Online or on campus: Which learning environment is best for you?

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Whether they are earning a bachelor’s degree or a post-baccalaureate credential, students today face no shortage of options for where and how they pursue educational opportunities. More than one-quarter (28 percent) of all postsecondary students had enrolled in at least one online program as of 2015. Between 2012 and 2016, enrollment in online programs also increased more than 17 percent even as overall higher education enrollment declined, and accredited not-for-profit institutions accounted for the bulk of all online enrollments.

A student checks an update for an online course

Deciding which route – online or on-campus – is best for you will depend on your goals, learning style and commitments outside the classroom. With that in mind, let’s run through the greatest benefits and drawbacks of both online and on-campus learning.

A primer on online learning: Why it works, and what to watch out for

The biggest benefit of online learning is unique flexibility combined with high educational quality. A fully online program like the Master’s in Strategic Public Relations (SPR) at GW provides all of the rigor you would expect from a conventional degree program, with none of the drawbacks.

For example, you can complete a reading, participate in group discussions, watch a lecture or take a test, all without leaving your home or your spot in the library. Online learning eliminates the need for costly, time-consuming commutes as well as some auxiliary spending like textbooks and parking passes. It’s learning that perfectly fits your schedule.

You’re getting a credential that will appear the same on your resume as a traditional degree, and employers accept online degrees as part of a well-rounded candidacy. Not all online programs are the same, though. Pay close attention to whether your intended selection is 100 percent online or merely hybrid, meaning it would require on-campus appearances that might strain your schedule. It’s also advisable to learn whether the program is primarily asynchronous or synchronous.

Asynchronous learning means you can largely proceed at your own pace, regardless of time or whether others (classmates or instructors) are online simultaneously. In contrast, synchronous learning requires you to participate in concurrent activities with other students, so you might view a live lecture broadcast or join a video conference.

Finally, always consider the college or university offering the program. As we noted earlier, accredited not-for-profit institutions account for the bulk of all online enrollment, and for good reason — many of them, like GW, have years of experience in designing and administering such programs, making them more reputable than less-established institutions like for-profit schools.

On-campus learning: Where it does and doesn’t work

The meteoric rise of online learning over the past 20 years has not changed the fact that most students still earn their degrees on-campus. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over 1.9 million of the approximately 2.9 million students enrolled in post-baccalaureate programs as of fall 2015 were not enrolled in distance learning courses.

The strengths of a conventional education are well-known and include seamless in-class discussion and a highly controllable learning environment. At the same time, drawbacks abound, and collectively they’ve fueled the long-term rise of online education.

Most of all, there are the limits of the in-person class block, which requires setting considerable time on certain days, not only for attendance but also for travel. This constraint is especially harsh on graduate students, many of whom have jobs, families and other commitments. Juggling all of these responsibilities is greatly complicated by going back and forth to class multiple times per week.

Final considerations for making your choice

Everyone’s situation is unique. Whether online education will work for you or not is contingent on many factors, from your budget to your learning style. However, as time goes by, online education continues to become more viable for millions of students, thanks to faster internet speeds, better course designs and observable results for students, many of whom proceed into rewarding careers after earning an online master’s degree.

Students participate in on-campus learning in a classroom.

Current and aspiring professionals in the public relations field can prepare to advance their careers with an SPR master’s degree from GW. A 100 percent online program, the GW SPR is the perfect stepping stone for communications professionals seeking opportunities in both the public and private sectors. The degree covers a wide range of topics in communication strategies, public opinion formation, ethical standards in PR, marketing and more. For additional information, find the “Get more information” section on the curriculum page and answer a few simple questions to receive a free copy of our brochure.

Suggested Readings:
What is an online class like?
What are the differences between an online and on-campus degree

Fast facts
The Number of Students Taking Online Courses Is Quickly Rising, But Perceptions Are Changing Slowly
Grade Increase: Tracking Distnace Education in the United States