When you’re used to high school or college courses that are taught in classrooms, getting used to the structure of an online class takes some time. For many students, the learning curve is worth it. Online classes can greatly benefit students in ways that traditional classes can’t, but only you can decide if they are right for you.


What are the benefits of taking an online class?

  • Electives: Students who are considering changing their career paths or majors can use online learning to test out new subjects before pursuing them in the classroom. Taking one elective online is less of a financial commitment than starting a degree track and changing your mind after one semester. Use online learning to explore topics that have always interested you and to imagine your future in certain vocations and careers.
  • Learn at your own pace: If one lesson is a breeze for you, proceed to the next. Otherwise, take your time to digest the information and do your own additional research.
  • Price: Many students find that online classes are less expensive than traditional ones. Your tuition does not have to cover overhead, such as classroom space or materials. Additionally, you can almost always apply your financial aid award to the bill for your online classes. Ask your school’s bursar and financial aid office for more information.
  • Access: So you can’t deal with the rush-hour traffic to commute to campus after work? Do you live an hour from the closest town, and your transportation is unreliable? Do you have kids and no day care? With online classes, your excuses don’t always have to interfere with your learning. Open up your laptop to get started.
  • Variety: There are many classes to choose from, especially if you’re just interested in taking a MOOC for fun. Additionally, if a class that you want to take isn’t offered online at your school, it may be offered online by another institution. If you work with academic advisors at both schools before registering, you may find that initiating a credit transfer isn’t too difficult.
  • Flexible scheduling: Designing your own schedule is one of the biggest appeals of online learning. You can enroll in class part-time or full-time. You can choose classes that occasionally meet in person or that take place completely online. You can log on to watch class videos and post on the forum at 1 a.m. or 1 p.m. Online classes work with your current schedule. You won’t be scheduling around your class; it will be scheduling itself around your other commitments.
  • Customized learning environment: You can work wherever you feel comfortable. If you know that you work well with ambient noise, there’s no reason you can’t do all your of work in a coffee shop. If you need silence, you can go to a public library or barricade yourself in your bedroom. You know best what learning style works for you, and with an online class, you’re in complete control.
  • Less face-to-face interaction: Some students may be painfully shy or suffer from social anxiety, which makes it hard for them to participate in in-class discussions or ask questions in class. If you’re one of these students, you’ll likely find it much easier to write an email to a professor or participate in an online discussion board. You don’t have to be nervous about interacting with your classmates or professor when you can do it from your computer.
  • Study in the summer: Schools offer online classes during the fall or spring semesters and during breaks from the academic year. If you changed majors late and find yourself behind on your degree requirements, you might be able to catch up during the summer with an online class or two. Similarly, if you need to take a leave of absence to be with family, you may still be able to take a few classes, so you won’t be set back so far from graduation.
  • Maintain your career: Your career advancement may depend on getting an additional credential. Taking time off from your job to do so, however, may not be economically wise. With online classes, you can schedule time to do your coursework around your career obligations and work your way up the ladder at the same time.
  • No commute: In addition to saving you time, skipping the commute is eco-friendly. If you’re feeling green, online classes won’t leave you with much to feel guilty about.
  • Learn self-discipline: If you’re not already self-disciplined, you’ll learn how to be or you’ll do poorly in your course. Online classes require you to commit to learning on your own time. No one will be hounding you to go to class or to study for an upcoming exam. Watching movies on the couch all day sounds fun, but taking your course must take precedence. Self-discipline is a skill that will serve you well in the future, whether in your career or at home.

What are the downsides of taking an online class?

  • Less face-to-face interaction: While this is a benefit to some students, others may find that they miss the face-to-face aspect of an in-person class. It’s true that in an online class the majority of your interactions won’t be in person, but remember that you aren’t in the class alone. Your professor and classmates will all be logging on to access class materials. You will communicate via email, chat, videoconferences, and telephone calls. If you live near the school’s campus, you can meet up with your peers for study sessions or drop by during your professor’s office hours. The flexibility to meet in person or online is a necessity to some, especially those who are juggling work, family, and school commitments.
  • No instant feedback: In a classroom, a professor is there to ask questions, call on students, and respond to their comments and concerns. The professor of your online course isn’t necessarily available when you are, especially if you are taking an asynchronous course. If you don’t understand something, it’s up to you to email the professor and wait for a response. This frustrates some students, but others aren’t held back any more than they would be in traditional classrooms. They know that their professors aren’t their only resources. They have the internet, dictionaries, textbooks, and their classmates’ phone numbers at their disposal.
  • Perceived feeling that student is not accountable: As an online student, you are responsible for your work, but it may not feel that way. Getting used to a class that does not meet in person can be difficult, but you have to remember that it is just as important as a traditional class. If you take your assignments seriously, you shouldn’t encounter any problems.
  • More time consuming: Typing is inherently slower than talking, and in an online course, most of your communication will be written. You should take the time to ensure that your spelling and grammar are accurate before you submit any assignments or comments or send an email. Additionally, if you find yourself having trouble with an assignment, guidance isn’t always readily available. You’ll have to draft an email to your professor or a classmate and wait for their response. Expect a slower pace in an online classroom than in a traditional classroom.
  • More responsibility: You must to be self-disciplined and responsible for your own learning if you want to be successful in an online class. Your teacher won’t email you if you miss an assignment. You won’t be given daily reminders about upcoming due dates and exams. You are responsible for reading the syllabus and getting the work done in a timely manner. Likewise, no one can force you to study. You have to work hard be an active learner; when you aren’t in a classroom setting, it’s much easier to get distracted. If you fail at taking the necessary responsibility, you will fail the course.

Is it true that online classes are easier than in-person ones?

This is a myth. Online classes are not typically harder or easier than in-person classes. The ease of any class, whether it be online or in-person, depends on the material, your experience, your participation, and your professor’s teaching style.

If you’re signing up for an online course just because you heard it’s an easy way to get an A, stop right there. To pass an online class, you’ll need to log in to the class dashboard, review the lessons, do the readings, pass the tests, and write the essays. Though you may never need to show up in person, online classes are still classes. In fact, a study of 51,000 college students found that students who took online courses failed more often than those who took the same course in person. If you want to excel, you have to put in hard work and take the class seriously.

What type of student is right for an online class?

There is no one type of student that is a perfect fit for online classes. These days, at least 25% of students take online classes at some point during their college careers, and most of them pass. Students who succeed in online classes tend to have the following:

  • Basic computer knowledge
  • Motivation
  • Discipline
  • Resourcefulness
  • Responsibility
  • Writing skills
  • Professionalism
  • Open-mindedness

Which subjects lend themselves well to online classes?

You can study almost anything from your computer, but some subjects lend themselves to online classes better than others. Some classes (science labs, for instance) cannot be successfully replicated online. That being said, while an advanced studio art or photography class may not be offered online, lower-level classes often are. For a beginner’s drawing class, for example, you may be required to have a scanner or digital camera so that you can upload photographs of your artwork for the professor to grade. Generally with online classes, where there’s a will to teach, there’s a way.

If my school offers the same class both online and in-person, which option should I choose?

You should choose the option that feels right to you. Ideally, your college courses will challenge you to grow academically. Some people may step up to the challenge better in an online discussion board than in a classroom. If you are trying to decide whether or not to take a specific subject online, consider your learning style.

If you are still wavering on the decision, it’s time to ask around. Former students can explain the professor’s expectations and the class structure. You may also try to get your hands on copies of each syllabus. Even if the readings are exactly the same, check to see how the course is evaluated. Some in-person classes will value your attendance and class participation. Online classes are often unable to grade you on attendance, so professors may calculate your grade differently.

Ultimately, it never hurts to try out an online course just once. If you don’t like it, you can always drop the course by the drop date for a full or partial tuition refund. Do keep in mind, however, that if you drop too many classes, your enrollment status might change (e.g., from full-time to half-time or from half-time to less). If this happens, your financial aid package will be reduced accordingly. To get around this, many students register for more classes than they need, then drop the ones that they don’t like early on in the semester (before the drop date). This way, they neither have to pay for credits they won’t earn, nor will they forfeit any financial aid.

What if I am not sure if I will do well in an online class? How do I make the right decision?

  • Take a nongraded online class for practice. If you’re new to the world of online learning, give it a test drive before committing to a course or a whole semester. You can access free MOOCs online in a myriad of subjects. Try out one in your potential major. It will give you low-stakes insight into the structure, pacing, and style of an online course.
  • Read testimonials and contact current students. Know what you’re getting into. Talk to other students who have taken online classes to learn about their experiences. Is it hard? Is it easy? Did it meet or exceed expectations? Admissions departments often maintain a list of current students who would be happy to talk to prospective students. Ask to be put in touch. Their input about online classes at that specific university is more valuable than what you can find in an anonymous, general forum on the internet.
  • Do a tech-check. An essential way to prepare for an online course is also one of the easiest. Your computer and software need to be appropriate for the course. Your syllabus will tell you the specifications you need in terms of computer or external memory and hard drive speed. Self-check your equipment or take it to your school’s IT support department or local Mac Store or Geek Squad.

Page last updated: 09/2017