Deciding what’s best for you: in person, online, or hybrid-style higher education

January 27, 2021

Daniel Jensen

The rise in online education 

The rise of the Internet of Things (IOT) devices has revolutionized higher education and made college degrees more attainable. Many colleges and universities now offer online and hybrid degrees for those unable to make in-person education their full-time profession. These formats are not for everyone. While the outcome — the awarding of a degree — is the same, the experiences are quite different.  

To better understand the dynamics of all 3 methods of learning, this article begins with an explanation of what you might experience in pursuit of a college degree — the good and the bad — in comparison with traditional in-person education.  

How do online and hybrid learning programs differ from in-person learning? 

Anyone who has attended grade school in-person should feel mostly at home with its college-level variant. Undergraduate programs are typically 2 semesters — August/September to December and January/February to April/May. Each semester students take up to 4 classes, being 8 classes for the year with the expected completion of a minimum of 120 credit hours. 

A 4-year, in-person college will feature lectures of varying sizes. Beginner classes, such as Introduction to Microeconomics 101, generally have at least 30 students in a room. A third year, or 300 level, class might be smaller. Graduate degree programs are more condensed than undergraduate programs. While an undergrad student can take over 100 course credits, a graduate student will take anywhere between 36-54 semester credits, or 60 to 90 quarter-credits. 

The purpose of graduate school is to hone a student’s ability in a specific area, often eschewing classes from other disciplines unrelated to their degree. The coursework will reflect this as a greater emphasis will be placed on building a student’s skills as a professional or academic. Most professors will expect their students to actively participate during lectures by either answering questions or engaging in class discussions to encourage engagement with the course material.  

Lectures, assessments and participation in online courses 

Outside of class, professors may also require participation on online discussion boards hosted on the college’s online portal, for example Schoology or Desire2Learn. Discussion boards are essentially short blogs where students discuss a subject relevant to the day’s material with their peers.

Core to college assessments are projects, often in the form of academic papers, presentations, or displays. These projects test a student’s ability to execute rigorous research to display mastery over a certain topic. Students can expect to take the quizzes, chapter tests, midterms and final exams which, depending on the professor’s preference, can be held either online or in-person.  

Students in an online degree program should expect to do more writing to make up for loss of active participation. Materials for classes will be located entirely on the school’s learning management system (LMS). Within these systems, students can access discussion boards, lectures, any relevant documents (syllabi), and turn in assignments.  

Lectures are delivered in 2 ways: over a streaming service such as Zoom or Panopto, or as pre-recorded videos. When available, these videos allow students to take in class presentations whenever and wherever they are. Online discussion boards are used for communicating thoughts about that week’s material and take the place of in-class participation. The reliance on discussion board questions can be a turn-off as they may not be as thought provoking as engaging other students in the classroom. Further subtracting from the experience is the fact that professors cannot immediately provide feedback.  

Students with poor internet connection will be at a greater disadvantage if they have difficulty in completing the labs due to technical difficulties. 

Lab work is also not always possible with online formats, especially in science classes. Students can often experience the material through online simulations. This can make it possible to illustrate how a particular concept works such as law of gravitation. These virtual labs are hosted on specific sites like Labster.  

Professors may require that students purchase lab kits which contain the materials necessary to carry out lab work from home. Students carry out experiments as if they are in the classroom, and then upload a picture showing the finished product.  For some students, this option is problematic as they pay out-of-pocket for the kits.  

Furthermore, as all these products are online, they are at the mercy of server stability. Students with poor internet connection will be at a greater disadvantage if they have difficulty in completing the labs due to technical difficulties. 

Group work with your virtual peers 

Professors may also assign group projects to students with the school’s LMS being used as the basis for the assignment. Group members may need to maintain an updated google document showing their progress on the project. One example of a group project is running a faux political campaign. Working together, students have to create a website on Google Sites, develop a platform for the candidate, print/distribute flyers. At the end of the project, each group will have to present their work before the class on the streaming service, or possibly in the classroom if attending a hybrid program. Such projects can be disastrous if group members fail to regularly communicate and do not contribute any work.  

Essays and presentations are also integral to an online   course as they showcase a student’s ability to effectively communicate the course material. The presentations are delivered similar to lectures, either before the class on a streaming service or in a prerecorded video.  

Overall, the difference between online and in-person education is not too different other than a greater reliance on online discussion boards.  

Hybrid Programs – combining formats and options to learn 

The other format is a hybrid system which utilizes both in-person and online education to facilitate student learning. There are numerous ways hybrid programs can be executed including:    

  • Students have certain classes in-person with the rest of the classes being online  
  • Students physically attend classes during the first few weeks of the semester before switching to a predominantly online format 
  • Professors assign a certain number of students to be in the classroom, and the remaining students watch the stream on a digital device 
  • Face-to-face lectures and class discussions that students attend in person.  Assignments are completed online  
  • Students, especially in the science, faculty attend lectures online, but complete lab work components in person to foster hands-on or practical learning 

Interestingly, a study by the U.S. Department of Education determined that “hybrid courses produced better outcomes than fully face-to-face courses.”  

However, the hybrid format can be a challenge for both students and professors to get used to. This new format may force a professor to “reevaluate course objectives and pedagogical approaches” to ensure students are able to comprehend the material with the same ease as if they were learning purely in-person. Such problems most likely will not be an issue for students who intentionally sign up for this program as they should know what is needed to succeed.  

Which study format do students prefer, and why? 

Despite there being little difference between the 3 formats regarding coursework, students appear to struggle more when classes are digitized. This change has certainly not been easy for many who wanted to have the full college experience. The online format can make it difficult for students in traditional schools to maintain interest in their coursework. Most of the lectures are available on the college website, reducing if not eliminating the need for much contact between the professor and students.  

A survey of more than 100 students, conducted by University of Wisconsin, found that students clearly preferred in-person learning. The students reported increased stress levels associated with online learning, despite grading being more lenient. So even though the stakes might not be so high, students remain wary about the efficacy of this learning format.  

These findings were corroborated by another study where 68% of over 3,000 respondents reported that the current emergency online classes were inferior to in-person classes.  This study also found that 78% of students self-reported devoting less time to their coursework, found the online format difficult to engage with, and overall considered it to be a less enjoyable study experience. 

Thus, in-person education has a significant advantage over the online format. It is natural that students have an easier time learning when they are in an environment specifically designed for that purpose. The disconnect between students naturally means life outside of the class will be limited if you are not near or on campus. College, especially if you are in undergrad, is the perfect time to get outside of your comfort zone and partake in extracurriculars which can go a long way in building your interpersonal skills.  

My academic adviser recommended that I take a few years off from school and build experience, but after numerous failed job applications and interviews, I felt that this was a mistake.  

The cost factors 

The cost of online or hybrid education might make it worth the change of pace. Traditional colleges are notorious for numerous fees on top of tuition. The average cost of tuition for an online school can range between $38k to $60k, whereas a degree earned in-person can reach as high as $85k.  

However, a WCET Frontiers study found that online education actually costs the same, if not more, as an in-person program  Initially18.9% of the study participants stated that tuition rates were higher for online courses.  With the inclusion of fees to the tuition costs, the percentage of students who agreed that online courses were more expensive than on-campus programs jumped to 54.2%. Technology costs are a big culprit in the apparently high cost of online education.  

Ultimately, it is imperative that any prospective student who is considering college — whether online or in-person — research the tuition payment structure of any institution they are interested in before committing to one.  

What is the best option for students who want to study on their own schedule? 

One of the primary benefits with online and hybrid degrees is that students can take courses at their own pace, often while also working a full-time. This is particularly the case when pursuing a master’s degree. Some master’s degree programs are divided into 8-week sessions, and you may have the possibility of taking up to 3 classes in fall and spring, and then 2 classes in summer. Being able to divide your coursework provides greater flexibility.  

Overall, online and hybrid education are similar to in-person programs. Students should expect a mix of essays, exams, group projects, labs, and online discussions. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown students struggling with the forced move to digital learning. But for students who have enrolled in these programs of this should not be too much of an issue.  

My own experiences with online education 

I would like to offer my own experiences as someone who went from an in-person, 4-year degree to an online master’s degree. After completing an undergraduate degree, I was unsure whether to go straight to graduate school or enter the workforce. My academic adviser recommended that I take a few years off from school and build experience, but after numerous failed job applications and interviews, I felt that this was a mistake.  

It was already fall when I decided to continue my education. The timing made it difficult to get into graduate school for the spring semester. My search for programs relating to political science ultimately led me to University of Arizona.  The university offered an online M.A. in International Security Studies (ISS). I was conflicted because I had wanted to attend a more prestigious in-person school. Yet, the classes offered by the online ISS program intrigued me due to their focus on very specific topics in international affairs, such as cybersecurity and terrorism studies.  

The application process was easy. It seemed that many online programs did not require a placement exam (GRE, LSAT, etc.) or letters of recommendation. I submitted my application in the middle of November and received an acceptance confirmation almost a week later.  

The cost of this online degree was significantly cheaper than what I would have paid at an in-person graduate program: i.e., $12,500 compared to around $50,000 a year. Coming from a lower income family, such a difference in price was more than enough reason to at least give online learning a shot.  

Signing up for classes in the ISS program was relatively simple. There were academic advisers, although students were not mandated to meet with them to discuss class selection. As for the classes, the material was interesting, but the online format did do justice to the material.  

The lack of a social life within an online program was another big drawback for me. 

One of my main concerns going into this program was that I would not learn valuable skills. But I did. I liked the heavy focus on writing. My weakness concerned writing 2-3page policy memos. These assignments were tricky at first but became much easier to write as I neared the end of the program. These classes also helped hone my ability to write more confidently about topics that I wanted to dedicate my life to.  

If nothing else, the ISS program confirmed that I was on the correct path, however arduous it seemed at the time.  

The lack of a social life within an online program was another big drawback for me. Even as an introvert, not being able to mingle with classmates made it difficult to feel fully invested. This was not a major issue given the short duration of the master’s program, as compared to a 4-year degree.  

One frustrating issue that was the lack of direction given by the college staff and faculty regarding graduation. Although this may not be the case for all online programs, there was little guidance about what forms were required to sign up for the capstone project. This issue was not so significant as to make me reconsider my decision to partake in this program.  

Only you can make the right decision  

Online education is not going to be for everyone. As social beings, it is natural for people to want to attend a college program on campus and to fully experience what this can entail. This pandemic has resulted in data showing that students can struggle with online learning. Materials may be inadequate to engage and satisfy students. Professors may not be as ‘present’ as they should be.  

Despite this, there is nothing inherently bad about taking classes online. Doing so can save money while boosting the student’s marketability when it comes to entering the future workforce, or when earning a sought-after promotion at their current workplace. What matters most is doing what you believe is the best fit for you. 

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