Online Learning as a Viable Option For Building Real Time Skills

By Paul LeBlanc
Should you enroll in an online course or program? For the last twenty years there were two primary reasons for saying “yes”–convenience and access.
For busy people juggling jobs, family and other responsibilities, the convenience of logging on and being in class on one’s own schedule trumped whatever shortcomings were associated with online learning.  
Think about it, you could rush from work, grab an unhealthy meal at a drive through, eat it in your car, sit through your scheduled class and then rush to get home in the hopes that you might see your kids before they went to sleep. The online learner, in contrast, could get home, have dinner with family, tuck the kids in and then log in at nine or ten p.m. and become a student. It was a no brainer and millions of non-traditional age adults signed up.

Access and Availability

The other reason for opting into an online program was access or availability of a program at your closest institution. So online programs caught on with rural populations or those who wanted to study something not available nearby. When changes in federal financial aid rules in the 90s allowed fully virtual programs with no on-ground component (making them really convenient), enrollments soared, though mostly with for-profit institutions, while traditional non-profits looked down their nose at online learning as inferior.
It mostly was. As innovation guru and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen argues, disruptive innovations are never as good as the incumbent systems at the start. That’s why the first people who adopt such innovations are willing to compromise and adopt them–these are people whose next choices are often not very good or non-existent. In this case, it’s really busy adults for whom the campus world is not really designed for, remote or rural learners and the military (who is always moving its personnel from place to place). Bad actors among the for-profits exacerbated the problem by offering poorly designed programs, enrolling people they shouldn’t have and failing to graduate students.

Disruption Through Rich Technology

Here’s the thing: as Christensen argues, the rate of improvement in disruptive innovations makes them even better and, eventually, preferable to the existing systems they come to disrupt. Such is the case with online learning. Fifteen years ago the question we asked ourselves is, “How can we make an online course as good as a traditionally delivered course?”  
Today, that question is reversed and the best designed online courses and programs are superior to much that is offered on traditional campuses. Robust platforms, data analytics, adaptive learning technologies, rich media, allied with robust advising and excellent customer service means a student can have an excellent, high quality learning experience in many online programs with a level of support and personalized attention rare on many campuses.
Now, they generally won’t offer the coming of age experience that 18-year-olds living together on a leafy campus and engaging in student organizations, playing on teams and volunteering in the local community might experience in a traditional, residential model. That pathway through college can be extraordinary (although also extraordinarily expensive and out of financial reach in many cases).  
However, most students in online programs are closer to 28, not 18, and they have a myriad of responsibilities. In other words, they have had as much coming of age as they need, thank you very much. In truth, those “adult” students are now the majority of students enrolled in American colleges and universities today.

The Benefits of Unbundling

But a traditional age student can make online learning work for them too, and more of them are doing so all the time. For the most part, it is still a case of a student enrolled in a traditional program taking an online course because the traditionally delivered course is full or offered at an inconvenient time. Students away from campus for an internship or study abroad might enroll in online courses offered by their school (most schools do offer at least some online options now) to stay on pace for graduation.  
However, for a student who wants to curate his or her own learning experience, one can enroll in an online program and effectively “unbundle” the academic experience offered by that program from whatever coming-of-age experience one wishes to assemble. In many ways, enlisted military personnel working on their degree are getting their coming of age, their “growing up” experience, through the military while learning. At my institution, we partner with Major League Soccer so the 18 and 19 year-olds in their developmental system can pursue their soccer dreams while earning a degree. MLS offers a coming of age, while we offer an academic experience.

Diverse and Affordable

There are additional advantages to the experience. Because no one is bound by geography, fellow students are likely to be incredibly diverse, coming from a wider array of places, cultures, ages and backgrounds. Instead of paying a “comprehensive fee” for an on campus experience, the online learner can earn a degree for significantly less cost.  
The cost of a traditional four-year, 120-credit hour degree at my school is $120,000 (minus room and board). That same degree offered online is $40,000. Most online programs are generous in their transfer credit policies, so if one wants to “assemble” a program with courses from more than one school, that is possible too.
The challenge is to be an informed consumer, to ask the right questions. Guidance here could be its own lengthy (and wonky) blog post, but some of the things one should examine include:

  • Graduation rates and how students are doing afterwards–do they have high levels of debt, especially in relation to earnings?
  • Who does the advising and how? Many schools now outsource significant portions of their online programs.
  • What types of supports are offered (e.g.,tutoring, wellness)?

As I said, this is a topic for another day. But to the question of “Is online education a good option?” the answer is now an unqualified “yes!” and choosing that option has more to do with what you need, not the quality of what is available.

About “GenDIY”:

eduInnovation and Getting Smart have partnered with The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation to produce a thought leadership campaign called Generation Do-It-Yourself (GenDIY)–how young people are hacking a pathway to a career they love–on The Huffington Post and This campaign about reimagining secondary and postsecondary education and career skills will explore the new generation building a global economy and experiences that are impact driven and entrepreneurial. For more on GenDIY:

Paul LeBlanc is the President of Southern New Hampshire University. You can follow him on Twitter: @snhuprez

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