Challenges of Online Degree Programs
Online degree programs have created incredible opportunities. They have
made it possible for people to start or return to school that, only a few
years ago, simply could not have done so.
Along with the great opportunity of distance education also come some
challenges. For the Virtual Student, it is important to understand the
challenges as well as the opportunity.
Perhaps the most common characteristic of Virtual Students is that they
feel somewhat isolated. To varying degrees, they feel that they are alone
in their quest.
It is of course exactly true that studying at home, often late at night,
is a solitary activity. Especially for those people who enjoy and are
energized by social interaction, studying online can seem a lonely
On the other hand, many Virtual Students report that the online experience
has been responsible for their accumulating an entire new group of
friends. Their online classmates become their friends, just as class
cohorts in a physical classroom can become friends.
Nevertheless, it is important to understand that the online study
experience usually takes place apart from personal, social contact. If you
are considering an online degree program, please realize that a lot of
your class time will be spent alone.
Related to the isolation factor described above, some Virtual Students
report that they miss the personal contact of spoken, in-person
communication. Although it is possible to get to know another person
through email and discussion groups, some people do miss the in-person
Online communication often lacks in nonverbal communication cues such as
voice tonality, facial expressions, and eye contact. For those who feel
most connected to another by these body language factors, the online study
environment can seem impersonal.
However, for others, the opportunity to communicate honestly and perhaps
forcefully without having to risk speaking out in a crowded classroom is
welcome. They appreciate the chance to get to “know” their instructors and
classmates in what they perceive to be a less risky environment.
Time and Energy Drain
Although distance learning has made studying for a degree much more
convenient, it has not made the process less taxing. It has displaced the
need to drive to campus, or perhaps to relocate, but it has not eliminated
the need to work hard or devote time and effort.
Rather, distance learning schools require just as much work from their
online learners as they would from a campus course, and sometimes more.
They are not masochistic (although it may seem so), but are hyper-aware of
the scrutiny of distance learning programs by their accreditors, and often
by their own faculty members.
The logic is that distance learning students do not have to spend time in
class listening to lectures, so they should spend the time on other work.
The effect is to make many distance learning courses more work-intensive
than their on-campus counterparts.
As a result, Virtual Students often find that online degree programs drain
their time and energy just as much as an on-campus program would. This is
not a negative or a criticism of online programs. It is just a reality of
legitimate programs that prospective Virtual Students should take into
Some Virtual Students find their online programs to be a bit of a
technological burden. Often, this is because their school has loaded up
the course with technological “bells and whistles.” They actually
interfere with the learning process instead of supporting it.
In other cases, learners find that their base of technology is not
sufficient for the school’s expectations. This usually happens in cases
such as audio or video streaming, in which learners with dial up
connections cannot access the stream. It leads to frustration and may mean
the learner fails to get the course materials.
Before you enroll in a distance learning program, be sure to visit a
course or take a demo course. That way, you will know exactly what the
technological expectations will be.
Related to the communication issues outlined above, some Virtual Students
find that the online environment limits their ability to learn in a way
that matches their learning style. Especially for visual and auditory
learners, who need the presence of a spoken word, this can be a real
To some extent, it is the responsibility of the school to either address
this issue or acknowledge it in their marketing materials. However, it is
also a technological challenge that may be difficult for schools and
Virtual Students to solve.
If you learn best from a lecture or a personal demonstration, please be
sure to check with your school to make sure their delivery will match your
Many online degree programs are expensive. For some schools, online
education is even more expensive than campus-based courses. For reasons of
their own, many schools use their nontraditional and distance learning
programs to subsidize their campus operations.
Consequently, for many Virtual Students, studying online imposes a
financial burden that translates to a drain on family finances or a
student loan debt.
As more and more public institutions move into the online arena, their
lower tuition prices may benefit learners, at least in their states.
However, in the interim, there are relatively few low cost alternatives
among the top-name, accredited online schools.
Along with unprecedented opportunities to study online, distance education
also presents challenges for the Virtual Student. These challenges do not
necessarily overshadow the prospects of distance learning. But every
Virtual Student should decide on their own terms just how these challenges
will impact their study experience.