Siarah Drumheller loves the flexibility that comes with homeschooling. Since switching to online classes for her senior year of high school, she now spends about three to four hours on her school work, rather than spending seven hours in school. Siarah can wake up at 9:30 a.m., head to work until 1:30 p.m., and begin her school work at 2 p.m. She’s finished around dinner with enough time left in the evening to hang out with her family, friends, or boyfriend.

The number of American college students enrolled in online courses has grown to 5.8 million over the last thirteen years. This includes students who are completing an online degree as well as on-campus students who are enrolled in at least one online course.

Online schooling has changed the game of learning. Rather than sitting in a fifty-minute class, students can learn from anywhere with a laptop or smartphone and a Wi-Fi connection. But as convenient as that sounds, it can also be problematic.

High School at Home

Siarah spent the summer before her senior year of high school debating whether she wanted to go back to the public school system she had attended for more than ten years.

Siarah is a seventeen-year-old from Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, and has always been surrounded by drama from her peers. While in public school, she earned C’s at best. Anxiety made it hard

Siarah had filed a Section 504 form with her high school, which is used to better accommodate students with learning impairments like ADD or severe anxiety in the classroom. Agreements outlined in the form are supposed to protect the student and make him or her feel more comfortable at school. Siarah’s form allowed her to leave a classroom and go to the counselor’s office whenever she felt she was going to have an anxiety attack.

But Siarah says some of her teachers refused to let her leave. She remembers having to sit through her anxiety attacks in class, surrounded by other students. This drove her to take classes online during her senior year.

The National Center for Education Statistics showed that in the 2011-12 school year about 3 percent of school-aged children, ages five through seventeen, were homeschooled.

The 2015 Online Report Card by Online Learning Consortium shows that only approximately 29 percent of academic leaders report that their faculty peers accept the legitimacy of online education. However, for Siarah, deciding to be homeschooled was the best decision she could have made.

This past fall before she started online classes through Advanced Academics, she decided she was going to focus on herself. She would focus on her school work and working at her part-time job.

Deborah Davis, an assistant professor of public relations at Ball State who teaches online courses along traditional courses says that online courses can be attractive to some learning styles. With students who learn better visually, lectures don’t typically work as well as they might for others. So, for students like that, the ability to look over material multiple times and complete their work at their own pace makes online classes more appealing.

Since switching to online schooling, Siarah’s grades have dramatically changed. Previously failing classes, she is now almost a straight-A student. Davis says that motivation plays a large role in whether or not students receive better grades through online courses.

According to the Community for Accredited Online Schools, a site that offers tips and statistics about the benefits of homeschooling, online homeschooling can make learning more accessible and engaging for students. Online classes allow the student to have more control over what, how, and when they learn. Siarah says that online education has allowed her to become more independent.

Siarah only takes four classes—math, science, English, and history—that she refers to as “the basics.” She will graduate at the end of the term and will walk with her graduating class at the public high school she attended during her freshman, sophomore and junior years. She plans on going to medical school to be a neonatal nurse practitioner. This is a goal that, due to her grades, she feels she wouldn’t have been able to accomplish if she had stayed in public school.

Blended Education

Megan Bone sat in her dorm room at Valparaiso University staring at her computer, extremely frustrated with the math problem on the screen. She had been working on this particular assignment for close to three hours and was ready to call it quits.

The math class she took her first semester of her freshman year was mostly online with some instruction from a professor, and Megan didn’t like it. She would rather it have been a regular class because she didn’t feel ready to teach herself at a college-level when she hadn’t quite gotten used to it yet. Davis says that the success of online courses relies on a student’s background and whether or not a student can stay on top of the work given to them in blended courses.

A study by Millennial Branding shows that 78 percent 1,345 students surveyed online believe that it is easier to learn in a classroom setting rather than a distance education course—any class that is taken in a nontraditional setting.

Megan’s math class was set up in that a majority of the work was online—each textbook assignment had four levels and a test at the end. She could skip the levels and go straight to the test, but if she didn’t pass the test she couldn’t move on to the next assignment.

The assignments typically took her about two to three hours to complete. Megan says it may not have taken her as long if she had an instructor to teach her, since what she learned online was not covered in the portion of the course taught by an instructor.

Megan’s math course was one of her first classes, and she says that it wasn’t easy while still transitioning into college.

The Online Report Card, produced each year by the Online Learning Consortium, showed that in 2015, about 28 percent of students had taken at least one distance education course. Each year, close to 220,000 more students engage in distance education courses.

Megan says another issue with the course was that if she didn’t do the problems exactly how the computer wanted her to do them, she was wrong. In her opinion, there are multiple ways to find the answers to math problems—she could have gotten all of the steps correct but fallen short at the final step, or miscalculated. In the actual classroom, there is a professor to look at the work and help point out the mistake—online there isn’t.

Megan is a nursing major, and in order to graduate on time she needs to take 18 credit hours per semester. The grueling online math course made her spend more time than a normal 50-minute class per assignment. On top of her other courses, and her transition from high school to college, the class caused her stress and frustration.

However, she says the course helped her make the transition. Because she had to teach herself most of the coursework, she realized how to be a bit more independent and in control of what she needed to.

Digital Degree

Stephen Keller was constantly on the road for his previous job in the summer of 2015, but wanted to pursue another degree in addition to the Bachelor’s degree he received from Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) in 2010. He didn’t have the time or grounding to pursue his master’s degree in computer education like he wanted, though, so he decided to start looking at online degrees.

The National Center for Education Statistics show that about 14 percent of higher education students are enrolled in distance education courses. Of that 14 percent, about 8 percent is enrolled to receive their post baccalaureate—graduate school or a second bachelor’s degree, similar to what Stephen is pursuing.

Stephen started his search without looking at prices of schools, because as long as he received the best education he could, he would be happy. His search started with a Google search of “the best computer education master’s degrees.”

He decided on Boston University’s online master’s program because, according to a site he found through his search, it was the third best online program for his field.

Davis says that online degrees work well for students who are raising a family and working at the same time as trying to get their degree. She says that the flexibility of controlling their education typically works well with students in situations like Stephen.

A 2015 Learning House study showed that 3 percent of students enrolled in a graduate program were enrolled in Stephen’s field of study—computer science is the third most popular major among graduate students.

Learning House also reported that 32 percent of the students they interviewed said that the education they received online was better than any traditional course they had taken.

The master’s program Stephen started in 2015 consisted of ten classes, each lasting about seven weeks—six weeks for the class and one week for the final. Stephen has taken two classes each semester, which has resulted in him graduating late this summer after he finishes the final two classes. Each class is four credit hours and costs $3,500.

Mondays are reserved for homework because all homework assignments are due Tuesday. Stephen says that some of the classes have been easy—he’s been able to go at his own pace and he’s able to do his work anywhere with Wi-Fi.

He says that because the quizzes are multiple choice, the computer grades them. Assignments are graded by a facilitator or a previous student who has taken the course. He enjoys this because he knows it’s not just the computer grading his work, which could possibly lead to him receiving a lower score. Davis says that typically the only grades that are scored by the computer are multiple choice and she assumes that anything else would be graded by a facilitator or instructor.

Although Stephen isn’t in a classroom full of other students studying the same subject, he is able to communicate with other people enrolled in the course through Blackboard discussion boards. He feels like this is one of the more positive aspects of distance learning, because he can still ask his classmates questions and participate in discussions at his own leisure.

For Stephen, online education was the only solution to receiving his master’s degree at the time. He will graduate after this summer and hopes to eventually work for a company with a larger network.

According to Davis, the independence and accessibility of online classes are a large factor into why students are attracted to distance education. The addition of online-learning into classrooms, whether it be before or after college, has created new opportunities for almost everyone.