There are many reasons why online programs have become a popular form of distance learning in higher education today. The online environment offers unprecedented opportunities for people who would otherwise have limited access to education, as well as a new paradigm for educators in which dynamic courses of the highest quality can be developed. Here is a list of some of the major benefits of online programs:
The main advantage of asynchronous online learning is that it allows students to participate in high quality learning situations when distance and schedule make on-ground learning difficult-to-impossible. Students can participate in classes from anywhere in the world provided they have a computer and Internet connection. In addition, the online format allows physically challenged students (and teachers) more freedom to participate in class. Participants access the Virtual Classroom through their computers instead of having to "go to class" physically.
Anytime, Any Pace
The Virtual Classroom is accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Time efficiency is another strength brought by the online learning format. Asynchronous communication through online conferencing programs allows the professional juggling work, family, and study schedules to participate in class discussions. There is no question about doing the work; just do it at the times that are more convenient. Students can access their courses at any time of day or night. Further, they have continuous access to lectures, course materials, and class discussions. This is particularly convenient for those who may need to reread a lecture or take more time to reflect on some material before moving on.
The online format allows a dynamic interaction between the instructor and students and among the students themselves. Resources and ideas are shared, and continuous synergy will be generated through the learning process. Each individual can contribute to the course discussions and comments on the work of others. The synergy that exists in the student-centered Virtual Classroom is one of the most unique and vital traits that the online learning format possesses.
High Quality Dialog
Within an online asynchronous discussion structure, the learner may reflect on comments from others before responding or moving on to the next item. This structure allows students time to articulate responses with much more depth and forethought than in a traditional face-to-face discussion situation where the participant must analyze the comment of another on the spot and formulate a response or otherwise lose the chance to contribute to the discussion.
Within an online discussion, the individual student responds to the course material (lectures and course books, for example) and to comments from other students. Students usually respond to those topics within the broader conversation that most clearly speak to their individual concerns. These situations result in smaller conversations taking place simultaneously within the group. While students should read all of their classmates' contributions, they actively engage in only those parts of the dialog most relevant to their needs. In this way, students control their own learning experience and tailor the class discussions to meet their own specific needs. Ideally, students make their own individual contributions to the course while at the same time take away a unique mix of information directly relevant to their needs.
Level Playing Field
In the online environment, learners have a certain measure of anonymity. Discriminating factors such as age, dress, physical appearance, disabilities, race and gender are largely absent. Instead, the focus of attention is clearly on the content of the discussion and the individual's ability to respond and contribute thoughtfully and intelligently to the material at hand.
Access to Resources
It is easy to include distinguished guest experts or students from other institutions in an online class. Further, today's students have access to resources and materials that may be physically located anywhere in the world. An instructor can compile a resource section online with links to scholarly articles, institutions, and other materials relevant to the course topic for students to access for research, extension, or in depth analysis of course content material.
The literature of adult education supports the use of interactive learning environments as contributing to self-direction and critical thinking. Some educators have made great strides in applying these concepts to their on ground teaching. However, many classes still exist which are based on lectures and rote memorization of material. The nature of the semi-autonomous and self-directed world of the Virtual Classroom makes innovative and creative approaches to instruction even more important. In the online environment, the facilitator and student collaborate to create a dynamic learning experience. The realization of a shift in technology creates the hope that those who move into the new technology will also leave behind bad habits as they adopt this new paradigm of teaching. As educators transform their courses to take full advantage of the online format, they must reflect on their course objectives and teaching styles. Many of the qualities that make a successful online facilitator are also tremendously effective in the traditional classroom.