Chapter 5: A Guide to Online Bachelor’s Degrees Post Pandemic

The Online Student Experience

Learning online means you’re still part of a community

Humans crave social interaction. That has always been true, but people are feeling that need acutely right now due to social distancing and quarantine requirements.

In particular, prospective college students frequently look to meet new people and build new relationships. This is often a barrier for students who may be considering online degree programs: will they still have the personal connection with peers and professors that is such an integral part of the college experience?

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In short: yes. In fact, going to college online creates unique opportunities to build a network that transcends geography and life circumstances.

It’s not just taking online classes

A college education isn’t just about the classroom, and that doesn’t change when a college degree program is offered online. Online students still have access to resources provided by their institutions, and research shows that they take advantage of them. In particular, about two-thirds of online students take advantage of career services while enrolled. Online students also take advantage of services such as study skills development, time management, money management, health and wellness assistance, and more.

While online learning makes it possible for students to attend colleges thousands of miles away if desired, the reality is that two-thirds of online students attend a college within a 50-mile radius of their home address. These students can absolutely visit campus (for instance, for sporting or social events) if desired. In some cases, online students can even receive a school ID to take advantage of student discounts at retailers, restaurants, and events.

The evidence also says that college students who take their classes online form a relationship with their alma mater that persists after graduation. Nearly half of current and past online students have expressed interest in taking more classes at the same college in the future, and about a third intend to refer other students to the school or join the alumni association.

Synchronous vs. asynchronous learning (and how they work together)

Synchronous (“same time”) learning consists of elements that students experience together in real-time, while asynchronous learning includes features that students experience at separate times. The exact balance of synchronous and asynchronous elements varies between programs, but most include at least some of each.

Synchronous touchpoints (e.g., video conferences via Zoom, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, or Skype, as well as chats and telephone calls) are typically determined by mutual agreement between students, not assigned times. In contrast to the traditional classroom model, online degree programs allow students to have real-time interaction with each other on their schedules.

Time structureStudents must be online at the same time as instructorsStudents go online to access course materials on their own schedule
Communication toolsLive chat, audio and video conferencing, telephoneEmail, thread discussions, social networking
Potential instructional toolsShared whiteboard, online slideshows, file attachments, bulletin boards, virtual libraries
BenefitsInstant feedback, feelings of involvement, easier transition from traditional schooling formatAllows more time for reflection, increased schedule flexibility

The basic concept of asynchronous learning has been around for a long time, but technology has made the modality far more robust. It’s not just watching pre-recorded lectures and completing homework; elements such as team collaboration in Google Docs or forums within student Facebook or LinkedIn groups, as well as dedicated discussion forums within the learning management system, allow students to connect and collaborate on their schedules.

A network of learners unrestricted by geography and lifestyle

Online programs are built with flexibility in mind, and students have the freedom to find the social interaction they need while maintaining a balance between school and other commitments. They can access classwork on-the-go using mobile devices or tablets, interact with classmates, and allow social connections to develop organically rather than trying to follow a set schedule.

This flexibility is more than just convenient. The online classroom truly brings together students from all walks of life, across the country and beyond, and places them in an environment where everyone has a voice. The format lends to community learning, conversation, and consensus-building, as each student has an equal opportunity to contribute their unique point of view to the discussion. In addition to providing more diverse perspectives on the subject matter, online learning builds relationships between this diverse array of students, creating a more robust post-graduate network when those students enter the job market.

Perhaps the best way to assess the online student experience is to ask students who have experienced both classroom and online learning. By this metric, online learning stacks up quite well: the overwhelming majority (89%) of students who have experienced both formats at the college level rated their online instruction as just as good as, or better than, their classroom instruction.

Online students may be physically remote, but they are far from disconnected.

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