Online education has opened up new frontiers and new opportunities for students seeking a college degree. As a pathway with greater convenience, flexibility and accessibility, online college is making a higher education possible for countless individuals who might otherwise not have that chance. But succeeding in online classes does require adjustment, and for many students, this new approach to learning comes with some inherent challenges. In order to get the most out of your online education, it’s essential that you learn how to manage these challenges and make adjustments. With that in mind, we consider some of the things that can go wrong in online college and we offer resources and tips on how to manage these obstacles.
Full disclosure—we love online education. We think it’s awesome. In a conversation about the pros and cons of online college, we are decidedly pro. We’re all about the advantages of an affordable and flexible educational experience. But we would be remiss to overlook some of the challenges that online students commonly face. From choosing a reputable school and managing your own time effectively to finding ways of connecting with educators and your fellow students, online education presents some very real challenges. And how you navigate these challenges could have a profound impact on your educational experience, the value of your degree, and even your ability to land a job after school.
We’ll take a moment to consider these challenges, we'll discuss the ways that online education can go wrong, and we’ll offer a few tips to make sure that you do it right.
If you’re new to college in general, check out these 10 Mistakes to Avoid in Your First Week of School.
Otherwise, read on for tips on how to avoid the common pitfalls of an online education.
Skip the Scam Schools
Online college is hardly a fringe educational alternative these days. With roughly one out of every three students taking at least one course online, online education is pretty mainstream. This means that you can earn an extremely reputable degree from an excellent, regionally accredited online college...that is, as long as you know where to look.
It’s also true that the online college sector is crawling with less-than-stellar degrees. In many cases, shady for-profit education companies without proper accreditation have used the veil of online education to sell outdated courses, under-qualified instructors, and valueless degrees. This is why it’s so important to know what you’re looking at as a prospective online student. Understand the importance of accreditation, especially regional accreditation, and find out how you can determine the accreditation status of your intended online school. And if you are considering a for-profit college, learn everything you can and make savvy decisions as a consumer.
To learn more, check out our Guide to For-Profit Colleges: What You Need to Know.
Navigate the Credit Transfer Runaround
Online college is especially popular among non-traditional students, adult learners, and students who are returning to school after some time away. If this describes you, then it’s possible you may have accumulated college credits at some point in your life. If so, be sure you’re doing everything you can to capitalize on those credits. Anything that might count toward your degree translates to money and time saved. But prepare yourself. Depending upon your situation, there may be some bureaucracy to navigate. Be patient and persistent!
Get a head start by learning the rules and some helpful ways you might be able to bend those rules:
- Online Colleges and Transferring Credits
- Will my college credits transfer? (From nationally accredited to regionally accredited)
- Transferring from Campus to Online College
Don’t Waste Your Work Experience
If you’ve been in the workplace for a few years, going back to school can feel a little bit like starting over. But it doesn’t have to. Your work experience has value. And because online college increasingly caters to the needs of working adults, there are a number of reputable online degree programs that recognize this value. More importantly, they also reward you for it. If you’re a working professional, or an adult learner with meaningful work experience under your belt, make sure you match up with an online program that acknowledges your achievements. Education should be an experience that enhances your journey, rather than one which requires you to return to the starting block.
If you’ve got meaningful work experience, make the most of it with these tips and degree completion programs:
Avoid Accreditation Anxiety
Accreditation is critical when you’re shopping for colleges. Accreditation is the stamp of approval granted to a college or university by an independent accreditation agency which has been recognized by the Department of Education. These agencies are divided into two basic categories: regional accreditation and national accreditation. Regional accreditation is generally considered the more rigorous and reputable of these standards and may be granted by one of six designated regional accreditation groups. Institution-wide accreditation is a critical indicator of the quality, outcomes, and standards maintained by the online colleges you’re considering. Don’t overlook accreditation, especially as it relates to your long-term plans for credit transfer, graduate school, and career prospects. Understand accreditation and make it an essential part of your search process.
To learn more, check out:
- Accreditation of Colleges and Universities
- Guide to Nationally Accredited Colleges: What You Need to Know
Don’t Go It Alone
One of the biggest fears that prospective students express over online college is the feeling of isolation, both from professors and from piers. But many online students report exactly the opposite experience. Online students routinely express high satisfaction with the online experience, and surprisingly, many cite professor engagement as one of the primary reasons for this satisfaction. Even respondents to our own Online College Scholarship contest emphasized the accessibility, responsiveness, and personal connection experienced with online instructors. Importantly though, it falls upon you, the student, to make and maintain that connection wherever possible. Reach out, set up video chats if available, and make yourself known. Become a virtual class participant. Find out if any of your classmates are local enough to set up study groups, or even just the occasional chit-chat over an actual cup of coffee. In online college, as in life, you get out of it what you put in.
Find out why remote students believe that Online Colleges Offer Better Professor Engagement.
And if you have feelings of isolation that are contributing to depression or anxiety, please take a look at these Mental Health Resources for Online College Students.
Take Disciplinary Actions
While you can make connections with professors and classmates, nobody can do the actual work for you. Whatever other commitments you have—work, kids, Fornite, whatever—you have to learn how to balance your educational responsibilities. Online college is a unique independent experience. It takes discipline, and only you can apply it. You must learn how to balance your time, say no to tempting distractions, and find space in your life for the all the people and priorities that matter. This may also mean making some sacrifices.
If you’re learning how to work independently for the very first time, check out Online College and Time Management.
Preempt Technical Difficulties
Online college generally takes place online. If this is news to you, you have a lot of work to do. Just kidding. Obviously, you need certain baseline computer skills to take online courses. But there’s a little more to it than that. Such is to say that you really should have all of your equipment, web access, and software issues resolved before the first day of classes. You don’t want to be wrestling with slow-crawling software updates or dicey wifi when your professor is knee-deep in an essential video lecture. Get your tech together ahead of time.
For tips on what you need, and what you can expect to pay for it, check out:
- Adult Education Gear Guide: Essential Supplies for Online Degrees
- The Savvy Student’s Guide to Computers for College 2019
And in case you’re curious, find out the answer to that burning question: Do Any Online Colleges Offer Free Laptops?
Blow Away the Workload Blues
One of the oft-cited challenges of online education is that the workload may actually be heavier as compared to traditional college courses. This is especially true in the asynchronous learning environment. Less time is spent interacting directly with professors and classmates. Longer reading lists may be used to compensate for the reduced lecture time; written responses may fill in for classroom debates; exam preparation may require more independent study in place of classroom recitations. In sum, you should expect to work hard. But there are ways to make that hard work a little easier. We have all kinds of tips and resources aimed at helping you shoulder this bigger workload without buckling under the weight.
Get practical advice on how to structure a college essay, improve your study routine, and get the most out of the online learning process.
- How To Write a Research Paper (The Short Version)
- How to Write a Research Paper: 10 Steps + Resources (The Longer Version)
- 7 Quick Tips for Writing a Great Persuasive Essay
- 10 Tips To Improve Your Online Research
- Online Exam Tips You’ll Be Thankful For
On Off Campus
So you love the convenience of online education, but when push comes to shove, there’s a lot about campus life that seems pretty cool to you. You like the sound of movie night at the student center. You regret that you don’t have an intramural sports team to call your own. You’re tired of missing out on crazy campus traditions (with the understanding that streaking in groups is considered a bonding activity; whereas streaking by yourself is a felony). Simply stated, online college is convenient, but campus life is fun. So what to do? The best answer is to consider a blended learning opportunity, or to at least attend an online college in close proximity to your home, one that affords the opportunity for regular visits and participation in campus life.
To learn more, check out College Online but Close to Home: Blending Traditional and Online Education.
And in case you’re curious, find out the answer to the question, Can online students play college sports?
Now that you know how to navigate the online education landscape like a pro, we’ll just tell you that the best way to get a great online education is to start with the top online colleges out there. Get going with a look at The Best Online Colleges.