Are online classes hard? Answering the FAQs about online learning
Today’s typical college attendee looks a little different compared to the average student from several decades ago. Not every student immediately chooses the college route after finishing high school. Others might try this route and end up taking a detour for one reason or another.
Committing to a traditional degree program can be unrealistic for many busy adults. Work, parenting priorities and a lack of transportation can be major roadblocks to enrolling in school. 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, starting a web-based curriculum can be intimidating, and you probably have some questions. For starters, are online classes harder in college? To address some of the concerns you might have, we spoke with a panel of online learning experts and graduates. Here are their answers to some of your most pressing questions about online learning.
5 commonly asked questions about online courses
1. Are online classes harder or easier than on-campus classes?
The material covered in online courses is typically the same as that covered in on-campus courses. But if you haven’t tried online learning yet, 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. He further explains,
Many students, however, report online classes as being easier than, or only as difficult as, in-person classes.
Lee, who has experience teaching in distance learning settings, explains that class formats will often depend on the instructor and the institution. Some online program models, for example, are self-paced. This allows students to progress through the coursework according to the timeline that best fits their own needs and strengths. Keep in mind though that without strict due dates for each assignment, 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 University of Massachusetts 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.
Students participating in hybrid learning models that combine elements of online and face-to-face instruction ultimately outperformed all others.
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’re simply unwilling 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.
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 University of Massachusetts 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 students, learning in a virtual classroom did not prevent them from forming with 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 University of Massachusetts 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 University of Massachusetts 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 support she received during her time as an online student, 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 online classes. They can provide the flexibility you need without sacrificing the quality of your learning. Researching the intricacies of different programs is a great first step. As you do that, it’s important to note that not all online programs are the same.
University of Massachusetts Global’s flexible and student-centered learning format was created with adult learners like you in mind. To learn more about the online options that could await, explore our online degree programs for educational experience that fits your busy life.
Looking for more information about distance education? Check out our resource “Becoming an online student: The adult learner’s ultimate guide.”
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