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Online or On-Campus Courses: Which is Right for You?

You’ve decided you want to go to grad school. You’re ready physically, mentally, and financially. But as you start to compare graduate programs, you notice that some are offered online, some are offered on campus, and some even offer a mix of the two.

When choosing a grad program, there are several factors to consider that can help you decide whether an online or on-campus format is the best fit for you.

Here are some of the most important matters to examine as you make your decision.

What to Consider When Deciding Between Online and On-Campus Courses

1) Your Proximity to Campus

If you live or work near a college campus, and your schedule affords you the flexibility, it might be feasible for you to travel the two blocks or even two hours you need to take an on-campus course. Some students prefer having face-to-face interaction and, for them, the travel time required to get to campus is a worthwhile investment.  

Sometimes, this factor alone can determine the course format you should take. For example, if you live in France, but want to take classes from a university located in Boston because of the high-quality curriculum and the area’s reputation for prestigious education. Short of flying back-and-forth across the country every week, you should look into programs at the university you can complete online.

2) Your Lifestyle

For some professionals, even if they are close to campus, their home or work life doesn’t allow the flexibility to commit several hours each week getting to class, sitting through class, and getting home.

Maybe you’re the type of person whose work life keeps you traveling and on-the-go, and even though you live in a certain city, it’s not where you spend most of your time. Maybe although you live close to the college of your choice now, you might want to move across the country in six months, and don’t want to be tied to a certain place to be able to finish your degree. Maybe your family just welcomed a new child, and it’s just too much for you to find childcare that will work for your schedule. Or maybe you have the time and energy to make it to class every week, and you prefer the routine.

The main point is: you should reflect critically about your current life and work situation, and make the best decision for yourself.

3) Your Current Skills and Future Goals 

Let’s say English isn’t your first language. Some students might prefer to attend class in a physical setting to practice their language skills. Others might feel more comfortable participating in an online discussion board where they have ample time to think through their responses.

Or, perhaps you deal with virtual teams at work on a daily basis, and you’re used to and comfortable interacting with others online. Would you want to also do your coursework online, or would you prefer to get some face-to-face interaction during on-campus classes?

Do you get nervous having to stand up in front of a class and give a presentation? Is this an area in which you’d like to force yourself to improve? Or would you rather complete and submit your coursework virtually after you have had the opportunity to record a few practice sessions? These are just few scenarios that can help shape your decision.

4) Your Community

Ask yourself: What kinds of connections are you looking to make through your program? Maybe you’re looking to meet others who live and work nearby to improve your network of professionals in your city. Maybe you just moved to an entirely new place and you’re looking to make some new friends.

Or if you’re looking to make connections with classmates and professors who live all over the country, it could be an added networking benefit to take your courses online in order to meet new and different people from all over the world.  Since everyone is logging in remotely, there’s no limit to where your classmates could live.

Bonus: Types of Online Courses

There are many types of programs that have online components. For example, hybrid programs feature classes both online and on-ground, while other degrees are offered 100 percent online. Complicating the online vs on-campus decision for prospective students is the fact that even when a program is offered fully online, there are still two format options to consider, each of which offers its own pros and cons. 

Asynchronous online learning

In asynchronous, or self-paced learning programs, course material is pre-recorded. This can be either good or bad, depending on your work style. Pre-recorded sessions require discipline and time management; otherwise, you’ll be cramming all 17 lessons into the last week of the semester. Holding yourself accountable for keeping up with work can be a challenging aspect of this online learning format. 

However, a significant advantage of asynchronous programs is the increased flexibility they offer. This format is attractive to many working professionals juggling families and other personal commitments, as it allows them to review course material at their leisure, whenever is most convenient. Additionally, having access to recorded lectures allows you to study and brush up on your knowledge throughout the semester.

Synchronous online learning

Live, or synchronous, online classrooms hold class in real-time, but with the students and professor logging in remotely. A major benefit of this online learning format is the sense of connection the online “classroom” can provide. Learning in realtime with other students—and having the opportunity to engage with classmates and the professor—can help replicate the feeling of an on-ground class but without any geographical constraints. 

While live online classrooms offer flexibility to learn from wherever you’d like, they do require you to learn at specific times and dates throughout the semester. Having to attend class on a regular interval does, of course, help to keep students on-track and accountable for learning the material as the course progresses.

Online learning, whether taught in live sessions in a self-paced format, offers many advantages to lifelong learners. As long as you are disciplined and refine your time management skills, you can gain many great experiences and knowledge that give you a competitive advantage in the workforce. Choosing the format that is best for you will help you get the most from your online courses. Always weigh your options, and do your research. There are many excellent choices available if an online course seems like it could be the right option for you.

Taking the Next Step

Learning online versus learning on-campus has a great deal to do with your lifestyle, where you live, and what you are hoping to gain out of the program. At Northeastern, the educational rigor and value will be the same regardless of your decision, so be sure to choose the program that will set you up best to reach your personal goals. 


Explore more about online learning:

8 Strategies for Getting the Most out of an Online Class

Finding the Right Online Graduate Program for You

The Benefits of Online Learning: 7 Advantages of Online Degrees

Are Online Degrees Respected? What Employers Really Think About Your Online Degree