some sort with very specific formats that will sometimes include graphs and/or images. Personally, one of the biggest issues here was that additional software was required to complete the course. Naturally, with additional software comes additional computer knowledge that tends to leave the student wondering if they shouldn't be earning and IT degree along with whatever other degree they are pursuing.
    • Extensive interaction with other students. The discussion board itself provides a format for student interaction, but students also have access to each others' school emails and often use them to ask questions about the subject matter. There are online groups that may even meet in person in areas where this is possible.
    • The format of online learning is not always simple; as computer programs go -- and college attendance increases -- the format can very well change from semester to semester. Blackboard, one of the most commonly used programs, seems to have a limited capacity for growth of participants. However, this could be an error with the program or an error with the technical staff. Whatever the reason, be prepared to rearrange your schedule around outages and server interruptions.
    • Since there is no face to face interaction, there are often strenuous homework requirements which enable the instructor to assess the student's understanding of the online coursework. Rather than being able to assess a student's understanding by seeing the glazed-over look in a student’s eye -- or watching as the "light bulb" comes on -- the instructors have to get creative in their assignments. In my experience, this consisted generally of weekly assignments, at least three discussion board posts, biweekly tests, midterms, finals and an extensive paper relating to the subject matter.
    • Delayed responses. Since one does not see the instructor on a face to face basis in online learning versus traditional learning, one cannot ask questions in person and instead uses email. Email mailboxes have a tendency to fill up quickly. Since the instructor is often teaching multiple classes, the response time from instructor to student may be greatly delayed. While most of the instructors I have dealt with were timely and organized, there is always one or two that seem to have no schedule, rhyme or reason. If the question had to do with homework, the discussion board was a very handy supplement to teacher responses. Questions can be posted there and answered by students or instructors.
    • Cost factors. The cost of online learning versus traditional learning usually includes some type of technology fee. However, when compared to the cost of travel, sitters and work time lost in attending a traditional school, online learning was actually the cheaper method, even with the technology fee. In fact, some online schools tend to waive the application fee as part of their attempt at persuading a student to attend their school. And though the recruiters tend to remind one of telemarketers, it's rare that one will attempt to visit your house and persuade you to pay the application fee right now so you don't lose your spot. You aren't taking up a seat in a classroom here and online classes are much easier to modify than traditional ones.

    As an online student, I am often asked to evaluate online learning versus traditional learning by those you are intimidated by the thought of self direction, technology and learning, or even just the thought of returning to school. My response is always the same. I would not want to do it any other way. I would rather read the information I need, research when needed and work at my own pace than simply sit in a classroom and be lectured as I daydream about what I could be doing with my time.