Going to College Online vs. Going to a Brick-and-Mortar School: A Look at the Intersection of Technology and Higher Education

By Steven C. Scheer, Ph.D.

The Internet made it possible to get an education online from start to finish. The question is, is this a good idea? Going to a brick-and-mortar school means many things. Like living in a dorm with a roommate. Meeting many students from many different walks of life. Making new friends. Making friends that turn into lifelong friendships. Are online students missing out on all this?

There have been comparisons made between the advantages and disadvantages of each type of schooling. Many professionals who have earned their undergraduate degree in a traditional college setting are surprised and delighted by the ease of use, and perhaps most surprising, the sense of community fostered in online “classrooms.” But even if we grant that the quality of education can be equal in both kinds of schools, and even if it is true that companies will gladly hire graduates from each kind of college or university, are there not other factors that make a big difference?

The business of making friends and of socializing with many of your peers may be somewhat limited if you are attending school online. You can’t just bump into someone and invite him or her for a cup of coffee and a chat. You can’t hang out after classes and grab a sandwich and a coke. You can’t get invited to parties on campus or off. These kinds of chances for socializing are just not there.  That said, many online colleges require active participation in discussions, forums, and responses to online posts.  In our new virtual world, it is likely that you’ll develop many online peers and friends – a sort of educational equivalent to Facebook. 

Perhaps even more pertinent to young people of either sex is the question of how to find a suitable boyfriend or girlfriend? How to find, in fact, your future husband or wife? Such things are not unheard of in brick-and-mortar schools. Granted, a romance may get in the way of focusing on your studies. But it’s also possible that a member of the opposite sex may inspire you to do well, better than you would otherwise do, in fact.  Again, the Web is no slouch in the romance department either, and some say conversation is facilitated by the distance!

Are there no opportunities for all this when you are taking your courses online? Quite the contrary, as stated above, socialization is not only possible, but encouraged in many online educational environments.  The kinds of opportunities for socializing online are clearly different from those easily attainable in brick-and-mortar schools, but some of them may actually have advantages.

While close proximity is not there for online interactions, this may be more than compensated for by the lack of boundaries. In other words, students across the universe can interact with one another by e-mail, IM, Skype, and Google Wave. Never before have the opportunities for such interaction been greater before.

You may, of course, present the argument that traditional brick-and-mortar students are not barred from the Internet either. Yes, but for students studying online age or race or religious affiliation are all invisible as well as handicaps – creating a more democratic platform for interaction. These are simply overlooked and thus not a factor in online associations.

One site, for example, clearly indicates that a whopping 85% of college and university students socialize on Facebook. Once more, this kind of socialization is not limited to online students, but it’s another way in which borders fall by the wayside, so that an international community can easily build up and be maintained for significant BS sessions, without which – let’s face it – no true education can take place. (Take this with the proverbial grains of salt from an old professor who remembers well those heady BS sessions of long ago.)

There is, of course, a warning here as well. There is more and more evidence that students of all ages may be held responsible for what they post on the various social networks out there, such as MySpace. It is advisable, therefore, to abstain from posting either comments or images that may come back to haunt you in later life. You can read up on the dangers facing you by doing something “illegal or inappropriate” on one of these social networking sites.

In the long run, both types of education, those available online or offline, offer many opportunities for getting degrees in the fields of your choice. There is no reason to despair about the lack of opportunities to make friends or to find future spouses in either place. What you should always remember is to use common sense. And don’t forget to always be courteous as well. You can never go wrong by being nice. So enjoy your education, whether online or offline.

Dr. Steven Scheer is a retired professor of English with 30 years of teaching experience behind him. He earned his Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University in 1974. He is a published author with four books and many essays and articles to his name.  He is a contributor to DegreeAmerica.com

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