COVID-19 gave online learning a major boost. In fall 2019, before the pandemic,42% of all post-bachelor’s students took at least one distance education course. By the fall of 2020, 71% of postbaccalaureate students (2.2 million students) were taking at least one distance course, and 52% (1.6 million students) were taking distance courses only. But is online learning best for every student? Some studies show that not all students thrive in an online setting. The key here is to determine how you learn best, when you learn best, and the pace at which you prefer to learn.
Online vs Hybrid vs In-Person Learning
When choosing a master’s program, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of each delivery mode against your preferred learning style. Online courses are very different from in-person and hybrid options. More experiential learners may find more success learning in-person due to real-time interaction with professors and peers. First, determine if an online, hybrid, or in-person master’s degree is right for you. Read through the points below and see which one resonates with your preferred learning style.
Online programs and courses use various web-based tools and platforms to deliver educational material to students. This includes lectures, discussion groups, essays, tests, quizzes, and more. Students may communicate with professors and peers via real-time chat, or via email when quick replies aren’t necessary. In fully-online programs, 100% of coursework and communication is done via the web.
- Learn from anywhere with an internet connection
- Save on travel to and from school or the cost of living near or on campus
- Flexibility of schedule
- Better school-life balance
- Lower costs overall
- Group discussions may be less intimidating for students who struggle with public speaking
- Requires some extra discipline to get coursework done
- Must create an optimal study environment for yourself somewhere outside of campus
- Less face-to-face interaction with classmates and professors may be challenging for those who thrive in a more interactive or social environment
Best for: Students who need flexibility and are comfortable with technology. Also great for students who don’t feel a strong need to have an in-person college experience or for busy students juggling multiple responsibilities outside of school.
In-person college is the most traditional college experience on this list. Students attend classes on campus, in real-time, and alongside other students. Courses are offered at specific times and your schedule is determined by when those classes are offered. Typically, these classes are very structured and require regular attendance in order do well and be successful. Technology is often used for submitting assignments and papers, but most learning occurs in an in-person lecture or lab format.
- Traditional college experience with in-person classes and on-campus time
- Ask questions and get help in real time
- More active discussion that can only happen in-person
- More in-person interaction with peers and social activities
- Easier access to student services like the student union, library, and advisement
- Less flexible due to set class times
- Can be more difficult for introverts and those with language barriers
- Time-intensive for people with many outside commitments
- Requires commuting or living near campus which can be an added expense
Best for: Students who want the traditional college experience and thrive when they have access to real-time interaction with teachers and peers. It’s great for students who are experiential or interactive learners or people who want a more social educational environment.
Hybrid Learning is the best of both worlds. In a hybrid setting some classes may be in-person while others are online allowing you a little more flexibility in your schedule each semester. You will have two different formats to adapt to, but it may be worth it for increased time-flexibility.
- Less time on campus means you have more flexibility in your schedule
- You get the perks of on-campus classes AND online classes
- More variety in the classes you can take
- Great for people who like to mix things up and keep it interesting
- Still possible to work around outside commitments and get the on-campus experience
- You may still have on-campus expenses
- You will have to be able to be flexible about your study setup
- Less flexible than fully online school
Best for: Students who want a bit more flexibility with housing and schedules but still wants the perks of being on campus.
Based on the above, what type of program seems like the best fit for you? Now that you know whether you want — online, in-person, or hybrid — let’s take a look at the organization of your classes.
Asynchronous vs Synchronous Learning
Synchronous and Asynchronous are the two formats that determine the timing and pace of your classes. Synchronous learning is typically much more structured and often requires students to be present at a specific time for classes or requires that the work be done in a specific order. Asynchronous learning is more fluid, allowing for the students and professors to engage with the course content at different times and at a pace that works for them. Keep reading to learn more and figure out which style is best for you.
Asynchronous classes allow you to have more control over where and when you learn. In asynchronous style classes, students are given a sequence of coursework that students can all move through at a pace that works with their schedule and preferences. The professor engages with students and gives feedback as needed.
- Asynchronous is essentially self-guided education with some structure
- You as the learner have full control over where and when your work gets done
- It is the most flexible mode of learning for busy people
- It is also the most independent learning mode
- Requires extra discipline to stick to a schedule and get your work done
- Can be lonely or isolating
- Less real-time interaction with professors and peers
Best for: Students who are juggling school, work, and other commitments and who need as much schedule flexibility as possible.
Synchronous learning is a more structured learning style. Students and the professor engage with the course content at the same time. These classes may be in-person or online, but the content is paced by the teacher and requires active participation.
- Most closely replicates in-person learning
- Deadlines for coursework and requirements for active participation in online discussions gives more structure to the course
- More collaborative and sense of community within your class or cohort
- Regular opportunities for real-time communication and feedback from professors and classmates
- Studies show that students acquire better skills when taught in a synchronous setting
- May require you to be at your computer at specific times or in-person
- Less flexibility than asynchronous learning
- Requires a higher level of interaction with others
Best for: Students who want more structure and don’t mind a little less flexibility. Even if you take synchronous classes online, there can be some time savings making it a better option than in-person classes for those with more outside commitments.
Based on the information above, is synchronous or asynchronous better for you? Now that you have determined your format and learning mode, let’s take a look at the final piece of the puzzle: full-time or part-time.
Full-time vs Part-time Learning
The pros and cons of full-time and part-time are pretty straightforward. Let’s break it down so that you can navigate the final piece of this puzzle.
A full-time student is typically classified by taking 12 or more credits per semester for undergraduates or 9 credits or more for graduate students.
- Allows you to fully immerse in your studies and the experience
- Quicker to finish your program as you are taking more classes at a time and knocking out more credits each semester
- More intense schedule in the present
- Harder to work full time and go to school
- May mean putting certain aspects of your life on pause
Best for: Students who want to finish their degree as quickly as possible and who have the ability to make school their priority while other aspects of live take a backseat while their degree is in-progress.
Part-time students typically take 11 credits or less for undergraduate students or 8 credits or less for graduate students.
- Lower workload allows for more schedule flexibility
- Easier to balance work, school, and life with fewer classes at one time
- May be easier or possible to pay as you go if you plan to minimize student loan debt
- Takes longer to complete your degree
- The data shows part-time students have a lower completion rate
- May end up costing more in the long run when factoring in off-campus expenses while in school
Best for: Students who need to slow the pace of their school down in order to juggle work or family obligations but are willing to spend a longer time achieving their degree in order to do so.
Hopefully this has shed some light on your optimal mode of learning. If you have decided, that’s great! Time to start narrowing down what schools or programs you want to apply to. If you are still on the fence or have some questions, keep reading. The self Q&A or expert interview may help you with anything you might be unsure about.
Choosing Your Online Master’s Format: A Self Q&A
Now that you have the basics, these prompts can help you think through your options. Think about your choices not only based on your circumstances today, but also how your life may change in the next several years. How would a marriage, a divorce, a baby, a child starting kindergarten, a child graduating from high school, a layoff, a promotion, or a cross-country move affect your choice? Here’s what to think about when mapping out your degree path.
Q. What lifestyle factors do I need to consider in choosing a master’s program?
A. Beginning graduate school will impact your lifestyle significantly. If you’re used to having an income that covers your expenses and leaves room for discretionary spending, consider the impact of starting your degree. Can you manage a full-time program without that income? Can you cut your hours and work part-time while you’re in school (while still making enough to pay the bills)?
In addition to your financial realities, your time is a valuable resource as well. If you pursue your degree full-time, your studies become your job. If you pursue your degree part-time, you’ll be balancing work, class, and family responsibilities, leaving you with little spare time. That pressure can impact your mental and physical health. Depending on the program you choose, you may need to move to be closer to the school, plan for regular travel to the school, or allocate time in your schedule to commute to campus.
Q. How quickly do I want to finish my degree?
A. Some students want to blast through their coursework, and others are looking for a measured, gradual pace. Both races end at the same finish line, although the implications on your quality of life can be substantial if you prioritize finishing your degree at the expense of your relationships, finances, or mental health.
Q. What type of learner am I and how does that impact the mode of learning that would work for me?
A. Neurodiversity is a beautiful aspect of human life, and, as a result, everyone’s brain functions and operates differently. Some gauges, such as the VARK Learning Style Questionnaire and Kolb’s Learning Styles, have attempted to quantify learning styles. These tests can provide insights into your predisposition and how you’ll be most successful in your degree program. Understanding whether you are a visual, auditory, or kinetic learner (from VARK) or accommodating, diverging, assimilating, or converging (from Kolb) can help you make good decisions about class formats and degree options.
Q. What do I want out of my master’s program experience?
A. Are you looking to get ahead in your current field? Planning to change fields entirely? Interested in lots of networking? Think ahead to graduation day: What do you want to be sure you’ve experienced, and consider how these goals affect your choice of graduate program. There’s a program and mode for every type of learner.
Q. Does the school or schools I am considering offer the mode of learning that would best suit my needs?
When it comes to learning modes and course formats, not every school offers every option for every class. Investigate the sequences of classes you’ll take and what format they’re offered in. Weigh the reputation of the institution, your future career prospects, options for networking, and unique course offerings against the various modes of learning. Is that renowned professor worth the tradeoff?
Q. Will I miss out on anything by choosing a particular mode?
A. There are benefits and drawbacks to every mode of learning. Don’t look at this as missing out but rather think of it as optimizing your own experience based on your needs, strengths, and goals. If you complete your coursework virtually and asynchronously, you’ll have a different experience than students who choose in-person, synchronous programs. However, you’ll discover some overlap, too. For example, working on a group project in person shares many similarities with collaborating on the same project virtually. Hearing an eminent professor’s lectures might be just as motivating online as it is in person.
Q. What are the financial implications of different modes of learning?
A. A close look at your desired school’s financial aid page will show you which options cost more and which save you money. Look at the cost per credit, any difference in in-state or out-of-state tuition, if online students pay different/more/fewer fees, and how much full-time costs and part-time costs vary based on number of credits taken. All these factors can affect your budgeting and ultimate cost of attendance, not to mention your ability to work while you pursue a degree.
Q. How can I play to my strengths while learning in a format that might be new for me?
A. The Four Tendencies is a personality inventory that you might find helpful as you decide what learning mode is best for you. It looks at how you incorporate internal versus external expectations, which can be very useful when considering virtual classes that require personal accountability versus in-person or hybrid classes with more structure built in.
An Expert Weighs in: How Different Modes of Learning Benefits Students
Anya Josephs, LMSW, is a psychotherapist working in New York City. Joseph’s previous experience as a graduate instructor at UCLA, along with their own very different graduate experiences at UCLA and NYU respectively, help to inform and provide experience with the various of modes of learning offered in grad schools around the country. Anya holds a BA in English from Columbia University, an MA in English from UCLA, and an MSW from New York University. They currently work in a community-mental health clinic and in private practice, focusing on underserved populations.
Q. What social resources are available to online and hybrid students?
A. Most of the social resources that exist in person have at least some online equivalents. Students may just have to be a little bit more proactive in seeking them out. For instance, you’re unlikely to spot a flyer for a student club if you’re 100% remote, but most student organizations have a social media presence that may help you make connections. Also, even if you take your classes online, generally most student life options are still open to you face-to-face, so if that’s something you’re comfortable with and that makes logistical sense in your situation, consider taking advantage of on-campus life as well. Finally, consider resources beyond your campus. Before the shift to remote learning, college life tended to be quite cloistered within the campus environment. That had advantages in terms of ease and convenience but also made it more difficult to take advantage of opportunities outside of the university setting. Remote and hybrid learning may have popped the campus bubble to some extent–and though that might make it harder for students to have the classic “college experience,” it may also open their worlds up to a new set of opportunities.
Q. For students with disabilities, neurodiversity, or other learning differences, what factors should they consider when selecting a mode of learning?
A. Honestly, the considerations for students with disabilities or neurodivergence are the same as the considerations for any other student. The range of ways that disability and learning differences impact this decision is so vast that there’s not necessarily a specific set of tips that can help this population of students navigate the decision.
Instead, if I may, I’ll offer two thoughts from my own experience navigating education with a disability. First, please reach out for help. Even if you’re not sure what your school’s office of accessibility can do for you, for instance, it’s worth going in there to have a conversation! I neglected this until my second graduate degree, and I regret it. I missed out on help I needed, and I always recommend students use these supports. Secondly, prioritize your health and accessibility needs in the decision about what mode of learning to choose. There are always many factors in this decision, and we tend to undervalue our own accessibility needs–consider trying to put those first in the decision. It can feel tough to have to compromise for accessibility, including what mode of learning you’d prefer, but it is usually worth it for your learning and for yourself.
Q. If a student isn’t sure about which mode might be best for them, what criteria would you suggest considering?
A. This is a multi-factored decision. The first question is health. Is it safe for you to be in a classroom, given the pandemic? Is it an accessible space for you? Or perhaps do you feel like you need that level of in-person interaction for your mental health? If there’s not a pressing answer either way, I recommend first thinking about your own learning style. Do you tend to need some outside pressure to help you stay on track? Or can you only focus in your own space? Asynchronous classes tend to only work for the most self-directed learners, for instance.
Consider what kind of relationship you’d like to have with faculty members, especially if you might need letters of recommendation or other support from faculty in the future. In-person learning tends to help develop closer, more collaborative relationships with professors. Think, too, about the role you’d like school to play in your life at this time. If you want to be able to give it your undivided attention, maybe in-person classes are best. If you need to be able to set your own schedule to make room for other obligations, you might need an asynchronous virtual class. Generally, and for most learners, in-person classes are more immersive, more engaging, and more demanding, whereas virtual classes are more relaxed, more independent, and more casual. Both sets of values are valid–it’s about making the right decision for your own learning and your own life.
Q. What steps can a student take to access support with their selected mode of learning, including if they want to make changes in the future?
A. You likely have an academic advisor on your campus, and they’re your first stop, without a doubt. But (with all due respect to my colleagues in campus advising departments!) they often have huge caseloads and may not have time to get to know you and your individual situation. I often recommend students get creative about seeking more specific, and perhaps more ongoing, advising and mentorship. There may be a program, affiliated with your school or not, that focuses on students in your situation; for instance, programs based on identity categories like LGBTQ+ students, racial and ethnic minorities, programs based on an area of academic focus, programs through a religious group or other community organization, and so on. Often, these specific programs are able to offer students more ongoing and more focused advisement. Also, if you’re struggling with the transition to and from online learning, consider seeking out a qualified therapist with experience working in academia. Many students experience short-term decision-making challenges, and as we’ve adjusted to our current hybrid world, it’s easy to forget that we’ve been through a serious communal trauma. It might be worth seeking out help that’s specifically geared to helping you process and work through that experience.
Q. How have the increased modes of learning improved student access to education and higher learning?
A. The move to virtual learning has led to a huge increase in access to education for many students. I particularly saw this for my students who struggled with anxiety, students who are working, and students who are also parenting–of course, not every student in this category benefited from the shift, but broadly speaking there was an increase in access. When I transitioned away from working in higher ed advising, classes were still all-remote, with no in-person option, so I also saw the downside of this. A lot of students struggled, especially those who had no reliable internet access and no quiet, private place to work on their studies. I am hopeful that our current era, where most students have both options, will continue to increase access in new ways.
Q. What studying/organization strategies are most effective for students who are learning virtually?
A. No specific strategy will work for every student, but the key is to go in with a clear plan. Consider how to create a physical environment that will help you focus: Do you need peace and quiet or white noise in the background? An empty desk or plenty of fidgets? What kind of schedule works for you? Write it down and do your best to stick to it. Find a study buddy if you think you’ll benefit from one. The only universal tips I have are: reach out to your professor early in the semester, ideally during office hours if they have them, just to make sure you’re more than another face on the Zoom screen. Plan to give yourself breaks when you need them–when you’re working remotely, it’s easy for everything to turn into study time, and your brain (and you!) needs rest. Finally, find ways to separate out each class and the material associated with it in your mind, whether that’s taking physical notes in different notebooks, studying from a different room (if that’s an option), or devoting a specific block of study time to each class. When you’re attending remotely, you don’t have the benefit of having each subject take place in a different classroom, so build in some ways to differentiate. Overall, the key thing to keep in mind is that remote studies give you much more flexibility. That’s a blessing and a curse–you have the ability to do what works for you, but you don’t have structure built in. Build that structure for yourself, and you’ll thrive.