Gut Check: Is Online Education Right for You?

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Suppose you're considering becoming an online student, and a friend asks you why you're choosing that over a face-to-face education. What do you say?

The biggest selling points likely come to mind: accessibility and convenience. No classrooms, parking passes, or gas tanks required.

These are the main reasons more people are enrolling in online courses than face-to-face classes. Online education is the more flexible way to switch gears and earn more money –– a format ideal for older students with careers and families.

But too many people forget to consider what it's like to be an online student.

Studies show that many students are unaware that online courses are heavily self-directed. For students uncomfortable with that learning environment, online classes can become intimidating and cause some to drop out.

Researchers also note that some students believe the benefits of flexible hours and lower costs are not worth the size of their workload and the depth of their involvement. It's partly why online students are 10% to 20% more likely to quit their classes than their face-to-face counterparts.

To avoid that outcome, we suggest a gut check — a self-reflective look into whether online education is right for you.

According to Jennifer Mathes, CEO of Online Learning Consortium, students should ask three important questions if they're unsure online education is right for them:

  1. How important is a convenient schedule to take classes?
  2. Can I effectively manage my time?
  3. Do I need connections that are in person, or will virtual meetings meet that need?

While Mathes believes online education is widely accessible, she said two traits can make adapting to the self-driven learning environment even easier.

"Typically, students with higher motivation and self-discipline are more likely to be successful," Mathes said.

We asked current students, online alumni, and online learning experts to tell us more. See if you identify with their insights into online learning and reflect on whether it fits your expectations.

What to Consider Before Online Education

If You Enjoy Flexibility

"Certain people may already have skills that would make this style of learning easier, but I believe anyone can be successful at online learning. Depending on the type of program or course and its individual setup, your days may be extremely flexible.

"Some programs are completely asynchronous, meaning they do not have set class times. There will be a course outline and firm due dates, but the student will need to plan out their time and determine how to fit everything into their schedule. The other option is programs that have set 'live' classes that you must attend every week. These set classes do help you stay on track a bit more as they act as check-in points."

Gillian Harris, online student (master of arts in communication and technology, University of Alberta)

Do You Have These Personal Strengths?

"If the words 'persistent,' 'determined', 'focused,' and 'disciplined' describe you, then you may be a good fit (for online education). To the contrary, if you're more of a last-minute or 'good enough' kind of person, this may not be the right fit."

Judy Gaman, CEO of Executive Medicine of Texas (online master's graduate of The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences)

What's Your Learning Personality?

"People can get a good idea of how they will succeed with online learning by analyzing their own personality. If you are someone who can listen to a lecture or easily learn from reading a chapter, you may do very well in an online learning environment."

Dave Evangelisti, founder of

Technology Is Not Always a Barrier

"If you do not enjoy using the computer or find it difficult, online learning may not be for you. But depending on your course structure, there may not be as much computer work as you think. For example, when I took economics, most of the work was reading the textbook. We had one live class per week and then assignments and exercises to complete."

Gillian Harris, online student (master of arts in communication and technology, University of Alberta)

If You're Highly Motivated

"You need to be a self-starter, as you must take the reins of your education during online education. The fact is, there's a lot to keep up with, but no one reminding you in person to get things done. If you aren't a self-starter and don't have the willpower, you might be successful, but the odds are certainly against you."

Scott Winstead, founder of

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