Online Learning

Is online school hard? Answers to distance learning FAQs

are online classes hard

Today’s typical college attendee looks a little different compared to the average scholar from decades ago. Not every student immediately chooses the university route after finishing high school. Others may start classes but end up taking a detour for one reason or another.

For many adults, a traditional on-campus program is unrealistic due to work and parenting commitments. But the number of college students 25 and older has risen steadily since the 1970s, and that may be because the higher education landscape is evolving to meet the needs of the nontraditional student.

The days of a brick-and-mortar education being the only option for college hopefuls are long gone, a fact that was underscored in 2020. Since the adoption of social-distancing mandates due to the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of postsecondary students have found themselves taking classes exclusively online.

But if you don’t have much experience with online learning, the idea can be intimidating, and you likely have some questions. For starters, is online school harder in college? Keep reading for insight into this question and more.

5 Commonly asked questions about online courses

To address some of the concerns you might have, we spoke with a panel of distance education experts and graduates. Here are their answers to some of your most pressing questions about online learning.

1. Are online classes harder than on-campus classes?

The material covered in online courses is typically the same as that covered in on-campus courses. But if you’ve never participated in online learning, you might be wondering if you’d thrive in this kind of learning environment. The truth is it depends a little on where your strengths lie.

“Online classes may be more challenging for those with poor time management or lack of motivation,” explains Chris Lee, adjunct professor and founder of Purpose Redeemed. “Many students, however, report online classes as being easier than, or only as difficult as, in-person classes.”

Lee, who has taught in distance learning settings, explains that the development of virtual classes is up to the instructor and the institution. For example, some online courses are self-paced. This allows students to work on assignments according to the timeline that best fits their own needs and strengths. Keep in mind though that without strict due dates for each task, students bear more responsibility.

Like with any big undertaking, it can be helpful to focus on steps as opposed to the entire program. “If you look at your degree program as a whole, it can be very daunting,” says Michael Brantley, who graduated from UMass Global’s fully online Bachelor of Business Administration program. But Brantley also assures aspiring students that “Taking each class at a time makes it manageable.”

2. Will I learn as much in an online course?

It’s easy to assume that the lack of face-to-face instruction can hinder online students’ overall learning outcomes. If you’re worried you may not absorb as much in an online program, consider this U.S. Department of Education report that examined more than a thousand empirical studies of online learning. It found that on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.

But why is online school so hard for some people and so straightforward for others? Many contend that when technology is integrated into learning models, students are more likely to remain interested in the content, stay focused on their assignments and retain the information.

3. Is it difficult to balance online learning with a busy life?

When you’re going back to school as an adult, your priorities may be different than they were when you were fresh out of high school. Whether you’ll need to balance full-time work and family time alongside your studies or you simply don’t want to sacrifice your social life, your plate is bound to be pretty full. But online learning could be the solution you’ve been looking for if you find a program that offers the right amount of flexibility for your life.

Elizabeth Malson, founder of online technical school U.S. Nanny Institute, explains that


Online and self-paced programs help parents and those with irregular work hours by providing additional flexibility to classroom programs.

Online programs are also accommodating to various learning styles. Malson says this format often allows students to have more control over their experiences.

“For those who like to get ahead, they can often move forward in their program and complete requirements early,” she explains. “For students who need a deadline, they can wait until they gain the right amount of motivation to work on the program requirements.”

4. Will I be able to interact with other online students?

The convenience of learning online is hard to beat. But if you’re someone who enjoys in-class discussion, you may be worried you won’t make the same type of connections in an online environment. Take inspiration from Alexandrea Kramm, who earned her M.A. in Teaching from UMass Global’s online program.

“[For] two years, my life revolved around discussion boards, journals and projects,” Kramm shared in her commencement speech. She goes on to say,


As stressful as it has been at times, I feel I have become connected to the people in my online classes as we share experiences and new ideas. Allowing us to speak to our peers and hear their opinions helped shape how I teach every day.

For Kramm and many other online students, learning in a virtual classroom did not hinder the ability to form a welcoming and engaged community.

5. Will I get the support I need in an online environment?

Alessia Contino met her husband when his military assignment stationed him in Sicily, where she was born and raised. After a frustrating experience with a different school, her husband suggested UMass Global. As soon as she placed her very first phone call, Contino was met with unmatched support — something that surprised her as an international online student. She took courses while living in Europe, the Middle East and America during her four years as a student at UMass Global.

“Studying is not easy, and we all encounter many obstacles on the way that make us think about quitting or postponing because it just seems impossible to achieve our goals most of the time,” she told her graduating class. Contino recounts that despite struggles with time zones and relocating,


Today, I am a mother, a military spouse, a foreigner, and I am also a student who succeeded.

Kramm also spoke highly of the quality of support offered at UMass Global, stating that no matter what kind of question or concern she had, she had access to knowledgeable counselors, professors and tech staff who were happy to help.

Is online learning right for you?

As you continue to weigh going back to school, you might start to think more seriously about taking online classes. They can provide the flexibility you need without sacrificing the quality of your learning. Watch what to expect as an online student at UMass Global.

Are online classes hard? As with any college program, you can expect the course material to be challenging and push you to become more knowledgeable in your chosen field. But in a quality online program, the virtual learning aspect shouldn’t add any difficulty. That’s why it’s important to do your research up front.

UMass Global’s flexible and student-centered learning format was created with adult learners like you in mind. Our online degree programs offer enriching educational experiences that fit your busy life.

Learn more about our 20+ year tradition of offering transformational distance education by reading our article “5 Ways UMass Global stands out as a leader in online education.”

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