Is Taking Classes Online Right for You?

by Sarah Winfrey on 3 November 2011 3 comments

Whether you’re looking to start a degree, finish one, continue your education, get some new certifications, or just expand your horizons, there’s probably an online study program out there that would give you what you want.

While many students find these programs a boon to their education, the truth is that there are both benefits and drawbacks to studying online. As someone with experience teaching college courses online, I know that they work well for some students and situations and don’t work well at all for others. If you’re considering taking the next steps in your education online, think about these factors before you jump in. (See also: How to Succeed as an Online Student)

The Benefits of Online Classes

Though some of the benefits of taking online classes are obvious, others may not be as clear. Keep in mind that all of these will not pertain to every situation, but they should help you see how studying over the web could benefit you.

Take Classes You Wouldn’t Otherwise Have Access To

Are your interests obscure, or would you like to get a degree in something that’s only offered in a few places around the world? If you choose an online study option, you won’t have to relocate to get the knowledge and certifications that you want. Since moving around isn’t an option for some people and isn’t desirable for others, online classes can mean the difference between getting a university education and not having that opportunity.

Get the Education You’ve Always Wanted

Whether you started a degree but couldn’t finish it or you never got going, online classes offer you the chance to get your degree right where you are. Since all you’ll need is a reliable computer and an Internet connection, you won’t have to move around or spend too much money to get up and running. In addition, there are all sorts of online study options out there. Some programs, for instance, specialize in helping people finish degrees already started. Others work with those who have not started and try to get them through as quickly as possible.

Work on Your Schedule

One of the best things about studying online is that you don’t have to change your schedule to accommodate a class schedule. Instead, you can work whenever it’s convenient for you. This makes online classes a great option for people with inflexible work schedules, or for those who care for small children and don’t have a good childcare option. In addition, if you know your best thinking hours are at night, you can make sure those are the hours when you do your classwork.

Work at Your Own Pace

Similarly, most online classes allow you to work at your own pace, at least within some broad parameters. Usually, you’ll have to complete your classwork within a semester or a year, but when you turn assignments in and take your tests and quizzes is entirely up to you. Sometimes you’ll have more of a schedule than that, but for the most part you’ll get to choose your own deadlines and due dates. This means you don’t have to worry if something comes up and you can’t get that paper written. It also means you can complete a whole course in a couple of weeks if you’re especially focused.

The Drawbacks of Online Classes

Most people, especially when excited about a new online course of study, don't realize some of the drawbacks until they're signed up and in the middle of a course. While these shouldn't deter everyone from taking online classes, thinking them through should help you decide if this method of study is right for you and your situation.

Course Quality Varies Drastically

While most online courses hit at least a minimum standard (because they’re offered by accredited institutions), the quality of an individual course often depends largely on the professor. If you have a prof who enjoys teaching the subject matter and who is comfortable and experienced working online, you can have a great experience. If, on the other hand, you get someone who is just doing it for the money or because teaching online is supposed to be easier than teaching in the classroom, you could be in for a struggle.

Getting Feedback Can Be Difficult

Though most online professors are supposed to be accessible by email or through the course delivery system, actually getting someone to answer your questions can be difficult and take longer than it might for a class in the traditional format. If you save an assignment until the very end and then don’t understand how to complete it, you might not be able to finish on time. And if you end up with a big question or very confused about an important concept, explaining it online may be nearly impossible.

A Lot Depends on You

Are you a self-motivated person who gets things done without being nagged, or do you tend to forget deadlines on things like bills and other paperwork? If you struggle to complete what you start or to finish things on time, think twice about taking an online course. These are real classes, after all, and your grades will show up on your transcript. Since you may need to submit this for further educational opportunities or to qualify for certain jobs, you’ll want to be sure it shows you at your best.

It Can Get Expensive

For some reason, most people think that online classes are going to cost less than traditional studies. While some schools will offer a small discount for these courses, others actually charge more. After all, someone has to reimburse the professor for rewriting the course for an online format. Besides, schools need all the money they can get these days, and they know that many of the people taking courses online are doing so simply because they don’t have other options. When you’re backed into a corner, you’ll pay more to get out of it.

Finding Online Programs

If you've sifted through the benefits and drawbacks and decided that studying online is right for you, the next thing you need to do is find a program to pursue. When you're looking for an online course of study, you first need to decide what type of course you want. Are you looking for an undergraduate or graduate degree, to finish an incomplete degree, or for a quick certification in something new? The following sites can help you find the programs you want and need.

Once you've found some programs you're interested in, try to talk to representatives of the university, as well as to a current student or two. That way, you'll be able to get a better feel for the programs and what they're really like. Then, make your final choice based on all of the information before you.

When you've done that, work hard and reap the benefits of a quality education.

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Be careful of taking online classes even from an accredited institution. They may not be transferable to a brick and mortar institution.

Guest's picture

I've been looking at some online certificate programs at my local university. My hope is for a complete career change, which makes me nervous that an online program may not offer the networking that a class on campus would.

Carlos Portocarrero's picture

Taking courses this way is a great way to "preview" a degree you're interested in pursuing. So instead of jumping into an MBA right away, take an intro MBA course online. Spend a fraction of the cost and figure out if you want to pursue the degree or not.

And if you really like the online component, then maybe you'll do the whole degree online.