More and more college students choose to take some of their classes online, but some don’t do well in online classes. A recent study of community colleges in California revealed an online failure rate 10 percent higher than in traditional classes. When I taught at a Texas community college, my colleagues and I observed even larger differences in some types of classes. In first-semester writing courses, the online failure rate was often 30 percent higher than the failure rate in traditional classes.
Today’s college students tend to have weighty responsibilities outside of school. Many are drawn to the flexibility of online classes to accommodate work shifts, child-care duties, and other obligations. However, for a majority of students, an online class proves more challenging than the equivalent face-to-face class. These are six challenges I wish every student was counseled about before deciding whether they should take online classes.
Online classes lack real-time, verbal interaction.
In a traditional, face-to-face classroom, you can raise your hand during class, or you can stay for a few minutes after class and talk with your instructor one-on-one. You questions can be answered almost immediately, and communication with your instructor will be verbal, which most people find more comfortable than written communication. Online instructors, though they try to be available for in-person meetings and phone calls, may or may not have a schedule that is compatible with yours. You may have to ask questions through e-mail. The helpfulness of the teacher’s response may depend on how clearly you write out your question. Also, because they receive so many messages and because they also have hectic schedules, instructors often have a 24- to 48-hour turnaround time on their e-mail responses.
Online classes require more participation.
Before I was a college teacher, I was a rather shy college student. I dreaded the courses that would require me to speak up during class meetings. When I enrolled in my first online class, I was delighted that I wouldn’t have to do any speaking. I quickly learned, however, that I would have to participate more. Online instructors often incorporate graded discussion activities us. To an online forum, students must post insightful, thorough responses to earn satisfactory grades. They may also be assigned to lead a discussion by asking relevant questions and responding knowledgeably to their classmates’ answers. Because online discussions require written, edited responses, they can be more time consuming than simply attending a face-to-face class where that discussion takes place verbally.
Online classes require effective time management.
If you’re considering online classes, it’s crucial to be honest with yourself about your schedule constraints and your study habits. In face-to-face classes, you see the instructor at regular intervals. She can offer verbal reminders and tips about the ongoing coursework. Online instructors post similar reminders, but they don’t get a regularly scheduled block of your time each week. Falling behind can have disastrous consequences for your course grade. I’ve taught several students who earned passing grades on major assignments but whose final course grades were D or F because of numerous minor assignments that were never submitted. Sometimes these students told me how their busy schedules caused them to miss deadlines and that they found the online schedule tougher than a similar face-to-face class.
Online classes are rarely self-paced.
I’ve taught many students who chose online classes because they believed the course would be self-paced, meaning they could work through the material as slow or as fast as they wanted without set deadlines. This is rarely the case with online classes. Discussions, quizzes, tests, and writing assignments usually have firm deadlines spread throughout the semester. This allows the instructor to give you grades and feedback before you move on to the next section of the course. If you have a schedule that is so hectic you can’t work on a course every week, an online class won’t solve that dilemma. It could make the situation worse because there are no scheduled class times and all of the time-management responsibility falls to you.
Online classes require technological proficiency.
Online classes are conducted entirely through learning systems such as Angel and Blackboard. To attend class, you sit down at a computer and log into the course. To finish an online class, you must be able to use the learning system as well as e-mail, Web browsers, word-processing programs, and other tools. I’ve seen many students struggle through a course because they are simultaneously struggling with computer literacy skills. To flourish in an online class, the minimum skills you should know are
how to save a document as a certain file type
how to manipulate margins and other settings in your word-processing program
how to attach files to e-mail
how to compose a courteous and professional e-mail without slang or textspeak
how to post to online forums and respond to other posts
how to install at least two different browsers on your computer
If you don’t already have these skills when the semester begins, an online class is going to present extra challenges and consume more of your time.
Online classes involve much more reading.
To get the most out of any class, it’s helpful to know about your learning styles. If you’re primarily an auditory or kinesthetic learner, online classes may challenge you. There are many excellent online teachers who try to appeal to different learning styles by including video files, audio files, and interactive exercises. Ultimately, however, you must read and understand a lot of information, both on-screen and from your text book, to succeed in an online class. You will read instructions and assignments without an accompanying verbal explanation. You will read the instructor’s feedback rather than conferencing verbally. You will ask questions and get answers via e-mail. Even class discussions take place through written words displayed on a screen. Students who easily learn material through solitary reading and writing have a distinct advantage in online classes.
If you realize online classes would be challenging for you, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should avoid them. One of my online students came to my office twice a week, at a time that wasn’t entirely convenient in her schedule, because she needed to talk through the feedback I wrote on her essays. Another student, a young man who lived 100 miles from the college, called once a week to make sure he understood all of the course assignments. Through a bit of extra communication with the instructor, these students met the extra challenges presented by online classes.
The best thing you can do is prepare yourself before the class begins. Take one of the online surveys that can tell you about your learning styles and your preparedness for online classes. Create a weekly schedule to manage your time for school and for other responsibilities. Learn about the required technology by contacting the instructor, the department chair, or the college’s help desk. If needed, take a computer skills course before you take online courses.
Song, Jason. “More Students Take Online Classes But Passage Rates Low, Study Says.” Los Angeles Times.
“What Is Your Learning Style?” Edutopia.
“Online Education Quiz.” Minnesota State Colleges & Universities.
“Should I Take an Online Class?” Minnesota West Community & Technical College.