Online education is booming. From 2001 to 2020, the number of Americans studying on the internet doubled, even as enrollment in other programs grew at a lower rate. In the 2018-19 school year, 21.7 million students were enrolled in some kind of “distance education,” according to new figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, and of those, about 10 million were attending online courses from a conventional college.
Why are so many students choosing online schooling? The short answer: It’s convenient, and relatively cheap. But the popular explanation — that students are taking online courses because they’re more affordable than going to college — is misleading. Far from being more affordable, the price of online courses continues to rise faster than prices at traditional colleges. By most measures, online learning is becoming more expensive than traditional channels.
So, what does this reality really tell us? And why does it matter?
Turns out that there are good reasons to expect online learning to become increasingly important. An aging workforce requires more education, but there are not enough spots for everyone who wants to participate. And given the massive demand for workers, the demand for workers is expected to grow even faster than the supply of jobs — meaning that even if everyone who wants to go to college enrolls in one of the vast numbers of online classes, we’ll still need more.
These trends, of course, aren’t confined to a few major cities or industries. If you’re studying nursing in rural Alabama, the cost of online education may be prohibitive. If you’re a recent college graduate looking for work, and you could afford to attend a traditional school but choose to take a class online, you may wind up having more choices than you think. For many people, online education could play a major role in expanding their reach.
With that in mind, let’s look at some key advantages of online education. These are not, as you might expect, things that most people think about when they consider pursuing distance education. Nor are they helpful in assessing how well the learning is going.
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1. More flexibility
One big advantage of distance education is that you get to do it when you want to. Even more important, the degree to which you can customize your studies is greater than it might otherwise be. In some schools, in fact, students in the upper divisions of engineering have access to courses taught by professors and specialists who are working in their own field.
Still, there’s evidence that some students prefer traditional settings to online. Some courses have become a bit too popular, and too many students can’t get into them. This is not always good for educational value, but it also seems to be a genuine quality problem.
Online teaching is a lot more about teaching students to learn, rather than teaching students what to learn. In the professional world, teachers who do this tend to be highly effective.
In the world of consumerism, demand is everything. And demand will keep growing — the global workforce will continue to be larger than it is today, and the number of people earning incomes in the United States will keep growing, even as more Americans opt for online or distance schooling. If you can’t afford online education, you’ll simply miss out on the opportunity.
From 2002 to 2018, federal grants available to help people pay for college increased by 19 percent, but at least 20 states cut financial aid for students who study online. Obviously, this wouldn’t make sense if education costs were falling. It is possible that the problem is due, in part, to the states’ desire to balance their budgets by cutting programs, rather than to a lack of capacity. As higher education continues to be a heavily criticized investment, however, the pressure on state budgets may well reduce the gap between aid available to those who study online, and the money needed to make sure that everyone who wants to pay for it.
5. Peace of mind
You can see how these arguments would resonate among those of us who have studied online instruction. As the quality of online teaching improves, and the costs of online education come down, online learning becomes even more attractive.
There are a few other ways that online learning might help. Electronic transcripts — which enable you to get credit for online courses — could make it possible for people to figure out exactly what they need to know in order to get a credit for a particular course. And for people with learning disabilities, online education can make it possible to do courses in a variety of locations without having to endure difficulties.
None of these things are necessarily perfect, but they are steps in the right direction. Online education can certainly and probably help people realize the benefits of adult education while also giving schools greater flexibility and encouraging greater competition.