While many college instructors use web-based tools to facilitate learning, their opinions vary on the value of online-only classes.
Representatives from several colleges and universities that cater to active-duty and retired military personnel agree the biggest problems with online learning are that it requires students to motivate themselves and that certain concepts are difficult to convey remotely.
"Some people have the discipline to learn online and some do not. Some won't get through the classes without the structure [that a classroom provides]," said Jeff Arthur, vice president of financial assistance for ECPI College of Technology in Virginia.
"You are not sitting in a classroom with a professor who can nudge you if you are not paying close attention," said Betty Vandenbosch, vice president of business and information technology for Kaplan University in Florida. "Students must have the desire and motivation to log on to their courses and earn their degree."
Laurie S. Coltri, an adjunct professor of legal studies at University of Maryland University College, said, "Equally important is the difficulty of addressing learning objectives that involve face-to-face interaction, such as negotiation simulations."
"Distance learning is OK for imparting data and even some information, but it is poor for imparting knowledge and professionalism. Consequently it is not very good for certain disciplines, especially graduate-level work," said Steven Jamar, a professor at Howard University School of Law who co-chaired the committee that wrote the HU's policy on distance learning.
Types of distance learning
Online learning varies mostly by the degree of personal contact associated with the class. For most institutions of higher education, in-seat classes still outnumber those taken online with no face-to-face contact.
"Ninety percent of our total population attends classes in brick-and-mortar classrooms, while 10 percent are taking classes online," said Arthur.
Blended or hybrid, education where instructors mix face-to-face classes and online instruction may be synchronous or asynchronous. Furthermore, it may use video and audio or be by correspondence only. Often, the only face-to-face interaction is on days when proctored exams are administered, according to a 2008 study published by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences.
By comparison, web-facilitated learning involves professors holding face-to-face classes and using the Internet as a tool.
"Almost all of our faculty use an online learning platform to enhance our students' education. In fact, we are [developing] mobile applications to better engage our students," said Arthur.
"For copyrights class, I use YouTube and other online sources quite a bit for pictures, music and AV materials. It adds quite a bit to the dry descriptions of the works at stake in the cases," said Jamar.
Advantages of online learning
"Students are attracted to the flexibility and convenience of online education because many of them are adult learners, juggling work and family responsibilities with their education," said Vandenbosch. According to Coltri, interaction between teacher and student may be greater in online courses.
"While being able to learn from far away is important and not having to attend lectures on particular dates and times is convenient, these are not its most important advantages, from my perspective as a teacher. I love instructing in the online environment because it allows continuing contact between the class members, including the instructor," explained Coltri. "In a face-to-face course, I often don't have any contact with students for a week at a time. When a course is taught online, we can take the journey together."
"In addition, the online platform allows faculty to use video and web-based simulations to engage students and address a variety of learning styles. Our students use the tools that work best for them, whether they learn by listening, reading, watching or conversing with peers. Studying online allows students the autonomy to determine how best to complete their work and it helps them hone their written communications skills," said Vandenbosch.
"Students who have typically been the quiet one in class find that online learning provides them with the confidence and voice they may not have had in a traditional classroom. While the quickest hand and the loudest voice often get the most attention in a traditional environment, this is not typically the case online. In the online classroom, every student participates and everyone receives the same amount of attention from their professors and peers," she said.
Regardless of detractors' opinions, many people are earning degrees online. According to GoArmyEd.com, more than 5,300 undergraduate degrees have been granted through the eArmyU program.
One issue for many students is how prospective employers will view their online degrees. After all, most students seek an education to make themselves more attractive in the job market.
"We are finding that employers do not differentiate between degrees earned online or on campus, as long as the degree is from an accredited university," said Vandenbosch.
"There are a lot of ways to look at it," said Arthur. "Our preference is to see students attend in seat because of the experiences they will have, but we want whatever is best for the student."