We've been hearing about all the reasons to earn an online degree for awhile now and yes, enrollment has boomed over the past school year. But there's one factor in all the press about financial and scheduling reasons that seems to be overlooked: the sense of community that we assume is only part of a traditional school setting.
We think of a "bricks and mortar" institution as a social place: students buzz, as if around a hive, from class to class. Friends sit in the commons and share coffee, tea and studies. Student activities bring people with like artistic or intellectual interests, cultural or political concerns or ethnicity, together as a group and friendships spring from the alliance. There are also sporting events and rallies to create a feeling of campus spirit and unity.
Online Schools Make Community Mandatory
So, what about online education? What are the myths and realities about the "community" that is built when you're taking an online class? For students desiring the interaction with other students or the promise and possibility of new friendships, the thought of sitting alone in a quiet room with only a computer screen for company might seem isolating. But you'd be surprised by what online students and teachers are saying when it comes to building community while getting an online education.
Social networking has changed the way we relate to each other—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs have made the Internet the only way to communicate for some people, and online schools are following these trends as well.
Preparing Students for Real Life
In a story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer titled "Online Schools Simulate Real World," writer Lisa McClure observed that day-to-day professional interactions aren't much different from an online school setting:
"In today's business world, not only do companies take advantage of technology to do business and communicate with people across the globe, it has become status quo to communicate with co-workers down the hall or across the cubicle by email, phone and instant messenger," she writes.
McClure even asserts that online education actually promotes the skills necessary to succeed in today's business environment by "simulating the very aspects of teamwork and social interaction that students will encounter upon entering the 'real world.'"
Students in an online environment can log in to their virtual classroom and use e-tools that guarantee that they will interrelate with other students in the class: Power Point presentations feature community whiteboards, voice and text options are available for students and professors to "speak" to each other, and outside of class, email, chat rooms, text messaging and personal pages on websites such as MySpace make it easy to connect.
All Students Can Contribute
For some students who are shy or feel intimidated in a large, impersonal lecture hall setting, online classrooms can encourage them to open up and participate in group discussions about a study topic.
As Dr. Melanie Roudkovski, an Online Psychology Professor at LeTourneau University in Texas, notes, there may be more interaction online than in the traditional setting: "I like the sense of community that the students report," she says. "They are forced to interact with peers, when in the traditional classroom they may never even learn the names of their classmates."
And as the popularity of online education grows, chances are new methods of communication between students and professors will also evolve. Add the community factor to the known quantity that online learning allows scheduling freedom and the ability to manage career and family while earning your desired degree, and distance learning seems like an even more highly desirable and viable option than it already is.