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 experience.

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.

Impersonal Communication
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 connection.

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 account.

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.

Learning Style
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 challenge.

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 learning style.

Financial Cost
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.

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