People often ask whether online education can really match traditional classroom learning in helping students gain the knowledge that they need. I’ll agree that, in the past, the technology could be cumbersome and unreliable. But I think we have reached a critical point in both the quality of the online learning tools are available to online universities and colleges like Strayer, institutions in which disruptive technologies are shaking up the status quo in higher learning.

Advantages of Online Education

Flexibility of time-shifted learning: When your course materials and even your lectures happen online, you can study whenever you want. The benefit of earning your degree online is primarily that they aren’t tied to a rigid schedule; you can digest course material at a time that fits you, whether that’s late at night, in the wee hours of the morning or in the middle of the day. You find the time in your schedule to fit school in instead of rearranging your whole life to accommodate earning your degree.

Freedom to be mobile: The online-centric learning model brings the classroom to wherever the student is, not the other way around. Study on your commute, at work during your lunch break or from the comfort of your home office. And when you don’t have to rush to get to school, you’ve subtracted a significant amount of your commute time each day and turned it into study time.

Versatile digital learning tools: Textbooks remain highly relevant, but the ability of teachers to add video, online quizzes and even interactive learning tools to their curricula is changing the face of higher education. Lectures and textbook reading will likely be a part of any class you take, but these days it should be supplemented with learning materials that engage you and help you absorb knowledge in many different ways.

Tradeoffs of Learning Online

All those advantages of a mobile, time-shifted learning environment can come at a cost, and students need to be aware of them if they want to be truly successful in an online degree program. There is something you miss when you’re not in a classroom, surrounded by your peers, and interacting with an instructor face to face.

Communication with professors through email and chat can be more cumbersome than simply standing in front of a whiteboard where they can show you what they mean. Although screen-sharing and virtual whiteboard programs are making that easier than it used to be to duplicate those kinds of classroom experiences, it takes time to adjust to communicating in that way. This is one of the main reasons Strayer University continues to offer on-campus classes in addition to our online offerings.

Students also tend to need to spend more time on online classes, depending on the subject matter. Granted, you’re expected to spend so many hours of study time for every hour you spend in class, but you may find yourself going at slower pace when you don’t have the structure of a timed lecture to pace you through the material.

This is highly dependent on the student, though. And I find that there’s a learning curve for students adjusting to how to digest online course material. After a semester or so, most students have gotten into their groove and probably spend time that’s on par with when they study in class.

What You Need to Succeed in Online Courses

Time Management: You’re going to have to be disciplined to make online learning work because you don’t have the automatic structure that a class schedule brings. Count up your hours needed for studying, and build it into your schedule around work, sleep, exercise, family and everything else you’re doing. Remember, if you don’t track your time, you won’t really know where it’s all going.

Writing Skills: You need to know how to express your thoughts clearly in writing, which is primarily how you’ll be interacting with your instructors and students in online class discussions. Don’t let your inexperience with grammar and spelling get in the way of that. (Hint: One of the best ways to improve your writing is through reading at the level you wish to write.)

Study Environment: Find a quiet place to study at home or at work after hours. Campuses are full of quiet study corners, but the rest of the world is full of distractions. Get away from the TV, turn off your music, switch off your phone and block out a time where your brain is only processing the knowledge you want to acquire. Trust me, it works.

Student Support: You need to know where to find help. Studying on your own can make you feel like you’re isolated, especially when you run into a wall on a certain concept or assignment. Know when your professor’s virtual office hours are. Try contacting other students in your class. Find out about tutoring resources online and in person. There are also online support groups for math, writing and just about anything else you’re struggling with.

It takes more preparation and discipline to take advantage of online learning, but the tradeoffs are definitely worth the flexibility and convenience of earning your degree online. Have you taken any online courses so far? What are your biggest challenges, and are they worth the benefits of studying online?