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Online and Traditional Education Through the Eyes of an Undergrad

Bachelor’s Degree the New High School Diploma; Budget Cuts Lead State University System to Cut Services; Increase Fees; Online the Solution to Rising Cost of Education; College Signed Illiterate People for Student Aid; US Falling Further Behind in Education—there seems to be an endless stream of headlines about the problems of higher education and proposed solutions, which contradict each other.

So why would I even try to add my voice to so many screaming headlines? After all, I am “only” an undergrad—in my mid-20s, with a full-time job. But perhaps there is something I could contribute—a perspective of a student who started at a community college, is about to graduate from an online program, and is also an intern at a brick-and-mortar, small, traditional university.

I come from a multi-educational background: I attended traditional daytime classes at my local community college; I attended the university utilizing the working adult “nighttime” schedule; and I am finishing the remainder of my degree online. While I can say wholeheartedly that I enjoyed the classroom setting, there certainly are pros and cons to online education, but the same can be said for traditional classroom settings. I took the approach of finishing my general education classes at a community college and finished my upper division coursework online. This worked great for me, and perhaps would work well for others.

The community college system is a great place to pursue general education foundations—it’s cheap and allows students to transfer credits to the university level. However, there are some disadvantages to this avenue. Many students who pursue the community college system tend to drop out or delay their education. Classes are often full and difficult to get into. Classes are typically full semester in length, which always had me questioning, “When is this over?”

Nevertheless, there is a huge benefit to taking general education courses on campus: Math, English and Science, what I call the “essential” subjects, tend to be more difficult for certain students to learn online. These classes deserve to be recognized as important classes, which should be taken on campus, because having a face-to-face instructor really makes a difference.

Without proper guidance, some students are left to figure “it” out themselves—this is not the best method of learning. According to Vygotsky’s theory of the “Zone of Proximal Development,” instructional guidance is helpful and is considered a much needed aspect in the process of learning. This is why I took my last English class at the community college, rather than online. Through the guidance of my instructor, I learned by having someone there to provide real-time feedback, whenever I made an error. Ultimately, each student learns in their own unique way. Some students need the face-to-face, social interaction because it fits their style of learning; others appreciate the self-directed learning option. I personally appreciate both methods, which provides an overall holistic approach to learning—the hybrid model.

When people find out that I’m completing my degree online, I generally receive the following question, “Why online?”  Needless to say, online education is really accommodating to my schedule. I also enjoy the format and the class selection. At my private nonprofit university, I have a huge selection of classes, in eight-week increments—I never worried about classes filling up, and course availability is never an issue. Classes are very structured and organized, yet very challenging.

The challenging part of online classes is that you must be a self-directed learner and motivated to finish. I take two, eight-week classes, simultaneously, and then I take another two within the second half of the semester; this allows for me to gain my full-time status. I study long hours each night—in fact, sometimes longer than I did when I was in my traditional setting. Ultimately, the autonomy of online classes is a great fit for someone who is motivated, doesn’t have the privilege of attending a brick-and-mortar school, and enjoys the opportunity to fulfill a life-long desire to finish their degree.

Lastly, many people are fixated on the idea that online education is cheaper than traditional formats. It might be a good idea to do some fact-checking. When you take an “apple-to-apple” comparison from most institutions, educational tuition rates and fees are generally the same for both programs. There are some colleges and universities that offer discounted rates in tuitions for online formats, but the opposite may apply to traditional programs.

For example, Winston-Salem State University offers cheaper tuition for online students who are in-state versus out-of-state—it is nearly four times more expensive for out-of-state students, regardless of format. For traditional students, the cost of gas and parking must be calculated into the total cost of education. For online students, the cost of paying for internet is not cheap—unless you go to a “coffeehouse,” where it’s “free,” but even then you still are likely to at least purchase a coffee, which averages $3 per visit. These costs add up.

Ultimately, the savings, preference in educational format, and value of an educational program deeply depend upon several factors. Like any future investment, seeking a degree, online or in a traditional setting, requires investigation of all aspects.

David Coronado is a member of The International Honor Society in Psychology (Psi Chi), and undergraduate student at Liberty University; he graduates spring 2013. David is also an intern for Vanguard University of Southern California and co-presenter at the upcoming 2013 WASC Academic Resources Conference session “Working on the Puzzle of First-generation and Hispanic/Latino Student Retention and Success.”

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