Google founders, Stanford professors and MIT scientists all seem to agree: cyber classrooms are the next big thing in education.

This year, the most of the buzz around online education may have gone to MIT’s MITx and Stanford supported Coursera, but the actual scope of online learning is much larger. Hundreds of brick and mortar universities already offer students an online campus option.

It’s been less than a decade since web-based tools transformed teaching and learning in the classroom. Online learning platforms enable schools to provide first-rate coursework and degree programs to a larger, more diverse body of students. This is good news for students of all kinds.

Course Deconstruction: Examining Online Learning

Digital learning uses online courses and materials to teach students. A pure online course creates a digital environment to teach instead of a physical space. All web tools can be part of online courses. Webinars and teleconferencing can be used for lectures. Forums can be used for discussion. Wikis and cloudsourcing can be used to work on projects together. At the least, study materials can be stored online for future reference. Many hybrid forms of the online course also exist, combining digital learning with more traditional, classroom-focused methods that try to give students the best of both worlds.

A successful online course will facilitate discussion, integrate course materials seamlessly, and allow students to learn just as well, if not more efficiently, in an online setting compared to a traditional course. Most of the benefits of the digital world apply to digital learning, too. Accessibility is a key advantage – students from across the world and frequently across income brackets can access the same materials and teachers to receive comparable experiences.

Pacing and time are also notable considerations. If someone has a question after standard school hours, that student can access digital materials to immediately find the answer, review lecture notes, or explore the specifics of a homework assignment. Forums, social media, and online portals also allow professors to answer questions or provide help beyond classroom hours. Similarly, if a student needs to spend extra time on a particular subject, it is far easier to change pacing in digital learning on an individual level. For college students, significant cost savings also begin to emerge. Transportation expenses are nullified when a student chooses an online course. The costs of text materials and associated class resources are also reduced.

However, digital learning requires significant investment from a school. Teachers must understand how to participate effectively in the digital world. Schools must ensure both hardware and software progresses as technology evolves. Often, old infrastructures must be replaced entirely, which initially created much dispute concerning the acceptance of online programs.

How Far Have Online Courses Come?

Online schools have adapted rapidly to the changing education market. What stated as a few classes run through limited online portals has become a primary force in higher education. Common online degrees span the list from art and education to engineering, IT, and nursing. It may even be easier for you to find the class you are looking for in an online program than a traditional school, since distance is no longer a factor.

Quality is an issue with any college, but because online courses proved less expensive and less legitimate, they were initially plagued with quality problems and criticism. Many dismissed them as nothing more than “degree factories”. Increased competition and the development of online courses by big names such as Harvard and Bellevue helped mitigate this quality problem. At the end of the day, nothing beats a degree from a prestigious school. If you are unable to find online courses from an accredited school with a great reputation, a traditional option may still be your best bet. But if cost savings matter to you as much as the quality of your education, then you need to check out the latest lists of high-ranking online programs to find the best digital colleges. Top runners often include National University, Concord Law School, University of Phoenix, and California University of Pennsylvania Online, just to name a few.

Online Schooling Options

Pre-College Options: These digital learning options either bolster current high school education or allow people to earn their GED or high school diploma years after they dropped out. Sometimes high school students simply want to supplement their current curriculum with extra courses that will make them more suitable for scholarships.

Hybrid Programs: This is probably the most common use of digital learning in college. Hybrid programs have a classroom setting, but use online resources. Typically lecture and syllabus information is posted online, and students can use applications to electronically submit homework or review key materials. These programs often include dedicated forums, blogs and websites to engage students and encourage learning.

MOOC: MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course, a free course structure that is created by universities but made open for millions of students around the world. The goal of MOOCs is twofold: First, universities use them to explore nonprofit, reputation-boosting projects. Second, MOOCs can be an excellent way to “test drive” online course techniques and examine what works and what doesn’t. MOOCs have the potential to grow into a driving educational force in the increasingly interconnected world.

Distance Programs: Distance programs are complete online programs that are offered by stolid, brick-and-mortar universities. Distance learning uses digital materials to reach students that would not otherwise be able to attend the university. Colleges earn extra tuition by increasing enrollment, and students participate in programs for less cost than a traditional degree. Distance learning works best when a college already has a strong reputation for a particular program or school.

Online Universities: Online universities do not offer traditional campus learning (or at least minimize it greatly), focusing instead on interactive digital classes using the latest web technologies available. These classes have the greatest accessibility and some of the lowest costs, but may lack specific classes that students want to take. They can also struggle with quality issues. Because nearly all online universities are for-profit and difficult to regulate, research is required before signing up for anything.

More Paths to Success: Digital Learning is Here to Stay

Within only a few short years, every college class in the United States will have digital components. Online courses are slowly but surely bringing a revolution to the higher education world, and while investment costs may be steep, the benefits to students are impossible to ignore. Greater accessibility to better education materials benefits society as a whole, from a more skilled workforce to an easier path to personal fulfillment. Expect to see significant acceptance of digital learning in the coming years.

Check out HackCollege’s School Finder to see information regarding Online and Offline schools all around the United States.