I graduated with academic honours without ever meeting my professors, embarking on an all-nighter with classmates and, technically, never having gone to a class at all. I was an online-only student, and as online degree programmes grow in popularity, my past three years of study were a crash-course in the unique challenges of learning online, as well as a glimpse into what the future of higher education might look like.
My school day looked very different than most: rather than loading up my backpack and heading to class, I would wake up, eat breakfast while doing my first round of schoolwork for the day, and spend a few hours finishing assignments. Then, I’d head off to work, maybe tucking in a study session during lunch before wrapping up homework or preparing for exams in the evening. Saturday and Sunday became two of my busiest school days and I became an expert at working everywhere from my desk to the car.
Some of my most vivid undergraduate memories were of completing a term paper on the floor backstage at the ballet performance I was managing, and stumbling home after a full day of work to begin school that evening. Just like traditional universities, I had papers, exams, and grades – only, there were no office hours and no such thing as sick days.
Enrolment in online learning programmes has grown over the past few years, with more than a quarter of students enrolled in at least one online course. But too many misconceptions still persist around the experience of being an online-only student – for example, that an online degree doesn’t carry the same level of prestige as a traditional one. By contrast, online learning enabled me to hone skills such as self-motivation and time management that ultimately made me a better student, and later, a more prepared young adult.
Autumn Steed, a professional dancer who just began an online degree programme in kinesiology at California Baptist University, agrees that there are differences between traditional university time management, and the commitment required to study online: “you attend an in-person class for a select period of time in which you are entirely focused on that subject,” she says. “In an online programme, you must be able to self-motivate and manage multiple courses in the limited time that you are able to provide for yourself.”
Oliver Till, who is studying for a BA in business and environment at The Open University, observes that “it is very easy, when studying at home, for little things to chip away at the time you have set aside.” He points out the necessity of “making sure those closest to you understand the commitment and choice you have made”.
With no set class hours, an online student defines their own schedule, a significant reason why so many working students are drawn to online degree programmes. Steed believes that this actually helps her education. “For someone who enjoys working at their own pace, independent higher education seems like the ideal fit. Although online study may eliminate the social aspect of in-person education, it can counter that loss through the ability to increase personal productivity,” she says.
Line Dalile, who completed her degree in visual culture online at Curtin University, noted that “the biggest challenge has to be connecting with fellow classmates. While discussion forums encourage participation and allow for feedback or exchange of ideas, they lack the ‘real-time’ aspect. Online study offers the student a considerable amount of freedom, which sometimes blurs the boundaries between school and life,” she explained.
Laura Ross, who took a sports law class online at Asbury University while studying for her accounting degree echoed the sentiment. “The biggest difference I noticed was the lack of interaction,” she says. “I felt like the learning was very much on my own.”
That is the simultaneous blessing and curse of the online experience. Learning on my own enabled me to craft an education that was unique to me. Given that about 70 per cent of students work while attending school and that students in the US and UK want more flexibility than ever from their education, gone are the days of a “typical” university experience.
In terms of academic tradition, it is important to point out that distance learning is hardly new, although developments in technology are recent. The concept of higher learning through “correspondence courses” is more than 170 years old, and with the addition of modern technology and desire for increased flexibility, is an inarguable part of the future of universities.
We have a world and economy that is adaptive and flexible. The rise of online learning points to a future of higher education that is equally accessible and innovative. In fact, 90 per cent of academic leaders believe that the majority of all university students will be taking at least one online course in the next five years.
I may not have spent afternoons sprawled out on the campus quad, but my online experience added more things to my education than it subtracted. As the world changes rapidly and the workforce evolves with it, options like online learning create opportunity for students to take charge of what their learning and life will look like. What more can we ask from education, really?