by Lauren Joffe

Online learning certainly is picking up speed! Market research indicates that nearly 22 million students will utilize e-learning structures of some caliber by 2014. But are online courses all they’re cracked up to be? Sure, tuition takes a dive, and the flexibility is unparalleled -- but online learning lacks the social nature of the traditional college classroom.

Check out the most pressing pros and cons of online learning to see if it’s worth considering in your academic future:

PRO: Taking Online College Courses Offers Flexibility

With no rigid classroom hours, students taking online college courses have the wiggle room to learn when (and where) it’s most convenient for them. For those working full-time jobs or needing a few extra credits to keep up, the flexibility is unbeatable.

Says Muhlenberg College senior Michelle Wallace: “It was convenient to get a requirement class out of the way by taking it online so I could take classes I was more interested in [on campus] during the year. It opened up my fall schedule and gave me time to focus on other classes."

While Wallace used online learning as a supplement to the traditional in-class structure, students who take classes solely online often benefit from being able to complete a degree in a condensed period of time.

CON: Motivation Can Be a Drag When Taking Online College Courses

For students who need a rigid schedule to stay on task, online learning might not be a suitable alternative to in-class learning. Self-discipline and time-management skills are necessary here, and students who find it difficult to pace themselves will be playing a not-so-fun game of catch-up through finals.

Says Wallace: “You really have to put more effort in to make sure assignments are done on time and everything is being accomplished to the highest level. I was highly motivated, so it worked out for me, but for students who struggle more, I wouldn't advise taking courses online.”

PRO: Taking Online College Courses Saves You Money

For the 2008-09 academic year, the average price for undergraduate tuition, room and board was $12,283 at public institutions and a whopping $31,233 at private institutions. Students who cannot afford the steep (and rising) costs can use online learning to acquire a solid degree while saving dough.

George Washington University sophomore Stacey Green took two accounting classes online and one in-class course through her county college, saving what she estimates to be thousands of dollars. “For three [county college] courses, I paid about $2,000, compared with GW credits, which cost over $1,000 per credit alone.”

It is possible that e-courses offered through your university will cost the same as in-class credits. However, you can save more than tuition dollars by taking classes online. Many online classes offer e-books, which can save a hefty sum on pricey textbooks. And whether commuting daily to class or flying to and from campus each semester, transportation costs are eliminated.

Rack up a smaller bill by checking out your county college to see if it offers pertinent classes. And remember: The same financial-aid awards apply to both on-campus and online students, so arrange to receive proper funding.

CON: Online College Course Credits Might Not Transfer

Beware: If you need online credits to transfer to a brick-and-mortar university, it is crucial to do your research. Both Wallace and Green spoke with advisers to have their credits approved.

“The university usually has a list of approved colleges and courses that can transfer,” Green says. “If the course you want to take isn’t listed, you can usually bring a class description and syllabus to see if it matches up with your university’s own class structure.” Also, take the necessary steps to confirm an online institution is legitimate and accredited.

PRO: Online College Courses Provide a Low Student-to-Faculty Ratio

While there’s no in-the-flesh presence of an instructor, real professors are sitting behind their computers ready to work with you and answer your questions. Many times, schools provide students the ability to meet with professors or talk in real time via the Web or during in-person contact hours.

E-mail is likely to be the most frequent form of communication between you and your professor. You’ll submit essays, quizzes and reading assignments and receive personalized feedback in return. For students who are shy in class or embarrassed to speak up, this method can be beneficial. Also, professors may dedicate more time to e-students given the flexible nature of the coursework.

CON: You’ll Lose Face Time Taking Online College Courses

For students taking solely online courses to acquire a degree, there is a social aspect missing when it comes to making new friends or working on group projects. After all, one obvious benefit of attending traditional classes is that students can learn from their peers and feed off others’ insights and commentary.

Moreover, having a professor in the room can help clear up complex learning points. Says Green: “Taking classes online was a huge trade-off, because it was extremely difficult to learn some of the concepts without a teacher or TA. I had to seek help from an outside tutor to fully grasp what the textbook was outlining, because with so many numbers and equations, e-mailing was just too complicated.” Ultimately, don’t underestimate the importance of peer-teacher interaction.

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Are Online College Courses All That?