What is Online Education?

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Online education is a type of educational instruction that is delivered via the internet to students using their home computers. During the last decade, online degrees and courses have become popular alternative for a wide range of nontraditional students, include those who want to continue working full-time or raising families. Most of the time, online degree programs and courses are offered via the host school's online learning platform, although some are delivered using alternative technologies. Although there are subtle dissimilarities, the main difference between online and traditional learning is the fact that online education liberates the student from the usual trappings of on-campus degree programs — including driving to school, planning their schedule around classes, and being physically present for each sequence of their coursework.

If this sounds drastic, it really isn't. The truth is, the education methods and materials provided in online degree programs are often the same as those provided for on-campus programs. According to Robert Monroe, Director of the Online Hybrid MBA at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, the best online education programs actually mirror their on-campus equivalent.

About the Expert

Robert Monroe, Director of the Online Hybrid MBA at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business.

"A high quality degree earned in an online format should not fundamentally differ from a campus-based degree," explained Monroe in an email interview. "The only significant difference should be the way that the classes are delivered."

A high quality degree earned in an online format should not fundamentally differ from a campus-based degree ... The only significant difference should be the way that the classes are delivered.

- Robert Monroe, Director of the Online Hybrid MBA, Tepper School of Business

Online Education Programs

Although online education is often similar to on-campus instruction, it can be delivered in a number of ways. Distance learning is usually offered using one of these methods, or a combination of them:

  • 100% Online Education - Fully-online degrees are earned from the comfort of your own home with no required visits to your college or university campus.
  • Hybrid Education - Hybrid education allows students to pursue a combination of online and on-campus courses.
  • Online Courses - While online courses may be part of a degree program, they can also be taken on their own in order to master a certain subject or learn a specific skill.
  • MOOCs - MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are usually delivered in lecture form to online "classrooms" with as many as 10,000 people.

No matter which type — or types — of online education one chooses to pursue, the options are typically plentiful. Where online education put down roots in just a handful of college majors, it has since expanded to nearly every field and discipline in academia, with very few exceptions. With that being said, certain fields lend themselves to online learning for various reasons. Across the nation, the most popular degree programs offered online include:

  • Nursing
  • Business Administration
  • Criminal Justice
  • Accounting
  • Computer and Information Technology
  • Early Childhood Education

Benefits of Online Education

The benefits that come with online learning depend a lot on the individual. While some students simply enjoy the convenience of studying in their pajamas, others must choose online education in order to stay home with their children. Still, the biggest perk that comes with online degree programs has to do with location. Simply put, when you pursue online education, you don't have to uproot your life to do it; you can just stay home.

"The primary benefit of an online program is flexibility," notes Monroe. "In a well-designed online program, students are not limited to programs physically located near their home."

Staying home to pursue a degree can not only make earning a degree possible, but also less time-consuming. For example, students who pursue online degrees may not have to:

  • Quit their jobs to attend school
  • Commute to and from their college campus
  • Plan their day around their course schedule
  • Spend money on parking or babysitting

At the same time, it allows them to study and take tests at a time and place that works best for them, learn at their own pace, and transition through their courses faster.

Of course, nothing is perfect, and while there are many benefits, online education does have one drawback — the lack of a personal connection.

"The primary benefit of a campus-based program, compared to an online program, is the opportunity it provides for personal interactions with your professors and your fellow students," says Monroe. "For many, learning is fundamentally a social activity and these person-to-person interactions are a very important component of their education."

To lessen the impact, many online schools have begun offering a wide range of services that connect students with their peers and instructors. Commonly, those features include online message boards and chat rooms, video conferences, and web-based forums.

Ask an Expert Q&A

To learn more about online programs from an educator's perspective, we reached out to Robert Monroe, Director of the Online Hybrid MBA at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business.

What questions should students ask before signing up for an online degree program?

For students who do not have an ideal program located very near to their home, an online (or online-hybrid) degree may make a lot of sense. But it's important to remember that not all online degrees are created equally. Students should consider asking the following questions before pursuing a degree in an online format:

• "Is the online program equivalent or better than comparable campus-based programs?"
• "Does the technology improve or replace student and faculty interactions?"
• "How much face time and access will students have with professors?"
• "What degree do students graduate with?"
• "Do students have access to the same career services and networking opportunities?

When a degree is offered both on-campus and online, what benefits can one get from pursuing the online option?

If both formats offer the same degree, there can be a several benefits to the online program depending on an individual student's needs. In addition to experiencing more flexibility, students in online programs may also have a substantial competitive advantage in the global workforce due to the exposure and practice working with and through online technologies.

What advice would you give someone considering online education?

Make sure that you have the time and self-discipline to complete your program. The most successful students in Tepper School's Online Hybrid MBA program become masters at time management. Most students enrolled in online programs are balancing full-time jobs, family or other personal obligations and need to appropriately allocate and budget their time to keep everything in balance.

How do I enroll in an Online Education Program?

Part of the problem with online degree programs is that there are just so many to choose from. In addition to fully-online schools that offer programs across the nation, most of our country's largest universities and colleges — as well as many small schools — have their own online degrees or distance learning programs.

Once you decide which school you want to attend, however, you should take the following steps to enroll:

  • Step 1: Contact your chosen school. Reach out to your school via email or phone in order to request more information. Most schools offer an application packet with details on how to apply.
  • Step 2: Get copies of your high school transcripts or GED paperwork. Most colleges and universities require a copy of your high school transcript with your application.
  • Step 3: Fill out your college application paperwork. Although all schools require different sets of data, it's important to fill out your college application thoroughly and truthfully. Some colleges use a Common Application in order to streamline the process. This application can be submitted to any school that uses it.
  • Step 4: Fill out a FAFSA form. Filling out a FAFSA form, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, helps state and federal agencies determine what type of aid you qualify for, and how much.

1. Interview with Robert Monroe, Director of the Online Hybrid MBA at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, July 6, 2015
2. The Differences Between Online and Traditional Classroom Educations, Study.com, http://study.com/articles/The_Differences_Between_Online_and_Traditional_Classroom_Educations.html
3. Tepper School Online MBA Options, http://tepper.cmu.edu/prospective-students/masters/mba/program-options