Embracing the Future: Top 20 Pros and Cons of Distance Learning



Embracing the Future: The Pros and Cons of Distance Learning

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So, you’ve decided to take the leap of faith and are contemplating getting after that degree that you’ve been thinking about for quite some time.  Whether you are starting your collegiate career, or seeking a graduate-level degree, the decision of whether or not distance education is right for you is a very difficult one to make.

Online learning is on the rise, globally…and it’s not just because of COVID-19.  Since 2016, the total number of students registered for online classes have increased from 21 million, to 92 million by the end of 2021.  In that same timeframe, the number of enrollments (think of these are actual courses students have enrolled in) increased from 26 million, to 189 million! (the proof is in the pudding).

Just know that you are no alone in thinking that distance learning is the next step for you.  Throughout this article, I will cover the main pros and cons as I have experienced, and researched.  At the end of the article (and day), you are the only one that can decide if this is the correct medium for your educational goals.  So buckle up, dig in and let’s have a go…

The Pros and Cons of Distance Learning

Pros of Distance Learning

1. Flexibility

Distance learning allows students to study at their own pace and at a location of their choosing.  Flexibility, I’m pretty sure is one of the main advantages of an online education.  You can literally be anywhere in the world, at anytime of the day and take care of your educational business. 

This is one of the main reasons why I completed my Master’s program online, and am in the process of working on my Doctorate online as well.  My life is crazy hectic between a busy job, busy family and a constant move across the country (or world) every few years, I know I’ll always have an internet connection and a device…so I’m golden.

2. Lower Costs

When you initially hear “lower costs”, you may think, “Well how can that be?  You’re still enrolled for the same amount of credits”.  While yes, that is an accurate statement, there are many associated costs with a brick and mortar education that you don’t have to worry about when online. 

When you factor in the amount of fuel or commuting costs, additional food costs (who doesn’t like a splurge in the Student Union Café), and quite important, your wasted time (because let’s face it, time is money, people).  

3. Geographic Freedom

I’m writing this blog post from Germany.  A few months ago, when I was completing a Graduate Certificate in Leadership, I was nursing my sore body on the beaches of Greece after completing a Half Ironman race…and knocking out my weekly forum post requirements. 

I was enjoying my family, the great October weather that Greece is known for, and life was good.  As long as you have access to the internet and your device, you can be an effective online student, regardless of where you are in the world.

Embracing the Future: The Pros and Cons of Distance Learning

4. Convenience

When I was an undergraduate student at a traditional school, I remember as a freshman, how nerve wracking the registration process was for classes.  If you didn’t sign up for courses AS SOON AS the window opened, you were stuck with a bunch of 8am classes and poof, there goes your night life. 

With online colleges, this is not an issue.  Classes do not have times and meeting days associated with them.  They simply have a start and end date.  You make the times, as long as you meet the instructor’s due dates for all assignments, you’re in control.

Lastly, you have the ability to schedule your work around your other commitments (like family and employer), without needing to get approval from your instructor or having to fall behind because you misses a lecture or two.

5. Technology

This is really where online programs have grown and harnessed the near-limitless advances of the technological era that we live in now.  Most online courses are heavily invested in state-of-the-art technology. 

Many students, on the receiving end of this, receive a great experience during their education process, but the additional resources that come with advanced technology greatly enhance the learning experience.

Online library databases which are as vast as your YouTube streaming profile.  Software suites (think Grammarly, Microsoft Office Suite, and etc.) that you do not have to pay anything additional for, simply because it’s already covered in your technology fee and you have direct access to it. 

I was given the full version of Grammarly when I was doing my Master’s certificate.  I used and abused that program so much (because I’m such a horrible writer, I guess), that I found I’d rather pay for the service myself than actually learn the proper way to write.

6. Time-Management Skills

This advantage can be a disadvantage as well (see #2 under Cons of Distance Learning).  If you do not already have good time-management skills…attempting to obtain an online degree will definitely either change that, or you’ll still have horrible time-management skills, but will also fail out of school.

Self-discipline and Time-Management are almost one and the same here.  While you do have the freedom and convenience of doing the work whenever you want to, you still have to prioritize your life, and if school isn’t towards the top, you’ll just waste your time and money by not enjoying the experience.

I’ve always done well with time-management (credit the Army for ramming that down my throat throughout my career), and my process is extremely simple.  Every semester, I mark down on a planner or calendar (yes, analog-style) all of the requirements for that course and backwards plan from there. 

Embracing the Future: The Pros and Cons of Distance Learning

I know that it will take me roughly eight hours of research, four hours of writing, and two hours of running it through Grammarly (Folks, I told you…I’m a horrible writer), so from the day I mark the calendar, until the due date, I need to carve out 14 hours to complete that requirement.  I rinse and repeat for all remaining events.  The answers are on the syllabus, you just have to put it on paper.

7. Comfort

This is totally, the COVID-19 effect.  Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve submitted assignments in a bathing suit on the beach, while in bed, and even probably while drunk (because I probably forgot I needed to post to a forum, and was already half in the bag).  Let’s face it, if you’re attention is going to be taking away from your family, your work, or your hobbies, at least you can be happy knowing that you’re comfortable.  

8. Course Options

You can be a learner of nearly any subject due to the availability of technology and how far society has come in the last twenty years in adopting a more digital-style of education.  Large, well-known universities are now offering STEM degrees, completely online.  Plus, as many schools are streamlining the application process, many students can take courses from different schools, at the same time, greatly increasing the variety of education you can receive.

9. Access to Education

I wrote earlier about internet access.  Enrolling in a distance learning program takes away the physicality of having to be in one place.  Whether you are in a remote location, or have limited mobility, you can access your classes, as long as you have a data connection.  Learning online is for the masses and worldwide. 

The Doctorate program I am applying to recently conducted a live webinar with some students and the director of the program.  Current students were dialed in providing their insight on the program from all over the world!

10. Self-Directed Learning

When I completed the Command and General Staff Officer’s Course at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a mentor of mine told me something that didn’t resonate with me until I was knee deep in the first few weeks of classes.  The term, “It’s only a lot of reading if you do it”, rang clear almost every week when you would receive an unsurmountable requirement to do every week. 

If you take online classes, you will get out of them what you decide to put into them!  Now you will inherently increase your knowledge of the subject simply by doing the bare minimum.

But if you have an actual interest in the subject matter, you will want to put more effort and inertia towards the coursework.  This increases your overall knowledge as well as enhancing your utility during future courses.

Cons of Distance Learning

1. Isolation

Unlike in traditional colleges, you don’t get together with students after class to “talk shop”, nor do you make small talk while waiting for a lecture to begin.  Once you’re done with your school work, you close your computer and go on about your business.

2. Time-Management

The gift and the curse.  If you lack time-management skills, you may succeed, but you will not enjoy the ride and if you’re going to spend your hard-earned money (or take on debt), to further your education, why make it something that you will not enjoy.  Late assignments and papers usually always result in a decreased overall grade, which starts you below your peers.

3. In-Person (Face-to-Face) interaction

Some learners need to physically see someone while they’re in a school, and need that on-campus environment to succeed.  You will need to be comfortable with only discussing (potentially personal) issues with your professor over email.

4. Self-Motivation

Motivation will lead you to success in many online schools!  There is very limited structure to online colleges, and if you are not motivated to get the work done when it needs to be done, you will suffer throughout your tenure as a student.

5. Limited Social Interaction

This is very similar to a few other cons, but another spin to this, is that with limited social interaction also comes limited network building.  As a Planner, I’ve typically gotten more done at the bar after a conference’s scheduled activities than the actual meetings.  Social interaction is great to get to know your peers, but also a more comfortable place to speak when you’re not in the physical school.

6. Distractions

If you’re the type of person who can’t sit still, can’t ready three pages without falling asleep, and always looks for something else to do when forced to do something you don’t enjoy, then distractions could be a huge con when you’re taking on this challenge. 

I’ve had to knock out school work while my kids played in the room next to me and as Murphy’s law dictates, one of them gets hurt…next thing I know, I’m consoling one of my children for the next thirty minutes (while not doing schoolwork).

Embracing the Future: The Pros and Cons of Distance Learning

7. Increased Risk of Cheating

Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V.  The world of Google, ChatGPT, and cheating websites, it’s very tempting for some to take the easy street and just look for the answer as opposed to actually learning about the topic and just nugging out the work.  Most professors only know you from what you submit online; their ability to monitor cheating is drastically limited because of this.

8. Limited Recognition

If you hear of two students, one that received their Master’s from an online college, while another received theirs at Harvard, the Harvard graduate will likely receive more recognition for their degree.  That’s just the way the world perceives remote learning. 

There are some valid reasons for this perception, as some online schools have given a bad rep to a majority of the schools that are legit, but it is what it is.

9. Technology Issues

If you start an online program, your world will be online.  If you don’t have the requisite equipment to work in this style of environment, you should re-evaluate your decisions.  There are issues that no one can account for however.  Degraded internet connections, power outages and the like can greatly disrupt the online learning process.

10. Lack of Feedback

One of my main pet peeves of the online learning space is the lack of feedback.  My favorite requirement is a 400 word forum post, which can take anywhere from 10-30 minutes.  The more thoughtful, the more engaging and the better it serves the entire class.  Then your professor responds with, “Great post”.  This has happened more than I’d like to share, but this is just the nature of working in a faceless industry.

Is Distance Learning Right for Me?

Well, if you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading my rants and raves about my 10+ year experience(s) of online learning.  As you can read, there are many pros and cons of online learning.  Each person has to weight the advantages and disadvantages to determine if this method of learning will suit their educational needs and their career/lives.  Only you, the one reading this article can make that decision (of course in consult with their families), so get after it, continue your research, and go out there to kick ass!

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