One in four students now takes courses online—either as a part of an entirely online program, or mixed in with on-campus classes.
The perks of taking online classes are numerous. They offer additional flexibility for busy students, especially for those balancing school with work and family. They can attract professionals looking for career advancement, parents seeking to better provide for their families and returning students looking to pick up where they left off. Plus, many courses let you work comfortably at your own direction.
If you’ve never taken one before, you may not know what to expect. How do online classes work? Are online classes harder? What are some tips for taking online classes?
Learn from those who have been in your shoes. Keep reading to see get some insider knowledge about what to expect when taking classes online.
7 Things you should know before taking online classes
You're not the first to have questions about taking classes online, and you certainly won't be the last. But there are some insightful lessons you can learn from those who have succeeded in online classes. Here are seven things they wish they had known before embarking on their online learning journey.
1. Online classes are not the 'easy' route
One of the most common questions asked on this topic is, "Are online classes easier?" Put simply, the answer is no.
Opting for online courses over traditional courses is not the easy route for your education. It’s true that online courses offer you the flexibility to learn in your own time and space, but that doesn’t change the amount of work you put in. You still have the same amount of work—just without the formal classroom setting.
The flexibility of online classes can be extremely helpful to busy students, but that same freedom also creates additional pressures on those enrolled. The ball is in your court—meaning it’s up to you to avoid distractions and keep yourself on track.
“My advice to students looking at online classes is to be informed about the demands of an online course. Understand that not all online classes allow you to get the work done on your own time. Instead, this is heavily dependent on the other students taking the course,” says Chandni Mistry of ChoYou. “If you're looking for less work, then I would suggest looking somewhere else.”
2. You may actually do better in online classes
Students participating in online classes do the same or better than those in the traditional classroom setup. This is because the quality of education is the same; the difference is just in the delivery. And other studies show that students taking courses online score better on standardized tests.
Online lectures are a great option if you tend to feel lost in the crowd of a classroom. They give you the ability to pause and take thorough notes or even re-watch parts you didn’t quite understand the first time. Plus, you can always reach out to your professor through a message to ask questions about material you didn’t understand.
3. You’re going to need the technology AND the support to be successful
Your online class will most likely be accessed through a personal computer or tablet. Our online course veterans recommend taking some time to become acquainted with the platform and utilize any orientation materials prior to class. Having a reliable internet connection and operating system is also crucial to staying on top of your work. You’ll also want to make sure that your school has the resources to support distance learners.
“Make sure to ask about IT support. How effective are they and how quickly can they resolve situations? Are they familiar with walking you through steps of the basic software requirements for your course work? Do they have tutorials to help you adjust for margins, page setup and similar?” suggests Montgomery Beyer of iKiBos.
4. You can make or break it with time management
It’s your responsibility to take the initiative to keep up with your work when enrolled in online classes. It can be easy to let assignments slide and miss due dates because of the wiggle room and flexibility that come with online courses.
Procrastination is a slippery slope and can affect your grade negatively. It’s important to stay organized and follow a schedule because it’s difficult to catch up once you fall behind.
Many students underestimate the amount of time they’ll spend studying for class. You should expect online courses to take about the same amount of time as traditional courses.
“I wish there were resources to help you schedule your time while taking an online class. I didn't know that there would still be strict deadlines in many of the courses, so although you're not meeting during class time, a lot of scheduling and planning still has to be done for the course,” says Gianna Sollitt of Newberry Public Relations & Marketing.
“I thought initially that online classes would just let you submit everything on your own time, but most are not like that.”
5. Don’t think you’re exempt from group projects
Just because your course is online doesn’t mean that you’ll be exempt from group projects. This staple of the traditional classroom is becoming easier and easier for distance learners to tackle too. With collaborative tools like Google Docs making it easier for groups to work together, don’t be surprised if you find yourself assigned to a group project in your online course.
“I didn't know that professors would still assign group work in online courses. Students should definitely know that they're not exempt from group work simply because they're in an online course,” says Sollitto. “Before enrolling in an online course, I couldn't fathom how a group could possibly work together completely remotely on assignments. A lot has to be done using Google Docs or other file sharing services like it.”
6. You’ll want to make an effort to make connections
One of the benefits of going to school is the amount of people it puts you in contact with. Friendships, mentorships and networking can all come from academic experiences—but is that still the case with online classes?
“Online degrees can be less personable. You can go through multiple online classes without really connecting to anyone. It's easy to miss out on all the networking opportunities and friendships that on-campus classes can provide,” says Lyn Alden of Lyn Alden Investment Strategy. “I would recommend that you really make an effort to get to know some of your online classmates or your professor.”
Alden says she encourages students to reach out and discuss assignments—and even meet in person with classmates and instructors if you're close by.
“Online platforms are getting more and more advanced, and provide increasing ways to interact and network online. But you still have to be more proactive than you would in a classroom setting, and make the first move to reach out to people,” Alden says.
7. Get excited for online classes!
“I wished I would have known how awesome the experience was,” says attorney, author and advocate Alexis Moore.
“Traditional school is stressful in comparison to online education because of the precious time wasted for students: the drive to and from class, finding a seat and the endless distractions. So much is involved just getting to the classroom, whereas online you are in your own environment, safe from germs and the stress of driving. Online classes save you so much time that you can never get back.”
Moore, who obtained her undergraduate and law degrees online, enjoyed the convenience and time saving aspects of online education. She also thought they allowed her to learn more effectively.
“The education is more effective and efficient because you can interact with professors more comfortably. You can choose whether to send them a private message or to speak aloud to ask a question during class.”
Is online the right option for you?
Taking online classes may be a departure from the traditional classroom, but it’s definitely a change for the better. This option brings the experience straight to you, allowing you to work at your own pace to make a better life for you and your family. Best of all, taking online classes lets you integrate your studies into your schedule at your convenience.
Now that you’ve learned the ins and outs of taking online classes, does it sound like something you'd be interested in? Check out this article to see if you have what it takes to succeed: “7 Signs You're Ready to Be an Online Student.”