Online Learning vs. Traditional Learning: What’s Better for Your IT Career?

September 20, 2016

How to further one’s education has become an increasingly asked question for IT professionals. With a staggering 69% of developers reporting that they are at least partially self-taught, some may even indefinitely put off making the decision of how to formally obtain their next degree or certification.

Time may be one of the biggest factors in deciding how or when to enroll in a new educational program. With the average tech pro putting in 52 hours a week, you’ve likely had trouble fitting a casual hobby into your day, let alone an entire degree.

This is the plight so many searching for that advanced degree or certification face, but the answer could be right at your fingertips. The number of digital learners is on the rise, with 5.8 million students enrolled in at least one online course during the 2014 fall semester.

After all, online learning allows you to pursue your education when and where you want. There’s no need to travel to a classroom and sit in a lecture hall at set times on set days of the week, and at first glance this structure appeals greatly to many busy IT professionals.

But is an online learning program right for you? Could a traditional learning program actually be better?

First, the Rise of Online Learning

Online learning at the college or post-secondary education level started just five short years ago in 2011, when a professor at Stanford University offered an online class on artificial intelligence for free, with 160,000 people signing up.

Since then, Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) technology has exploded, servicing millions of digital learners. Changing Our World, Inc. describes the changes MOOCs have brought to advanced education:

Not since the invention of the textbook has higher education been so disrupted. A campus is no longer a necessary part of a college education. All a student needs is a computer, an internet connection, and time.

Online learning began by offering a single tech course, and IT and other technology-related courses still dominate the available courses online today. In fact, MOOC’s are offered by many high-level universities and educational companies right now, and are a great option for people whose employer doesn’t offer professional development opportunities.

Given the seemingly natural connection between IT courses and online learning, any potential tech student looking to further their education must consider if a traditional classroom setting could impact them as strongly as the digital environment they have professionally become accustomed to.

Is a Traditional Learning Environment Better?

So far the answer looks to be yes, especially at the start of a program, because having that IT-related degree from a traditional school can provide a student with valuable resources that connect them more easily to hiring managers.

With nearly half a million newly available IT jobs predicted in the next four years, it’s understandable why employers may first look to career centers at brick and mortar colleges for help; physical locations often seem like the fastest, most straightforward way to locate a potential employee.

If an employer is located near a large university or specialized small college, they may already have a relationship with career advisors in their community. Recommendations might rapidly be put in front of an employer, interviews could happen within hours, and the hiring process has the potential to be expedited.

Thus, such a prospect can be very tempting to someone considering a traditional IT program over an online education, but should it be the biggest determinant in their decision?

What Option is Best for Your Career, Given the Evolving Role of IT?

No matter how you acquire it, an advanced degree or additional certifications can certainly be a strong step forward in your information technology career. In fact, detailed studies have discovered that online learning is just as effective as learning in the traditional classroom. For the future student, this indicates the choice between the two may simply come down to personal preference.

While some may feel the need to see a professor physically in front of them, others may prefer the flexibility of completing coursework as their schedule allows from the comfort of their own home. What is important is not the way you choose to learn, but the choice to be a life-long learner and continuously add to your set of skills in whatever way works for you.

The IT professionals most in demand are the ones who, in addition to previous achievements, strive to stay current on trends, programs, and emerging IT tools.

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