Education

Man studying online

Are Online College Classes the Right Choice For Me?

Most college students, whether full-time or part-time, whether community college or university, will be faced with choices to take online classes.  Some may pursue an entire certificate or degree online, while others may avoid them entirely.  All students, though, are likely to face the question, “Are online college classes the right choice for me?”  Academic advisors, faculty and other students can help you answer this question, but there are some key points that you should think through for yourself.

Pros of online classes for college students

Time flexibility

For most students, the biggest advantage of an online class is the time flexibility.  Building a full-time school schedule, or balancing a part-time schedule with a part-time job, is not easy.  Online courses can fit into any schedule combination, making them very appealing.  In fact, sometimes that flexibility leads to online classes being the only viable option, even when they aren’t the first choice.    If choosing an online class allows you to increase the credits you take for a semester, the decreased time to completion for your degree makes this a significant “pro.”

Self-paced

In a traditional, face-to-face course, the pace of instruction is largely determined by the instructor.  The “seat time” for a traditional course is pre-determined, and the lecture, discussion and group activities for a course must fit within that timeframe.  With an online course, however, all of these components are paced based on your needs and abilities.  Having trouble understanding something? Slow down.  Feeling confident and ready to go? Speed up.  The course is likely to be set up with weekly modules which will limit your pace to some extent. However, some online classes will allow you to move through an entire course as fast as you can. 

Greater variety of offerings

Many schools – both two-year colleges and four-year universities – can have limited course offerings if the student body isn’t very big.  Particularly at institutions where enrollment is less than 10,000 – 15,000 students annually, it can be difficult for upper level or specialty courses to attract enough enrollment for consistent offerings.  For example, a course that is likely to attract about 30 total students is unlikely to be scheduled at a time when all 30 of those students are available.  Increasingly, schools are offering courses like this in an online format to maximize the chances of interested students being able to enroll.  This can allow a school to offer much greater variety than they might be able to otherwise.  As a student, if you are open to taking some online classes, you reap the benefit of more choices as well.

Money savings

Not too long ago, it wasn’t unusual for online courses to have a higher tuition rate or a “technology fee.”  As they have become more common, though, the cost discrepancies decreased.  Furthermore, online courses are more likely to offer an electronic textbook and/or educational software that is cheaper than a traditional textbook.  In fact, with the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement gaining momentum, an increasing number of online classes might not charge for a textbook at all!  OER texts are being used in traditional courses as well, but they are particularly suited for online instruction.

Another consideration here is decreased transportation costs.  With online courses you don’t need to drive to campus or pay for public transportation.  And if you attend a school that charges for parking, the savings can add up quickly.

Cons of online classes for college students

Greater self-discipline

Sometimes the best motivation for getting your work done comes from the prospect of attending class and facing your teacher and peers.  No one likes to look unprepared, and having to show up in person to discuss a reading or take a test can be a great motivator.  Also, the time flexibility noted above can have a downside.  Being able to work when you want means being able to not work when you want as well.  A successful online student will still create a regular schedule for working on the class.  It requires a great deal of self-discipline to set aside time to work when you aren’t locked into predetermined meeting times.

Reduced engagement

One notable study found that online students actually received higher grades, on average, than their peers in face-to-face classes during the first semester. However, that strong start quickly fizzled out.  As students progressed, online students passed their classes at a lower rate than those in face-to-face classes.  A possible explanation for this is the lack of engagement with fellow students, faculty, and college resources.  Classes generally get more difficult as you progress, and having a network of people to study with and mentors from which you can seek advice can be a huge key to success.  These are relationship-driven advantages that are easier to form through face-to-face interactions.

Difficulty of teaching online

Just like taking an online class presents some challenges for the student, teaching an online class can be difficult for the instructor.  Unless a faculty member has had specific training in developing and delivering on online course, it can be a long semester for everyone involved.  Teaching online is not as easy as taking lecture notes and tests from a face-to-face class and posting them online, but that’s exactly how some inexperienced online instructors start out.  Fortunately, as the popularity of online classes has grown, so have the training and professional development opportunities for teachers.  In the hands of a qualified, creative faculty member, an online class can be a highly-engaging, community-based learning experience.  In the hands of a novice, or a teacher forced into the format, being an online student can be a lonely, solitary experience.

Curious about how teachers view online instruction?  Take a moment to read this exchange between two experienced, successful educators discussing their concerns teaching online.

Less peer-to-peer learning

A good face-to-face class will feature learning from three sources: the teacher, the textbook and other students.  While it is possible to create a strong learning community online, it’s less common than in the traditional classroom.  If you enjoy learning from peers and get a lot out of small group activities and/or large group discussions, you might find the online format lacking.

Necessary computer skills

This is only a “con” if you don’t have them.  Expected skills for a successful online experience include troubleshooting internet connections, backing up files, protecting your privacy, and backing up your data.  This is a con that can be turned into a pro, though.  If you can successfully complete online classes, you may find that you’ve added some valuable tech skills in addition to the course content you signed up for.

Conclusion

Online classes are not for everyone, and it’s critical that you accurately estimate your level of motivation and ability to dedicate time to consistent work.  That said, the flexibility advantages of online classes can greatly improve your ability to put together a full schedule of classes.  You will be able to create more combinations of classes, and you’ll likely get access to more types of classes.  And if you can mix in a combination of online and traditional courses, you can eliminate the “con” of reduced engagement by still creating a peer and mentoring network from your face-to-face interactions.  There are good reasons online enrollment has seen such steady growth, and it will probably be to your advantage to take at least a few of them as part of your certificate or degree.

What questions or concerns do you have about online learning? Have you ever taken an online course? Please feel free to share a question or an opinion in the comments.

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