Online learning has been around, in one form or another, since the 1990’s, but has increased dramatically over the past ten years. The demand from online students for greater access to low-cost education has led to more and more colleges and universities offering certificates, degree courses and even complete degree programs for distance learners. Online learning has also expanded the reach of higher education, making it possible for students in remote areas, who may never have had the opportunity to go to a traditional brick and mortar school or college, to have access to high quality centers of learning.
Online learning can be generally broken down into two formats, asynchronous learning and synchronous learning.
Asynchronous learning is the most common type of online education, in which students and instructors rarely, if ever, meet for class at the same time. Class materials and lectures are available for access 24 hours a day and classroom interaction is limited to postings on a class blog or forum, along with other forms of written communication, such as email list-serves and instant messaging.
Synchronous learning is a more interactive and structured form of online degree course; it involves the instructors and students meeting at designated times online, entering into a virtual classroom or video conferencing to allow real-time teaching and interaction. Students and instructors are able to communicate through writing, audio or video. Synchronous learning is an especially useful form of online education for students looking for a style closest to traditional classroom format and for courses or programs when discussion provides a vital element of the learning process; for example, philosophy or political courses.
Benefits of online learning
Arguably the most important reason for students to choose online learning is the flexibility it provides. Classes and lectures can, for the most part, be viewed online at any time, allowing part-time students the opportunity to complete their coursework on a schedule that is convenient for them. Whether a student has work or family commitments, it is possible to enjoy a higher level of education by embarking on an online program.
In the current challenging economic climate, receiving a quality education that leads to decent employment can be very expensive, with many students finding themselves hobbled by a significant level of loan debt upon leaving school, with little prospect of ever repaying it. Online learning offers the advantage of removing some of the highest costs associated with going to college. Room and board, transportation, clothing and other personal items that are necessities when attending a brick-and-mortar school are less important when studying via the internet. Online learning also eliminates the need for textbooks, a very high expense for most students. By taking all the time they need to complete a program students are able to pay as they go rather than accumulating potentially substantial levels of debts.
Finally, the possibilities for overall student enrichment may be increased through online learning. The more relaxed environment of online classes and correspondence can be a less intimidating environment for many, encouraging them to interact with the instructor and other students. This can lead to an increase in the retention of information, in addition to providing an opportunity to expand on the basic information presented in the course through forum discussions and commentary.