When you think about it, the internet was made for online learning. What better place to get an education than a global network of information? But it’s only been recently that websites have caught up to providing educational content that rivals traditional schools. You can practice languages on your smartphone, watch filmed lectures of entire ivy league courses for free and even get writing tips from Margaret Atwood—all at a fraction of the cost of higher learning. Never before has school been so accessible. Some might say it’s too good to be true. And it may be.
Critics of online education call them gamified distractions that rarely get to the depth of the subject matter. They say they do not adequately prepare students for the workplace and end up selling false confidence. Supporters counter those critiques by reminding us that college puts a massive price tag on learning, luring unsuspecting youngsters into exorbitant debt with little to show for it.
Which answer is right? Whether you learn online or through a traditional classroom depends on your specific needs, but the following questions will guide you towards the right decision.
How much money are you willing to spend on your education?
A high price
Money is no object for you. You can take classes anywhere, but you are definitely suited to higher learning, averaged at a hair-raising $25,000 a year.
A fair price
Money is an object at your disposal. Take classes at your local community college or look into distance learning programs (online education provided by universities, often at a cheaper price than the classroom version). Look into one-off workshops and conferences found on apps like Eventbrite—typically a few hundred bucks each. Depending on your goals and your intended subject, you may also want to consider trade school.
A modest price
Money is the object in your life. It might even be the reason you’re getting an education, and chances are you don’t want to bankrupt yourself doing so. With traditional schools, there are financial aid programs available, but these are usually in the form of loans. Online learning is by far your best solution. Some platforms use a pay-per-class model, and others use subscription model with free trials. Either way, you can try out the online option at a low financial risk.
As you would with any institution, be critical of the course length, the volume of classes available, and the depth of the material. The fact that online courses are generally the cheapest option does not mean they are of lesser quality, but the internet can be a wild west if you don’t do your research. And one of the advantages of learning online is you are not stuck with your professors once you enroll.
What is your current skill level?
Your knowledge of the subject matter is mostly nonexistent. Go with online classes for now. Traditional schools are going to start you out with the fundamentals anyway, and you can cheaply and efficiently find the same information yourself.
More importantly, as a beginner, you don’t know that you have the talent or the serious interest in the subject yet. Online learning allows you to settle this question before investing serious dollars into your education.
You are past the fundamentals. At this point, your next step depends on how much new information you can find online, which may vary for each subject. At the same time, this can be a great time to reiterate your fundamentals through practice, which you can certainly do on your own.
You have an above average knowledge of and sustained interest in the subject matter. You will benefit more from a physical setting where you can put your skills to the test in collaboration with other students. Working with others simulates what you will encounter in the workplace, and it is an important step in pushing your skills to the professional level. Frankly, this is where traditional schools have online learning beat.
What type of learner are you?
You learn through images, charts and graphs, seeing concepts in action. Both online and traditional schools are capable of this, but in a classroom setting, the amount of visuals can vary from instructor to instructor. Online education is completely visual, so videos rarely feature an instructor face-on lecturing at you. Instead, you often get a demonstration with a voiceover—perfect for visual learners.
You learn by listening and asking questions. Online videos are of course audible, but you are not able to start a dialogue with an instructor in real time. Though you’ll have no trouble listening either way, you might find traditional schools more engaging.
You learn by reading information and reiterating it through writing. You can work this into an online learning routine yourself, but traditional schools have the practice of reading textbooks and writing papers built into them.
You learn by doing. The only question is whether you prefer to do so in a group setting or on your own. For working with groups, your best bet is to attend a class in person. If you are comfortable working on your own, online courses are made for this, assuming you keep yourself accountable with your own assignments.
How motivated are you to learn?
You are all in. You are so motivated, in fact, that you will take your education wherever you can get it. Both online and in-person classes can benefit you depending on your subject and your goals. Online courses do get a slight advantage here since your self-starter attitude favors learning at your own, faster pace.
You are curious. You probably haven’t decided whether the subject is right for you, but you are motivated enough to explore it on your own. You might as well do so online, since shelling out the coin for traditional school won’t be of much use to you yet.
Not at all motivated
You are really dreading this. Maybe this is a topic you have to learn as part of your larger education but not appealing on its own. You might benefit more from a recurring classroom setting with a set system of accountability. Traditional education is great at providing structure, deadlines, competition with other students and red-lettered judgment from professors—all compelling motivators. But if you are at the point of paying an institution for motivation, you might want to question whether the subject is right for you.
What is your availability?
Full time availability
You are either a lottery winner or you’re unemployed. Either way, you’ve got all the time in the world to consume precious knowledge. Take classes wherever your wallet permits.
Part time availability
You’ve got an afternoon here or there to hit the books. Online classes make the most sense purely for the fact that they work with your timetable. Be mindful that the power to manage the pace at which you learn comes with great responsibility. You still need to make a consistent schedule and dedicate as much time as you would to a traditional school if you really want to get an education out of it.
Little or no availability
You are either a workaholic or one dedicated socialite. Education in general is not going to work out for you. It’s better to revisit this subject when you can give learning the attention it deserves.
What materials do you need?
Your discipline requires little more than pencils, paper and imagination. You will likely be dealing with theoretical matters or the particulars of technique, and you don’t need to sit in an expensive class for that. Of course, you will need a computer with a reliable internet connection to learn online, but if you don’t have that yet, you’re probably not reading this!
Your discipline involves heavy machinery or the kind of software that will melt your home computer. If you absolutely need these materials to learn, you might as well go with a traditional education. Higher learning can run expensive itself, but one of the perks is access to its facilities, libraries, databases and materials. Be advised that in the case of software, most applications these days have free, open-source alternatives, so check for those before making your decision.
How complex is the subject matter?
You enjoy a challenge, and you will not need help that a forum or search engine can’t provide. There is nothing intellectually preventing you from learning on your own.
You enjoy throwing your computer against the wall. Traditional education has great resources to support difficult learning, among them tutoring, detailed feedback and instructor office hours. Some sites do offer peer reviews, but sometimes you just need to talk to somebody face-to-face. That said, the internet will always be there to fill in the gaps.
What is your educational goal?
You are a hobbyist looking to pick up some new skills in your spare time. No need to spend more than you have to when there are plenty of resources online.
You are after a new job in a new industry or you are bolstering your skill-set for your current job. In the latter case, many industries have conferences that act as educational supplements. Attending these in person gives you an opportunity to network. If all you need is the information, many are filmed and only a quick YouTube search away.
If your sights are set on an entirely new field, find out whether your employers will be looking for a specific degree or certificate. Online courses can provide this, but generally an accredited institution will look more attractive on a resumé.
For the most part, employers are looking for experience and examples of work. One of the misconceptions around earning a degree is that it is the direct pathway to a job. A degree is important, but it does little to separate you from the hoards of other job seekers with the same degree. So make sure however, wherever, you learn that your education is giving you the opportunity to create tangible, stand-out accomplishments.
Keep learning inside and outside of the classroom
When you think about it, the controversy between online learning and traditional schools is pretty silly. There is no one or the other, nothing stopping you from taking advantage of both. Education is more accessible than it has ever been before, and while we still have miles to go, that’s ultimately a good thing.
Both approaches to learning have merits and if you are truly passionate about a subject, you should be motivated to get your education however you can. Both, however, are not equally priced, so you should be critical as to whether there is value to an in-person class when the same information can be found online. Generally, you should learn as much as you can on your own, and then upgrade to a formal education where you will have the opportunity to meet, compete, and collaborate with other students.