The unique cost of online education

Attending school online is not a digital trend for a cyber-connected future.

It is here, now.

A student turns in an essay to her professor of American History 305 at bustling New York University in lower Manhattan between cattle feeding on a quiet farm in Montana. A student is only a home network or a Starbucks Wi-Fi connection away from class.

The average student is no longer 22, single and able to live on Ramen Noodles and Pepsi. School online allows a student of any age, with any size family and any home commitments to remain engaged in a full time career while obtaining a degree.

As many of the advantages of attending school online save money, offer greater latitude for work and family, they come with a unique price tag.

I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication at University of Phoenix online. I started the degree program while living in Germany and traveling through Europe. Even during an extended stay in Afghanistan, I was able to turn in my essay, Cultural Communication Dynamic of the Asian-American Experience, and respond to class discussion on the merits of distinguishing western feminine characteristics versus inherent feminine characteristics.

The advantages and adventures of my school experience online come at a unique price campus students receive gratis with their tuition.

I have never worn an Alamamatre hat and pullover to cheer at a school athletic event. I have never stepped inside a classroom, where the professor can identify especially dedicated or talented students whom they wish to quietly bless with extra attention.

I have never met in person a professor, or instructor, or teaching assistant or financial aid counselor, or academic counselor—or fellow student.

I don’t meet returning alumni offering career advice from the field. I can’t make acquaintance with a classroom guest who expresses interest in my work and offers a business card and an invitation to call on her after graduation.

I don’t stay after class to discuss with new friends whether we should attend the visiting professor’s lecture or meet up at the third floor of the library to discuss how to delegate tasks in a group assignment. I don’t wander through the student art exhibit taking the long way to class and wonder if I should add photography as an elective in the spring semester.

I won’t run into fellow alumni in the future when they recognize my class ring. We won’t chat about the heated discussions in Mrs. Phillips’ American Feminine Experience 505. I don’t have a ring. I never fueled a heated discussion in a classroom.

The digital version of the campus experience is a video-recorded message made five semesters ago, an email announcement about an activity taking place in another state, and a school website banner advertisement for a lecture series a professor’s assistant will dutifully record from the back of the auditorium.

Serendipity decreases online. There are fewer overheard conversations, advertisements posted on the bulletin board, or chance meetings that becomes job interviews.

Parents halt vacation plans to attend campus graduations. I received a form letter notification with instructions on logging into a website to find the closest ceremony to attend. I signed for the FedEx package containing my degree certificate at the door of my Colorado residence as my son played with the neighbor’s dogs in the backyard.

Education online is a wonder and marvel of modern communication technology. It gives and expands educational opportunities to many who would otherwise not have it. But even with its many advantages, it is important for a future student weighing the options to keep in mind what they leave out earning a degree via the World Wide Web.

It’s important to remember, too, that there is an experience exclusive to online students that campus students miss: gaining relevant skills for an increasingly online world. Searching for information, asking questions in a forum, making contacts with people you cannot see and making your presence known in an online environment is a skill for the future.