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Should you study an online degree?

James Davis

Careers Commentator
Online study has a number of benefits, but how do you tell if it’s right for you?

Advances in technology have made tertiary education more accessible than ever. For those who work full-time, live away from a major city, or simply don’t have time to commute to a campus, there are now numerous providers of postgraduate education who deliver courses purely online.

Studying remotely isn’t for everyone. In order to understand whether the perks outweigh the potential detriments, each must be closely examined.

One of the primary advantages of studying online is lack of commute. Time saved can instead be put into extra study, lectures, going for a walk or relaxing. The trade-off, however, can be a lack of face-to-face interaction with peers. A significant portion of human communication is nonverbal, so it's possible to lose communicative power in translation, even over something as sophisticated as video chat. Studies have shown touch to also be an effective means of building trust quickly, which is why the innocuous handshake is so widely observed today.

If your commute is only ten minutes by bus, it might be better to pick an offline course and reap the benefits of stronger interpersonal connections. If you don’t live near a university, or would prefer to study at an institution based on the other side of the country (or world), online education can remove geographical barriers.

There's more to the story though. Online education comes with the prospect of even greater freedom. University students already enjoy substantial freedom, but online students have even more. This can be valuable not only when it comes to organising time, but is also an exercise in self-control. It’s far easier to become distracted in the absence of imposed schedules. Online students must develop the invaluable habit of managing their own time to an even greater extent than offline students. Some people work more effectively when given a schedule or instructions, so it’s important you understand how you like to study and take that into consideration.

A lady doing online study

If you’re a student with one or more jobs, have family to consider or both, there are benefits and risks to this choice. Autonomy is wonderful for busy schedules, but also poses a threat to commitment. If you’re someone who thrives when keeping their own schedules, online study could be the perfect choice. If you have trouble focussing without the aid of impending classes and assignments, you’ll likely find online study difficult.

A final consideration is the value of more interactive learning. Online courses still require students to complete assessed material, but the value of taking seminars in person shouldn’t be discounted.

Of course, this is to be expected given the busy lives students lead. What’s troubling is the negative correlation between lecture attendance and higher attainment, controlling for gender and previous academic results. This lead researchers believe the presence of online methods such as lecture capture technology can have a net negative effect on an undergraduate cohort. If we can accept sufficient similarities between postgraduate and undergraduate study, this is something postgrads ought to keep in mind too. Whatever the reason, attending lectures in person is correlated with higher attainment, at least in the case of business studies.

Given these factors, there are several takeaways.

  • If you’re good at independently managing your time, online study could be a great way to save time and should be strongly considered.
  • If you live within roughly 15 minutes of your university, consider stomaching the commute to reap the benefits of offline study.
  • If you’re in a course that benefits heavily from building connections such as law or business, strongly consider studying offline.
  • If you desperately need more time each day due to other obligations, strongly consider studying online.

You should now be able to make a far more informed decision as to which study mode best suits you. Whichever you choose, know there are substantial benefits to both and stand to gain much from either one. You’ll have to put in a lot of effort either way, so making the right choice for your personal circumstances is a great way to get a leg up.