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Pencils and books may not yet be obsolete, but it’s becoming increasingly easy to get a college education without ever having to go face to face with an instructor or set foot in a classroom. “Distance learning” is becoming a popular alternative for those who don’t have the time or inclination to take traditional classes, and a quick web search will turn up thousands of online educational programs.

Online courses have augmented or replaced old-time correspondence courses with a vengeance. Once the province of specialized schools, online learning is now part of the course offerings at a huge number of respected colleges and major universities. Even Harvard and other Ivy League schools have online extension schools, and schools such as the University of Phoenix make it possible to complete an entire degree program online.

There are lots of advantages to getting an education online, but there are disadvantages too. Online learning is great for those who need to work and go to school at the same time, because you can often do the work on your own schedule and at your own pace. This route is particularly popular with people whose jobs require that they work odd hours. For example, with many law enforcement agencies now requiring college hours or degrees for hiring or promotions, many police officers are studying criminal justice at home via computer in their free time instead of trying to fit rigidly scheduled classroom time into their rotating work schedules.

And it’s not just degree programs that can be done this way. Mandatory continuing education training for various professionals – cops, lawyers, accountants, etc. – are also becoming available over the Internet, sponsored or approved by state licensing agencies.

Moms can stay home with their children and at the same time, further their educations in preparation for going back to work when the kids are in school. Dads can work on their MBAs after hours without being away from home every night. Recent high school grads who can’t afford to be full time college students can still get a head start and earn credits while holding down a full time job and saving money to attend classroom instruction in their upperclass years.

Those who swear by this new way of getting an education say the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks. In addition to saving you the time it takes to drive to and from classes and the cost of gasoline or public transportation to get there, it also frees you from having to dress up for school (thus indirectly saving more time, as well as money). With more flexibility about when and where you study, you may be able to concentrate more on your studies and get better grades than you would in a classroom environment. There’s less competition with classmates and more focus on your own individual progress. There’s also less of a chance that classroom politics or personality conflicts with instructors will become a factor, although it can still happen. Online courses may also be less expensive, tuition-wise, than their classroom counterparts (although this isn’t always the case).

Okay, so it sounds as if online learning is the wave of the future. What’s not to like? Like any life choice, though, it has its down side. Learning online isn’t for everybody. Some people seem to need the structure of the classroom, peer pressure and close oversight by instructors to motivate them to succeed in their studies. Any type of self-paced program requires more self discipline and gives the student more responsibility – it’s easy to sit at the computer and goof off instead of doing your work. If you’re easily distracted by the temptation to surf the web, read your personal email, send IMs to your friends and play computer games, online learning may not work as well for you.

Some folks also worry that going to school online doesn’t give you the social interaction and experience in dealing with people that you get in a classroom, and thus doesn’t prepare you as well for the work world – although, with more and more people telecommuting, that argument is becoming less valid. But for all these reasons, online learning may be more appropriate for older students, whereas younger people right out of high school may benefit more from attending traditional educational institutions.

On the other hand, with the sophisticated software available to schools today, virtual classrooms can emulate many of the characteristics of physical classrooms and, in fact, in some cases you may actually get more interaction with the instructor than you would on campus.

Tell us what you think. Would you take – or have you taken – courses online? Do you get as much out of them as you would in a traditional classroom? Would you want your kids to go to college online instead of on campus? Do you think online learning is superior, inferior or just different?

Deb Shinder