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Online colleges are known for allowing flexibility for students who have other commitments; however, they are also assumed to not offer much interaction among students and teachers. Luckily, online colleges have come a long way over the last few years due to technological advances. Evaluating the various formats of online colleges’ classes will help you determine if–and which–online college is right for you.

To get a better understanding of how online colleges can now be set up and who they work best for, we talked to a representative at the University of Phoenix, one of the mostly widely used online colleges. Doris Savron, Vice Provost for Academic Colleges at the University of Phoenix, explained that there are now many ways to interact with faculty and other students despite the remote aspect of the college.

Who online colleges are for

Online colleges aren’t typically structured for young students right out of high school, and are instead designed to accommodate people with other commitments.

“It’s definitely geared towards working adults with the understanding that not everyone goes or has had an opportunity to go into a college or university right after high school,” said Savron.

Savron explained that online students are generally older than your traditional student, as many have full or part-time jobs, or are parents.

“They have life commitments that take obligation, but they still want to advance or improve their opportunities. A lot of times that requires an actual bachelor’s degree, or even a master’s or doctorate, depending on what their goals are,” said Savron.

Due to these scheduling factors, the time and location flexibility of online colleges appeal to these students.

How online colleges are set up today

Online colleges used to be in a format where you log into your class, but are on your own from there. As you can imagine, this takes a lot of self-discipline and self-teaching. While self-discipline is still very important for online colleges, there are many practices in place for holding students accountable as they would be in an in-person classroom.

“The way technology works today, and the way we set up our classrooms, you still are able to interact and engage. Our tools allow students to post a picture, go into an instant message environment if they want to actually communicate live, and coordinate with different team members,” said Savron.

Savron explained that students are also able to connect with faculty members and schedule phone calls as needed. Students are also given the assignments, due dates, and material for the whole course at the beginning, and the class sticks to this so that students can look at weekly requirements and plan ahead to accommodate their schedules. Students are also alerted when assignments are due to help stay on track.

University of Phoenix students are also given two methods of communication with other students: a “hallway” chat area, where students can talk about miscellaneous things, and an official classroom discussion area where students can discuss assignments, materials, etc.

“[Students] can see what other students are asking about as well, so they’re still getting the value of what would be a classroom discussion, just in a written format,” said Savron.

This format is followed by other online colleges and online courses as well. The Penn State World Campus online program utilizes “multiple communication methods such as chat, video conferencing, email, social media, discussion boards, and more,” so that students can “stay connected with fellow students and faculty, building personal networks along the way.” The University of Florida Distance Learning Program and the University of Central Florida online programs also incorporate peer tutoring and career services. Oftentimes, students are required to participate through these formats, encouraging engagement.

“I think a lot of people are intimidated by the idea of online learning. The way the technology is designed today and the way classes are set up, you could actually feel like you’re engaging and interacting like you would in the classroom. It’s just through a lot of writing and static pictures versus sitting in front of a classroom with somebody,” said Savron.

Pros and cons of online colleges

Now that you know you won’t be completely alone, let’s address the benefits as well as drawbacks of online colleges, so you can decide if they suit you, your learning style, and your schedule.

Pro #1: Asynchronous setup

The biggest benefit to students who utilize online classes is the flexibility they offer. Students are given the option to work on the material at a set time that works for them, or in chunks throughout the day.

“Most online programs, and ours especially, are in an asynchronous environment which allows [students] to go in and access [classes] throughout the day, in whatever time frame works for them. Then, they can engage through our forums and the workspaces to communicate with people so that when someone else signs on, they have the ability to see that message so they don’t have to be on at the same time as everyone else,” said Savron.

Con #1: Self-discipline

While online colleges come up with various ways to try to counteract this, there is the factor that students must hold themselves more accountable than they would in a traditional college.

“Somebody who’s online has to have some self discipline, because they’re trying to schedule and interact in an online environment and they’re not sitting face to face with someone who’s saying, ‘OK, hand that in right now,’” said Savron.

Know what your tendencies and abilities are before committing to online college. If you aren’t able to stay focused on your own, a different format might be better for you. Time is another factor. If you are working full-time and don’t have time to be a full-time student, consider lightening your course load so that you can fully engage with the classes you are taking.

Pro #2: Different perspectives

Traditional colleges are physically located and draw in many students from the surrounding area. While there are many exceptions, the diversity of opinions is somewhat limited. Online colleges open the door to a wider variety of students with unique perspectives.

“They’re exposed to a lot of different perspectives and experiences across the country–and in some cases across the world–with students that are taking those classes. So they have that value in the discussions in the different perspectives they have,” said Savron.

Con #2: Lack of hands-on experience

Obviously, there are certain fields that you can only go so far with in an online format. A nurse, for example, needs to do some clinical work before working with patients independently. Due to this, the University of Phoenix nursing program is geared towards already registered nurses that simply want to acquire the degree for educational/academic knowledge in order to advance their career opportunities.

Evaluate the effectiveness, or even availability, of an online education if the degree you are seeking is especially experience or clinical based.

Pro #3: Professors that work in the field

The flexibility of an online program also allows working professionals to teach classes in conjunction with their career, so many online professors are current industry professionals and can offer this insight to their students.

“Our faculty members are part of the workforce and are working in the areas and specialties where they teach, so they can bring in those real world experiences,” said Savron.

Con #3: You have to be proactive to get connected

While there are many resources for students to connect with other students and their professors, you have to be proactive about this and reach out on your own. Networking is definitely possible, but you’ll have to find the events to attend and reach out to the people you want to connect with of your own accord.

Of course this can also be said for in-person colleges, but there’s no specific campus to host networking events. So, if this is something you want to do, you’ll need to reach out to other students digitally, set up meetings with your professor, and sign up for local networking events on your own.

Online college can be a great opportunity for those who want to advance their education and career, but don’t have the time to attend traditional classes. However, consider your own lifestyle and learning style, and look into the structure of the classes you are looking to take before committing.

See also: Peterson’s online college search tool