In Person vs. Online University. For traditional age college students it’s a clear choice.

Online Bachelor’s degrees have been a growing trend in the US. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many more traditional university programs online over the past year, too. Is online education better? It depends who’s asking.

For advanced degrees, such as Master’s, Doctoral, and even certificate programs which are targeted at students who already have the learning frameworks and the toolsets to handle the low engagement, high burnout, the lack of meaningful social interactions, and the constant need for self-discipline and motivation to plough through the courses, online instruction could work somewhat fine. For anyone else looking to get the full benefits of an undergraduate college, online is a huge challenge.

The pandemic taught us another lesson – online educational programs in their current form are a big source of anxiety, stress, and depression.

At NewU we believe that quality education happens in person. Technology is an ever-increasing part of life. Sometimes it enhances it, sometimes it stresses and hinders us. In the pandemic, technology was a way to continue educating students as effectively as possible, given that we could not physically gather in one place.

Even before the quarantine, many universities implemented a somewhat successful online learning model: Arizona State University, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), Western Governors University (WGU) and Minerva Project at KGI all chose online learning as a growth mechanism and a primary channel for student instruction, even when there was no quarantine in the past 7-8 years. Their motivation was mainly to reduce the cost of instruction by teaching one course to thousands of students, or using teachers from one location to instruct people scattered around the world.

In addition to universities, there are many companies that teach online or deliver courses digitally, such as Coursera, Khan Academy, Top Hat, and others who provide technology and services to other universities, companies, or other organizations.

At NewU we reviewed carefully the several basic models of online education: synchronous, where a real-time teacher conducts a course on the Internet; and asynchronous, where teachers record lectures and provide materials to students so that students can watch lectures, do homework, etc. at a time convenient to them, and hybrid models such as flipped classroom. Each model has its advantages and disadvantages, but none of them is a worthy substitute to in-person education.

The main question in front of all of us in education, now more than ever, is whether online education is an effective substitute for the traditional classroom. From one point of view, the “flipped classroom” is a fairly successful additive where video lectures, preparatory materials and even homework are sent online to students before the class, and students are expected to prepare and come to class ready for discussions, debates on different points of view, and group exercises. The flipped model is a hybrid between traditional lectures and online education and is considered much more effective than the traditional lecture where students attend class only to listen to a professor (or even the professor’s teaching assistant) narrating the lecture, then go home. We see benefits with the flipped classroom model, and many of the professors we have worked with are big supporters. Unfortunately, in a quarantine situation, this model is inapplicable because it requires a physical presence in the classroom at the end of the day.

These days it is a popular opinion that online education will completely replace the traditional model. Most of the supporters of this view are either representatives of companies who sell online education products, or are missing a major characteristic of our human nature, and that is that humans are at our core social beings. We subconsciously use a lot of signals in our communications, such as body language, which are largely lost online.

An additional difficulty to moving education 100% online is that our brains process and interpret information from other people in sync with their nonverbal cues – body language, facial microexpressions (which are invisible on most online platforms), and even pheromones we release but do not consciously register with our sense of smell – all of which we use to signal our feelings, intentions and preferences to others. Everything that evolution has been building for hundreds of thousands of years about us as humans is under the stress of a new and unfamiliar online educational environment.

Yet another, and perhaps the strongest argument against online education is the fact that we learn most effectively in the process of discussion and debate.  Real-time interactions in person and in search of truth require we process both verbal and non-verbal information to ensure comprehension and knowledge retention. Socrates said that if you ask a question to an inanimate object, such as a document or a painting, you do not receive an answer. Instead the object says one and the same thing at any given time and for all eternity. Similarly, if we direct a question at a video or a podcast, we will not receive an answer. We cannot have a dialogue in such a setting. And as Socrates said, dialogue – evoking ideas and challenging them with arguments and counterarguments – makes true education possible.

An additional voice, and perhaps the one to weigh most heavily in favor of traditional education in the classroom comes from the most important people – students. The vast majority of them already had the opportunity to compare online learning with in-person instruction, and they almost unanimously voted for the benefits of the traditional classroom and the physical presence of their teachers and fellow students.

So for those recent high school graduates and their parents looking at college options the choice should be a clear one – in this case, just because we have the technology to teach online does not mean we should.

At NewU we believe in the superior value and clear advantages of in-person education.  We will always conduct classes on campus, except if expressly prohibited by law.  The COVID-19 vaccine rollout and recent regulatory developments indicate that universities will most likely be able to hold in-person classes going forward, and many have eagerly embraced planning for return to campus in person this Fall.

For more information about NewU University, visit us at Bachelor’s degree in 3 years, and 70% less money. In person, not online.

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