In the past decade, online college degrees have proliferated. They’re now a mainstay at many colleges and universities, giving students one more option to consider when evaluating their post-high school plans.
For some students with learning disabilities, an online degree program may be a viable option; but for others, it may create more problems than it solves. The key is to know your individual learning strengths and weaknesses, and to evaluate the specific online program with those in mind. Following is a general discussion of the pros and cons students with LD may face in an online learning environment.
The Advantages of Online Learning
- Flexibility: Students have access to reading assignments, video lectures, slideshows, and other course materials 24/7, and can work according to their own schedule. Students with processing disorders can replay video lectures as often as necessary. Those with ADHD can work in shorter increments, taking breaks between lessons. Students with anxiety can get up and walk around without disturbing others. While deadlines must be met, students can generally work at a pace that’s comfortable for them.
- Earn while you learn: As a by-product of flexibility, online degree programs enable students to complete courses and work full-time. (See below for why this may not be optimal.)
- Location: Online classes are convenient for those living in remote areas who can’t or choose not to commute long distances to school. They can also serve the needs of untraditional students who may need to care for children or other family members.
- “Safe” environment: Students who are quirky, different from the norm, or just have trouble fitting in can remain anonymous and avoid potential ridicule.
- Cost: While the tuition may be the same, students reap savings in transportation costs, room and board, lab fees, and student activity fees. In some cases, online courses give students access to digital materials that may cost less than traditional textbooks.
The Disadvantages of Online Learning
- Anonymity: Students with disabilities who have spent years trying to mask their learning differences are often drawn to online courses. While these students should self-identify and receive accommodations, many choose to go it alone in an attempt to shed the stigma they’ve lived with for their entire lives. Failure to disclose makes it much more difficult for professors to provide the support and accommodations these students have received in the past and ultimately proves to be a mistake.
- Technical inexperience/glitches: Problems with internet connections and difficulty managing files, online learning systems, and software can severely hamper students. On-campus tech support is usually available either formally in a tech center, or informally from a person down the hall or next door. Accessing help from afar can be challenging, especially when you’re trying to meet an assignment deadline.
- Low motivation: Without the structure a traditional class provides, students can become confused about assignments and deadlines, fall behind, and lose motivation. Learners who need hand-holding are likely to find it challenging to succeed in a virtual class.
- Lack of face-to-face interaction: Traditional classrooms provide students with frequent feedback and social opportunities that are absent in online classes. College is not merely about academics; it is also about maturing into an adult, capable of working with different personalities in group settings—qualities that are required in most work settings. In addition, it is difficult for a teacher to convey enthusiasm in an online setting. Being entertaining, witty, and passionate about a subject can light a fire under a student or ignite an interest he has yet to identify. Without personal interaction those opportunities are less likely to occur.
- More self-discipline required: With the convenience of working from home come temptations: checking social media, surfing the internet, watching TV, even sleeping! Having a seat in a classroom at a designated time and place reminds students they are accountable. Since you’re on your own, online classes require more focus and time-management skills than traditional classes. An organizational plan of deadlines and exam dates is essential and must be referred to frequently.
- Lack of support resources: Where can a student who is confused get help? While most colleges have limited support services specifically for students with LD, those in traditional settings have some options. Online learning may or may not offer easily accessible support for students with LD. Before signing on, learn what resources are available and how you can access them.
- Employment and school don’t mix: For students who are working and going to school, the online environment may lull students into forgetting that college is a commitment. If you’re not accountable to show up, school can easily slip down the priority list. College in any format is best not treated as an afterthought.
When deciding if an online degree is right for you, it’s critical to know your strengths and weaknesses. If you’re enrolling in online classes to save money or hide a disability, and self-discipline has been a recurring issue, then failure in the online environment is likely to be the outcome. On the other hand, if you are an organized self-starter, willing to disclose your learning challenges, are computer savvy, and able to complete assignments independently and on time, an online degree may be a great option.
Joan M. Azarva is a college learning specialist who focuses on the transition from high school to college for students with LD and ADHD.