Rethinking What a 'Traditional' College Education Entails: Five Misconceptions About the Online Learning Experience

While a few naysayers may remain, online learning models are here to stay and the quality debate between online and campus learning will continue to fade.
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Society's notions of "traditional students" have become antiquated as yesterday's nontraditional student has become today's traditional student.

The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) Digest of Education Statistics data shows the median age of a college student is closer to 27 than 19. In fact, in the next 10 years the adult student undergraduate population (over 25 years old) is anticipated to grow faster than the "traditional" college student. The study's data shows that the majority of students -- whatever the age or reason -- are opting to pursue their education on a part-time basis. The same study showed that 32 percent of undergraduate students are pursuing their degree while working full-time. So, it may be just the time to start referring to part-time students as "traditional" and recognize that their needs are different and should not be ignored or trivialized.

As the student demography and needs change so must our notion of the "traditional college education" experience. In a recent commissioned survey, Zogby Analytics uncovered that, from a student's perspective, the "University of the Future" needs to be accessible, flexible, innovative and job-focused.

•Accessible -- The students want to get and share content online; gone are the backpacks full of textbooks.
•Flexible -- A majority of students want courses offered at all times of the day or night and without fixed schedules to accommodate students who work or just prefer learning at different times.
•Innovative -- Nearly half want access personalized instruction or tutoring online perhaps rendering the traditional classroom experience less important.
•Job-Focused -- Students want a university that is clearly focused on producing students who are prepared to excel in jobs that are needed by industry and society.
Sound familiar? These are the same reasons that drive students to seek degrees from institutions with online programs like West.
As the idealized perception of the university experience crumbles, misconceptions about value of online learning and the educational experience persist. It is time to address the top five misconceptions.

1. Online degrees don't carry the same respect
While this may have been the case years ago, institutions with online programs now stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their brick-and-mortar counterparts; earning accreditation and hiring exceptional instructors.

According to another commissioned study by Zogby in 2011, a majority of businesses familiar with online education accept the degrees to be as valid as those earned through traditional campus degree programs. The bottom line is employers value online degrees every bit as much as a degrees earned in a traditional setting. In fact, many business leaders believe that individuals who pursue additional education or degrees while effectively balancing job and family responsibilities showcase the intangible qualities they look for in leaders.

2. Online degrees/courses are easy and don't take as much time
Pursuing a degree online is just as rigorous as doing so in an in-person classroom environment. Online courses have assignment deadlines, mandatory participation requirements and require the same time commitment. The only difference is the when and where. In fact, because of the online learning model and number of projects that assigned, online students are often assessed more than in classroom settings.

3. Online courses aren't engaging; won't fit my learning style
How you learn online is different from how you have been taught to learn in a classroom setting; the same principles don't apply. At West, our instructors apply a time-tested learning approach to the online environment -- Learn, Practice, Apply. Unlike learning models that test at predetermined intervals, the online approach presents the information in "bite-size" nuggets that can be immediately applied in the student's coursework and at their workplace.

Implemented on a weekly basis, this path is proven to help students better absorb and utilize new information. Each student is given a series of engaging short videos and reading assignments followed by a knowledge check. The student then practices what they have learned through interactive exercises and then engages with instructors and fellow students in online discussions that put the learning into practical context.

4. Online courses don't provide opportunities for interaction
Interaction is a fundamental element of the learning process and educators -- no matter where they teach -- understand the value that it brings. Unfortunately, some students believe that because they are not face-to-face with an instructor, their needs will not be met. Thanks to technology, students and instructors have multiple ways to interact that does not require waiting to talk to a professor after class. In fact, in the online learning environment, interactions are frequent and robust; live web interaction, chat, discussion forums and online office hours can provide the students a more personal interaction with the instructors (and classmates) than the typical classroom course.

5. You won't get the "full" college experience
Honestly, the "full college" experience everyone talks about is really a young adult "rite of passage." It is not about learning; it's about becoming independent and discovering one's passions. This isn't the experience the typical student at West is seeking; they are not looking forward to classes in giant lecture halls, pulling "all-nighters" or spring break trips. What they are looking forward to is enhancing their future and their careers. Today's "traditional student" wants to learn and learn on their schedule. With full-time jobs, families and other commitments, institutions like West offer students the flexibility to learn when and where it works for them. Classes start every month (not just in September and January) and run for eight weeks.

While a few naysayers may remain, online learning models are here to stay and the quality debate between online and campus learning will continue to fade. This notion is supported by the number of brick-and-mortar universities that are offering their own online degree programs, by the improvements in educational technology and, most importantly, by the vast number of students achieving their degrees and accomplishing their careers goals through online learning.

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