The conversation of “brick and mortar” versus online has been going on since at least the 1970’s.  Getting educated through a computer network seemed like a crazy idea.  As crazy as it seemed, many educators and former students felt that online education was a threat to the real education, the kind that can only take place at a “brick and mortar” location.  Many set out to make sure everyone knew that one was clearly better than the other.

But, what exactly is meant when someone says one is “better” than the other?  They actually mean a few different things, and you have to really examine what is being said to determine what they likely intend.

Many mean a higher quality education when they say one is better than the other.  I would say that this is something that you would absolutely want to find out if you were checking out various schools, online and onsite.  Quality is a big deal.  Early online academic programs may not have benefitted from the same types of resources that onsite schools had, but fast-forward to today and things are a bit different than they were 40 years ago.  Onsite schools are tripping over themselves to make online education available for their students.

Another interpretation of better could be related to the available social support that accompanies each—but, depending upon your lifestyle, one will have the advantage over the other: e.g., a single parent isn’t likely to be impressed with a school that makes all first years students live in campus housing for their first year; likewise, a theater student attending classes online is going to have a tough time putting together a play when his/her classmates live all over the world.  Nevertheless, the social element of education is important and some students make the mistake of prioritizing it above all other factors.

The last interpretation that I am going to mention (and there are others) is prestige—that Harvard is better than any online school.  It is also often implied that no online school could ever equal a brick and mortar institution.  Prestige comes from reputation and reputations are built over time.  Harvard and its Ivy League friends have a few hundred years head start on all online colleges.  But, if you are a student who knows that you will need the prestige of a school to get your foot in the door and make your career happen, then you know where you have to go.  However, existing physically does not automatically grant an institution prestige nor does it validate the school’s educational programs as quality ones.

If prestige is not a factor in your future career and life, and you are the master of your ego, then you are free to choose a school that meets the educational preparations that you require, first.  Once you have narrowed your list down to only the schools that will adequately prepare you to live your life, filter out the schools that will not meet your social needs.  This is an important hierarchy to observe because getting an education isn’t a party; it is a preparation for your life to come.

It is more to a person’s advantage to select a school that meets their educational needs and not so much their social preferences than a school in which the student feels right at home but isn’t getting the education they will need.  The time it takes to earn a degree is short.  A student will soon find him or herself out in the post-college world and lament their waste of time.  Often you will hear them claiming and telling all who will listen that college is one big scam.

So what is the difference?  If the school adequately prepares you to start your career and live your life fruitfully, you won’t notice a difference.  Both settings can provide students with the resources, mentorship, and the technology to receive a quality education.  A brick and mortar school may have its own private archives that only its students have access to, but an online student is not bound to a physical location to meet attendance requirements and could feasibly (if finances allow) travel to a museum or adequately comparable location as the private archive.  Each could give a rich learning experience.

That a school exists at a physical location does not constitute as valid evidence to support the claim that brick and mortar is better than online—the inverse of this is also false, online is not better than brick and mortar.  It is people that make education, no matter the location, better.  Quality teachers and quality students trump resources and location every time.  Jesus sure didn’t have a physical location that he arrived at every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at ten o’clock sharp.  One could make the argument that he was promoting distance education by physically doing the legwork that the Internet can do for us today.

The only difference between brick and mortar and online education is that for some one is better for them and for others the other is better.  It depends on the student taking charge and identifying their current and future needs: when this happens, a student has found the path toward excellence.  My prediction is that as more and more schools add an online option to their curriculum, this debate of which is better will fade away, as even Harvard offers educational programs online, and the conversation will return to where can a person get the quality education they need to be successful in their future.

Thank you for reading.  My name is Joshua R. Franklin.  I am a Christian and a writer.  Currently I am working toward a Doctorate in Biblical Studies at Colorado Theological Seminary.