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Online Schools and Colleges Not the Problem, School Selection Is

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Online education is an exciting new frontier in the Internet age with major implications for the future of schooling. Enrolling at an online school differs from more traditional degree paths in some very fundamental ways, from a student’s residence to his entire social structure. The best online colleges are learning how to meld the online and physical worlds into a cohesive educational experience for students.

One of the most well-known online institutions, and one of the schools that paved the way for mainstream acceptance of earning an accredited education online, is the University of Phoenix. This school, experienced in how students typically spend their educational lives in online colleges, describes what students of their online programs can expect.

Online classes at the University of Phoenix typically include fewer students per class, and the school reports that students receive personal contact from professors. Academic resources are also available to students online, although they may lack the scope of material found in school libraries. Instead of lecture classes, the University of Phoenix describes the class environment as collaboration with learning teams with members who are learning the same material.

The class environment is only one tangible way that the online education lifestyle varies from the traditional campus model. Many of the physical buildings that make up much of a college student’s life are missing, including cafeterias, libraries and even the student center. This alters the social life of a student in a dramatic way. Instead of dropping into a world populated by your peers and people a few years older than you at most, online students don’t leave their old residences and social structures to go to school.

Some colleges that operate both online and traditional campuses are starting to bridge the gap between a digital education and physical education institutions. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch story from May 2012 describes graduate students traveling to nearby Webster University to receive their recently earned degrees. In many cases, these students were visiting the school for the very first time.

One student, Joan Schaffer, traveled from Brooklyn to receive her master’s degree in human resources management from Webster University. “It definitely feels more real,” she said of her visit. “Now I can at least say I’ve seen the campus.” Although Webster University only attracted a few dozen students to the graduation ceremony and reception at its campus, more established institutions have had better luck. For example, the University of Illinois at Springfield has offered a brunch ceremony for online graduates over the past 10 years. In recent years, attendance at the event has averaged about 300 students and family members.

The control a student has over his own education may be the greatest change in the lifestyle of an online student. An article published by technology analysis publication O’Reilly Radar talks about online services that allow students to select individual courses from various programs, building a specialized curriculum specific to the student’s wants and needs. This do-it-yourself ethic, supported by these programs run by what O’Reilly Radar terms “edupunks,” prizes cheaper education and freer access among students.

Online education is resulting in a deconstruction of the traditional post-secondary model. The worlds being created by online colleges still have a long way to develop, but at their core they offer students a greater degree of autonomy over how they live their lives while pursuing an education.

Categories: Education
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