I am a member of the online learning community. I received my AOS in Computer Systems Technology in a 'brick and mortar' school and I received a well-deserved BS in Criminal Justice with a minor in Forensic Psychology. I also went to a physical institution to gain a certificate in medical assisting, so I've done them all, except for a major physical university.
That being said, I will sound a bit biased toward the online environment. I like the flexibility of the time spent on assignments, and the fact that I can sit in the comfort of my own home or the local internet cafe establishment and do my work on my schedule. I can work full time and still gain my higher education degrees.
Pros of distance learning are those listed above, but also if you are infirm, pregnant, or otherwise incapacitated you can still conduct your classes without braving the elements and without the inconveniences of a wheelchair, or a human growing inside of you.
You won't have to pay for dorm rooms, or gasoline to go to class. You will not have to worry about transportation at all, since you can do everything at home.
Things to Consider:
- Ensure that the school you choose provides the education you are needing
- Ensure that the school you choose is accredited by the board of education
- Ensure that if your goals go beyond the first degree that the school you pick has the opportunity to guide you through all the steps, from Associates degree through Graduate School and even PhD.
- Do research, and read the reviews and comments of others who have attended the school
- Check around to employers and find out what their opinions of online learning is, many times they do not acknowledge online learning: for example, only California acknowledges a law degree acquired online.
- Make sure you qualify for employment after you've spent your time online. I found out, after I was in school for a year that most police departments will not hire a new officer who is over 44 years old. So I have a very useful degree that I am unable to capitalize off of because of my age.
Cons to distance learning include the lack of physical contact with the educators, and with the administration. All communication is done by either telephone or email. Student loans and financial aid is applied for but again there are gaps in the communication in some instances. As I mentioned accreditation, it is also important to know the schools must periodically request review and renew their accredited status, so keep up with that to ensure that your classes will still have value once you've completed the courses.
You will have to ensure you have an adequate internet connection. A standard dial-up will not make the grade, and I would recommend a higher speed DSL connection rather than the standard that most companies provide. This will cost a little money, but in the long run it will be less than the cost of vehicle, gasoline, and if you live on campus, the cost of the room.
Graduation is also different. Most distance learning universities do have a physical presence someplace but if you do not live close then you may find that you do not have the opportunity to wear a cap and gown and walk the aisle with your classmates. If this means a lot to you then be sure to find out early about their graduation process and save up your dollars to be a part of the group.
All in all, I would recommend distance learning for adults who have full time jobs and cannot fit structured classes into their schedule, those who have physical limitations, and those who just like working from their homes.