A guest post from Emily Brangwynne, Director of Development and Communications at Duet.
As fall quickly approaches, colleges and universities are making important decisions about whether their campuses will reopen for in-person learning. For many, the answer is no.
Students who planned to attend college on-campus this fall now have an important decision to make. Should they continue with their plans, paying the same tuition in most cases for a learning experience that will be primarily online? Or should they consider some of the other remote learning options available to them, many of which will be more affordable and may be better equipped with the technology infrastructure to provide students with a high-quality online learning experience?
In this post, we compare some of the various remote learning options available to college students as we head into an uncertain and unstable fall semester. It’s important to consider what kind of online learning experience your school is offering, and what some of the pros and cons are of each kind of approach so you can make an informed decision about your college future.
1. Virtual Instruction From an On-Campus Provider
This option essentially moves the traditional college course online and is what many colleges are opting to do this fall to help reduce COVID-19 dangers.
Rather than hosting in-person classes on campus as normal, professors can lecture virtually through a video program such as Zoom, Skype, or Google Hangouts. Papers, exams, and other assignments are completed and turned in virtually as well.
Because you’re completing a course through a traditional college program, this option comes with the prestige and stature normally associated with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree coursework. Depending on your school and class size, you might also expect a more personal learning experience and a stronger professor-student relationship than you may find in other remote learning options. If it’s important that your professor knows your name and can offer one-on-one help, this may be your best bet.
However, moving classes that are normally in-person to an online format isn’t always a smooth process. Traditional schools (especially smaller colleges) may not have the resources or technical teams in place to provide effective online instruction. Plus, some professors may find it difficult to transition their in-person coursework into an online format. That means you could be paying top-dollar for a subpar learning experience.
2. Online Degree Programs
The coursework for online degree programs is designed from start to finish with remote learning in mind. Students typically take classes and accumulate credit hours to earn their degrees, but there may be more evening classes and flexible scheduling to accommodate students with full-time jobs. If a student misses a scheduled class, they can usually access a recording to watch at their convenience. Class information and assignments are often accessed through some kind of tech platform designed specifically for online learning.
Many schools offer online degree programs and they’re typically less expensive than on-campus learning options. That makes these a great option for students who can’t attend classes in-person or who otherwise couldn’t afford a traditional on-campus education. Plus, the added flexibility makes it ideal for students who need to balance schoolwork with a job, family obligations, or other responsibilities. And because these classes are designed specifically for online learning, you may find they come with more tech support, making it easier to communicate and engage with others remotely.
However, there are limits to this type of learning. You typically won’t see these programs offered for every type of major — STEM majors, for example, require a lot of hands-on lab work which can’t be easily moved online. These types of degrees may also take some extra motivation and drive on your part to complete since they can be more self-directed than other types of secondary education. You also may not have access to on-campus resources such as a library or career center.
Lastly, some may (unfairly) view these types of degrees as less reputable or lower quality than a traditional college program. While it’s true that there are online diploma “mills” and unaccredited online programs, with some research you can find an online learning program that future employers will respect.
3. Competency-Based Online Degree Programs
Similar to online degree programs, competency-based learning is designed specifically for remote learning. However, instead of attending online classes or viewing recorded lectures, competency-based learning allows you to set the pace and learn things in your own way.
Instead of logging a certain number of class hours, competency-based learning allows you to earn credits by studying materials in your own time and mastering certain projects. Once you’ve learned a module, you typically take a final exam to prove your knowledge. That means that if you already have experience with a certain topic, you may be able to pass the exam with little preparation on your part; other topics you’re less well-versed on may take longer to learn.
Because these degrees are self-paced, they’re incredibly flexible — you can complete them online as quickly or slowly as you see fit. You get access to all the coursework on day one, so you could save time and money by mastering the topics quickly. These courses are typically pretty affordable, and many are sold on a subscription basis; if you’re able to complete the course in six months, for example, you’ll pay less than someone who takes longer.
Most programs offer some type of mentor you can access when you need some extra help. Plus, nonprofits such as Duet, Rivet School, and PeletonU can provide personal coaching to help you stay on track and even help with things like financial aid.
However, there are some drawbacks to this learning model. First, it’s essentially entirely student-driven, which means you need to have the motivation and ability to complete the coursework on your own time. There are no deadlines or due dates, so you’ll need a lot of self-discipline to remain focused (that’s why those nonprofits can come in handy).
This is also a fairly solitary education, so you won’t have much interaction with your peers or a professor. You should be prepared to complete independent projects — you won’t find any discussion groups here.
Lastly, this is a relatively new education model, so you may find that your college and degree options are more limited.
The Bottom Line
As more and more colleges move to remote learning (at their normal tuition prices, no less), it's expected that students will look at other options. Each online education model comes with its own pros and cons, and some may not be right for everyone. But with some research and due diligence, you can find the remote learning opportunity that’s right for you.