Online Classes vs. Traditional Classes: Pros and Cons
Yes, online classes are more flexible & convenient than traditional classes. But at what cost? See the pros and cons of online classes before enrolling.
Online classes are no longer a novelty; they are quickly changing the entire structure and experience of college.
For some, this is a welcome change. For others, it can feel intimidating.
But with more and more colleges offering online courses, and even entire programs online, it’s important to understand what taking an online course entails, if it’s right for you, and how to succeed if you do choose to enroll.
While every college and university offers a unique online experience, many do have several things in common. Understanding the basic structure of online programs will help you feel confident when choosing your program and starting your class.
But before we dive into all of the details, let’s look at some of the pros and cons of online classes.
The Advantages of Online Classes
The ability to take complete college courses and programs online is invaluable for so many students.
- Flexible scheduling
- Faster completion
- Study anytime
- Login from anywhere
- Access to more colleges
- No commute
- Potentially lower costs
- Accredited programs
And while there are some disadvantages (we’ll get into those in a moment), the benefits tend to outweigh them, which is why so many people today are opting to enroll online.
In fact, nearly 5.8 million people are enrolled in online college courses, with 28% of all college students enrolling in at least one online course.
1. Flexible scheduling
Most online courses provide you with more flexibility than a traditional on-campus class.
This means you can do your coursework around your work schedule and family life. Rather than needing to attend a 9:00am class every week, you can, for the most part, choose when you study, so long as you submit your work by the deadlines given.
2. Faster completion
A large number of colleges and universities now offer shorter semesters. Instead of having to attend classes for 16 weeks, you can enroll in 8-week online courses and spend half the time earning your credits in that subject.
In many cases, new classes start every month or every other month giving you the opportunity to start classes now instead of waiting until the beginning of the traditional fall or spring semester.
3. Study anytime
With online classes, you have the ability to study on the fly.
You may not have a 4 hour block of time to sit down and study, but you can fit studying in throughout your day. Log on to the message boards while eating breakfast, listen to a lecture on the drive to work, read a few chapters on your lunch hour, or take a practice test while preparing dinner.
Studies show that learning in shorter bursts is actually better than long study sessions because it promotes retention and genuine understanding.
4. Login from anywhere
Because online courses allow you to live virtually anywhere, you enjoy the convenience of getting to live where you want to or need to, and even travel while you are studying.
5. Access to more colleges
Depending on the course or program you want to take, your local college may not offer exactly what you are looking for. But with online courses, you can take a specialty program at a college thousands of miles away without the inconvenience of needing to uproot your entire life.
6. No commute
Commuting to class can waste valuable time! It also makes you susceptible to problems beyond your control – like traffic back-ups, car trouble, and dangerous weather conditions – that can keep you from getting to class on time or at all.
To “attend” an online class, you just need to log on! You won’t waste precious time, and you won’t have to worry about what’s going on between you and campus.
7. Potentially lower costs
One of the top reasons students choose an online program is to save money.
Over 45% say that cost is their number one priority. And because students are opting for affordability, this means that more and more colleges are figuring out ways to get creative so that the cost of these programs can remain manageable.
8. Accredited programs
To be accredited, a school must meet certain standards of quality. According to the US Department of Education, more than 85% of all colleges in the US are regionally accredited. Not all online schools are regionally accredited, but most are!
Attending an accredited school will allow you to apply for federal and state financial aid, transfer credits more easily, and will provide better employment opportunities upon graduation.
The Disadvantages of Online Classes
- No face-to-face interaction
- Not all majors are available
- Increased personal responsibility
- Networking challenges
- Requires self-direction
1. No face-to-face interaction
Online learning can’t adequately replicate the relationship and human experience that develops in a face-to-face learning environment.
When a professor is physically in front of you, you can read his or her body language, mannerisms, gestures, tone, volume and so on. These things help you to interpret and recall the information being presented.
You are also able to engage in natural, spontaneous conversations with classmates that can enrich the learning experience.
2. Not all majors are available
Some subjects don’t lend themselves to an online format.
Fields that require hands-on training or use of specialized equipment may fall into this category. If you’re interested in biochemistry, sonography, public speaking or physical therapy, for example, you will likely need to attend at least some of your classes on campus.
Still, you may be able to take hybrid or blended classes, which will provide both online and in-personal learning opportunities.
3. Increased personal responsibility
You’re on your own! No one is going to remind you when an assignment is due, which classes you must take next, or when to fill out your financial aid application. And it will be up to you when you log in to class message boards or do the assigned reading.
To juggle it all, you will need to be organized and manage time efficiently. Smart phone apps can be helpful tools to help keep you on track!
4. Networking challenges
On campus, you’re surrounded by people who are enthusiastic about your field. You can introduce yourself to and chat with professors (even if you’re not in their class) and faculty, fellow students, guest lecturers and so on. And you can get involved in on-campus professional organizations that connect you with real-life professionals.
Those face-to-face meetings, no matter how brief, can leave an impression and may eventually lead to a job offer.
Online students don’t have the same opportunities to make connections, but they don’t have to miss out on networking entirely.
5. Requires self-direction
As an online learner, you must be able and willing to self-direct your educational journey. This means taking full control.
You must determine your course load and the pace you’ll work at, what your educational goals are and how to handle setbacks. You will need to take the initiative to connect with advisors, professors and classmates to ensure you’re meeting expectations.
As an on-campus student, there are reminders and safeguards to help keep students on track, but as an online learner, you’ll need to be in charge of your own education.
Online Classes vs. Traditional Classes
Depending on where you live, family responsibilities, full-time or part-time jobs you hold, or what you are studying, you may be able to quickly decide if pursuing an online education is the right choice for you.
For some, it feels like the only option.
For others, it seems perfectly ideal.
And for some, like a pre-med student studying biochemistry with a heavy load of lab-intensive courses, online classes may be a complete mismatch.
If you do decide to enroll in an online college course, or at least look into the option at little deeper, the sections below will give you a taste of what to expect, what you need, and most importantly, how to succeed.
Online Class Requirements
While you will be off the hook from being physically present in class, online classes do have requirements you should be aware of.
Many online courses still require you to purchase physical books as part of their requirements. This may come as a surprise to some, thinking that everything will be delivered solely online.
Depending on the type of course you are taking (science books tend to be more expensive than literature books, for example), you may be required to order or purchase several textbooks. This cost needs to be accounted for each term, although some universities, like Southern New Hampshire University, will offer vouchers to new students to help cover book costs.
Computer & Internet
While a computer may seem obvious for an online course, it’s important to note that this computer needs to be reliable and available. Fast internet will help to make accessing your coursework convenient as well.
Just because there is usually not a scheduled “meeting” time for online classes, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put your coursework on your schedule. Most online courses are even more rigorous than traditional, which means it’s extra important that you consistently devote time.
How Online Classes Work: Online Classes vs. Campus Classes
Another important thing you need to succeed in online courses is a solid understanding of how these classes work.
For students that are accustomed to in-person, on-campus classes, the structure of online courses can feel completely foreign.
Each university or college will have a slightly different online structure, and so will programs in different fields.
1. Required interaction with professors and classmates
While you won’t be spending face-to-face time with your professor and peers, that doesn’t mean that you won’t be getting to know them. In fact, some students in online courses argue that they actually felt like they interacted more online than they did in traditional classes.
For the most part, this interaction comes in the form of graded discussions, responses, and journals.
You are held accountable for how much you interact and your understanding of the material being covered. It’s surprising to some that it is actually harder in an online course to breeze through the term.
Various technology is used by different programs and colleges to ensure that online learning is valuable.
From how you submit your work to how you receive it, technology plays a huge role. Advances in technology, such as easy-to-access video cameras, are allowing colleges to offer more rigorous (and helpful) experiences for online students.
For the most part, the majority of prospective students have everything they need right now in order to take part in online learning. Special programs, especially those in design or science, may require you to purchase or download additional technology.
All of these requirements are clearly spelled out in the course syllabus and college handbook. So you will be equipped with everything you need from the get-go.
Most online programs deliver weekly coursework in the form of modules. Each module can contain reading assignments, discussion boards, tests, projects, and essay assignments.
While you can typically see all of the coursework you will be doing at the start of the term, most programs keep modules closed until you arrive at that week, which means you can’t submit work or participate in discussions in advance.
4. Tests and Exams
The majority of online programs offer their tests and exams in the form of multiple choice tests (either timed or not) or essays.
Because the environment cannot be controlled in most cases (although some programs will require you to take a test in a proctored and monitored location), the exams are designed around the idea that you will have access to your notes, the internet, and your textbook.
And while there are always opportunities to cheat, new technology is ensuring that even students in online courses are held accountable.
Online Classes: Synchronous vs. Asynchronous
When looking at online courses, there aren’t too many differences when it comes to schedules: they are either synchronous or asynchronous.
Synchronous online courses require you to meet at a scheduled time weekly and you participate in class live at that time. Very few online programs are synchronous, though there are some notable exceptions, like the Harvard University Extension School.
For many students, this type of schedule is beneficial for several reasons. Not only are you given a structure for completing coursework, but there is more comprehensive and meaningful interaction between yourself and other students.
The majority of online classes are asynchronous.
Asynchronous online courses allow you to login to your class to complete your assignments at a time that is most convenient for you. You can think of asynchronous learning as investing in a gym membership; the gym doesn’t require you to report a certain number of times nor does it request that you stop working at any point either.
There is more freedom in asynchronous courses, yes, but it’s also up to you to make sure you meet all of your class deadlines.
Which course format is best for you?
How you like to learn and your personality are huge factors to consider when determining which type of course, synchronous or asynchronous, is right for you. Before you enroll, consider which environment will best help you succeed.
- Do you need a schedule created for you to adhere to in order to keep you motivated
- Is real-time interaction with peers important to you?
- Is your schedule constantly fluctuating, making it hard to know when you’ll have time to study?
- Do you have a timeline for when you need to finish this course or program?
Enrolling in a Online Degree Program
With more and more colleges offering online courses, enrollment is a fairly easy process.
Depending on if you are enrolling in a single course or an entire program, what field it’s in, whether it’s at undergraduate or graduate level, and the college itself, the requirements will, of course, be different. In general, be prepared to have transcripts or diplomas from past education ready. Personal statements of interest and intent and references are also common requirements for many courses.
Almost every online course or program gives you access to an advisor, which is an invaluable tool you should definitely use.
Your advisor can answer your questions, help you apply for financial aid and scholarships, and even take care of enrollment for you completely. Your advisor is also a great person to talk to when you need advice or want to make sure you are on the right track.
Tips for Success in Your Online Classes
If you choose to enroll in an online class, dedication and discipline are musts for success. Understanding how this course, program, or degree is going to help you in the future will give you the motivation you need to continue even when you feel like quitting.
There are very few, if any, online colleges that don’t offer free tutoring to all students. Take advantage of this!
These tutors are paid for by your tuition, so not using them means that your money is literally going to waste.
So many students in online courses forget to use tutors, simply because the idea of “tutoring” brings to mind the picture of face-to-face interaction. However, online tutors are just as helpful, willing to read assignments before you submit them and even set up virtual sessions to answer your questions.
2. Communicate with your professor
Just because you are completing the course outside of the classroom doesn’t mean that your professor isn’t there to help. When you have questions or need help, don’t hesitate to reach out to your professor via email or discussion boards.
Knowing that your professor is there to help you can reduce stress and will most certainly help you succeed.
3. Class Participation
Like anything, there are always ways to cheat online, but, as the old saying goes, when you cheat, you are cheating yourself.
In online courses, that old adage couldn’t be more true. While you can only complete half the reading or stop responding to questions because you’ve met your “quota” of participation, know that participation is the key to success.
Whenever possible, ask questions, respond to comments, engage with your professor and peers, and, of course, stay on top of the work that is assigned to you.
If you are new to online courses, making the adjustment to this style of learning can be intimidating. But, knowing that you have support from your peers and professor, as well as a big reason “why”, will help to keep you on the path to success.
Best of luck in your online endeavors!
The word “college” might make you think of students hanging out in dorm rooms or gathering for classes in enormous lecture halls. But that depiction is becoming increasingly out-of-date as technology provides for more and more ways to learn.
In fact, online and distance learning has steadily grown in popularity among college students, but does that mean it’s a good choice for you? In order to help you answer that question, take some time to compare and contrast traditional versus online education.
Comparing online versus traditional education
Both online education and its traditional counterpart have pros and cons, so it’s important for students to understand what to expect before they step foot—or log into—the classroom. We focused this side-by-side comparison on three key areas that make an impact on a student’s experience. We’ll also take a closer look at what a “blended learning” model has to offer.
Online vs. traditional education: Flexibility
One of the key components to consider when weighing the options is the amount of time you have every day to dedicate to schoolwork. Are you willing and able to attend college full-time or do you need more flexibility to work around your busy schedule?
A benefit to taking online courses is that they offer flexibility to the student. This is a great option for those who already have time commitments with family and work. Online classes will mold with your schedule—and allow you to log into your online course at a time that works best for you, as opposed to having to attend a lecture at a specific time.
Most online courses will follow a weekly format where students are expected to log in, read course materials, contribute to online class discussions and complete assignments prior to the beginning of the next week. You’ll still have plenty to do for each class—but you’ll have more options for fitting this work in around other commitments.
Generally speaking, this is the best option for students who have a little more freedom in their schedules. That said, traditional students do have some flexibility in their scheduling in that some schools offer night classes or classes that follow a schedule where they meet only once per week.
One easy-to-overlook factor when it comes to scheduling is travel time to campus—a long commute can certainly make schedules difficult, especially if you’re planning on working while in school.
Online vs. traditional education: Discipline & self-motivation
Something else to consider while weighing your college options is your level of self-discipline. Both traditional and online education certainly require some discipline to succeed, but there can be significant differences in how learning is structured. These structural differences can have a significant effect on your ability to stay on track.
The increased flexibility of online learning comes with a bit of a trade-off—you’ll need to be highly self-motivated. All college classes require students to keep up on required reading and assignments, but some students may struggle to stay motivated when learning from the comfort of their home.
The best online students develop strategies for staying up to date on their coursework. Things like setting aside time every week for studying and creating a work space with minimal distractions can help immensely.
When it comes to discipline and motivation, traditional education does have an advantage in the eyes of many. The structured schedule of attending class a handful of times per week and having routine face-to-face interactions with instructors can help keep students on task. Students in traditional, on-campus settings have more opportunities to be reminded of upcoming assignments, which can help if you tend to procrastinate on large, time-consuming assignments.
Online vs. traditional education: Social interaction
One final area to consider is the level of social interaction you’re hoping to have as you earn your degree. Do you need interaction from your peers and instructors to succeed and stay motivated? Or do you thrive in an independent study environment?
Social interaction with instructors and other students, while not as common in online courses, still happens regularly. The biggest difference is in the form it takes, with many online student interactions happening via video chat or through online discussion posts.
Some courses may also offer pre-recorded videos of the same lectures given to traditional, on-campus students. If you’re a social learner who likes to ask questions and pick the brains of your instructors, these video lectures can help you earn a deeper understanding of assigned reading materials.
Despite technological advances, traditional education is still likely the better option for those who thrive on face-to-face communication. Seeing and interacting with your instructors on a regular basis can be motivating for some—it’s a little easier to go the extra mile if you know your instructor is likeable and invested in your education. Traditional, in-class settings may also offer more opportunities for spur-of-the-moment questioning or interesting tangents that may help a concept “click” in the minds of students.
Online vs. traditional education: The blended education model
By now, it’s probably becoming clear to you that both online and traditional education each have their perks. So is there a way to get the best of both worlds? One option that is increasing in popularity is called “blended learning.”
In this format, curriculum is designed to implement both traditional, in-person learning and online coursework. The implementation of this can vary greatly, depending on the subject and instructor. But as an example, instructors may require only meeting once weekly for lectures, while assigning projects or other activities for students to complete online on their own time. This allows students to receive some of the positives from face-to-face social learning while still allowing for scheduling flexibility.
Another example would be a program that offers some courses on campus and others online. For example, a nursing program may include an online anatomy course, and a nursing simulation lab on campus. The idea here is that certain courses involve material that is conducive to online learning, while other lessons can only be taught in a physical classroom or lab.
The decision is yours
In the case of online versus traditional education, there is no right or wrong answer. Much of it comes down to personal preference and knowing how you learn best. These learning formats can all be very effective, no matter your personal learning style and situation.
It’s important to do some self-evaluation before diving into a full college course load. To learn more about which options best fit you, check out our article, Ways of Learning in College: Identify Your Ideal Educational Environment.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published February 2014 and has been updated to reflect information from 2017.