Tell me about taking classes online

I need to put together a series of short pieces on the pros and cons of online courses, and since that’s a phenomenon that developed a couple of decades after I completed my formal education, I’m kind of at a loss for where to start – so, as is my wont when I’m at a loss for where to start, I start with youse guys.

For those who have taken them – or, for that matter, for those who have taught them:

Are there some classes that work better than others to take online instead of in a traditional classroom? Are there some that you should definitely not take online?

What should you check to make sure is in place before signing up for a particular class online? (IOW – to get the most out of an online class, there should be X, Y, and Z – message board for discussion? means for accessing reading material, or contacting prof? I’m not even sure what X, Y, and Z would be – and you should make sure those are available.)

Are there certain personality types or learning styles that work better (or worse) with online learning? (IOW – if you are Type of Person X, this is a good/bad way for you to learn.)

Plus anything else you can think of that would be useful information to a reader who’s thinking about adding an online component to his or her education.

Many thanks!

I don’t have any experiences to share, but you might be interested in the discussion board about online education at the Chronicle of Higher Education forums. Most of the queries are from an instructor’s perspective, but it might be a good way to get an overview of the perks and pitfalls.

I’ve taken many classes online through my education. Some worked, some didn’t.

The classes that worked contained these components:

  • A website with detailed course information, like the syllabus, and professor information, like phone numbers, office hours, and other ways to reach him/her.
  • An active message board with course topics started by the teacher, and a separate forum for students to discuss study groups, topics, etc.
  • Teachers who had extensive lecture materials online. I had it done two ways: audio lectures (very helpful), and written lectures.
  • Power Point presentations to accompany lectures that contain relevant photographs, charts, definitions, etc.
  • A professor who loves and is obsessed with e-mail. If an online class is to be successful, the professor has to be available to answer questions promptly, accept e-mail attachments, be able to open e-mail attachments. You’d be surprised how many professors are given online gigs and know next-to-nothing about computer basics.
  • An addendum to the above, the professor must also understand the class software. Like, the forum and whatever assignment dropbox/e-mail assignment method is set up. Professors need to be actively involved in the forum discussions, or the students will stop discussing. If the professor needs help understanding the class software the school uses, they need to get training from an IT dude before even starting the class.
  • The students MUST have a reliable internet connection. It’s easy to say, “I’ll just go to the library if my internet goes out.” But imagine you’ve been working on a paper all day, it’s 11:30, and the paper is due at midnight. And you have no internet. That’s a problem. I don’t recommend anyone without a home internet connection to bother taking online classes. That sort of defeats the convenience.

Online classes usually require more reading, and tend to have more assignments than others. This is mostly because the teacher doesn’t have any face time with the students. To make sure it doesn’t get blown off or forgotten about, and that the material is really being absorbed, they keep the work coming in. This isn’t a bad thing, but it may not work for the student taking 18 or 21 hour course loads. The online class will get lost in the shuffle. I had some online classes that were easier, with fewer assignments spaced further apart, and I ended up forgetting about them. I find it helpful to have weekly reading and writing assignments. Nothing big—just a chapter at a time (or the equivalent for the material being taught) and a 1-3 page writing assignment. Those are even more effective than having really big assignments.

Testing is usually handled by the class software, but everyone needs to know how to use it, and the professor must take into account that all these tests are open-book, even if you don’t want them to be.

The classes are better suited to people who are self-motivated learners. It’s very difficult to keep up with an online class if you have no motivation to check the website and stay current with assignments and discussions. Some people just need that classroom interaction, as though it’s a reminder that you’re still in the class. :stuck_out_tongue:

That’s all I can think of right now. If I come up with anything else, I’ll post again.

Excellent – thanks very much, Unsquare Dance, that was incredibly helpful. (And it hadn’t occurred to me to check the CHE fora – good idea, Porpie.)

I’ve been teaching mostly on-line the past few years. I have a ton of info, but I’m checking out of a hotel room now and won’t be online again for a few days. If you have any specific questions, I’ll be happy to answer them, Twix, but I think it’s a great way to learn.

I completed both my AS in eCommerce and my BS in MIS from an online college. In my case, it was a local college that offered courses online, unlike many online-only colleges. I could choose to take classes on campus if my schedule permitted, and I did for some but the majority I completed online.

Most online classes will have some sort of blackboard software that allows the teacher to interact with students in a variety of ways. Some of the tools my teachers used included video lectures, threaded discussions or message boards, power point presentations with audio, live chat, and of course document file uploads.

Sometimes our homework was to participate in a class discussion via message board. Sometimes we had to complete problems from our book in a word or notepad document and upload them to the class ftp site. Sometimes we had to view a lecture or presentation and provide comments or answer questions.

Quizes and tests were almost always done via the software. Once you log in, a timer starts counting. You have a certain amount of time to complete the test, and you can’t log out and log back in. The tests sometimes incorporate graphics or audio, or power point presentations as part of the media. Answers are either short answer, fill in the blank, multiple choice, or essay. The benefit of this method is that if the test is all multiple choice, you know your score right away.

It does take a certain kind of person to do classes online. You have to be very self-disciplined, and classes generally do not have a given start and end time so you have to set your own schedule. My classes would run for an entire month, and we were required to log in for 15 hours each week. Assignments were due by a certain date, and we could not unlock the quiz or test until our assignments were turned in. Other than that, our schedules were left to us to determine. I often did most of my work after dinner or late at night, or first thing in the morning before I got ready to leave for work. I could also check in on my lunch break and participate in discussion or ask questions.

Most of my professors were very good about being available by phone or email, and many of them set up live chat “office hours” where you could stop in and ask questions about the assignments.

I wouldn’t say there are classes that are not suited to online learning, just that you might have to go about them in a different way. I even took a speech class - something you would think would require face to face learning - and I think it was done effectively in an online manner. Students taped themselves giving a speech and sent it to the professor, who reviewed the tapes and provided comment. Videos were loaded onto the classroom site for us to review as well.

I’ll post more later, but I wanted to provide at least my experience.

I think first the distinction must be made between online education and distance learning. Others may have different nomenclature, but here’s mine.

Online classes don’t have a video lecture. The instructor prepares a “lecture”, but it’s really no different than a summary of the section the class is working on. I’ve only taken one course this way, “World Religions”, from Upper Iowa University, to satisfy my last remaining humanity credit for my undergrad, so I could start working. The class consisted of reading the lecture and the chapters, participating on the class message board (two “substantial” posts a week were required), a four page paper every week (I think it was an 8 week class). IIRC, there were no tests.

Distance education is more similar to traditional instruction. In fact, many distance ed classes have a live lecture where students attend. There are also satellite sites, where a class gathers at central location away from the main lecture. Most of the classes I’ve taken for my graduate degrees (explosives and management) have been sitting at my computer at work. Distance ed is functionally identical to traditional courses. All my instructors have posted everything online in the past, so it wasn’t a big jump at all. My school uses Breeze, where the instructor can upload files for the class and the students can privately upload files to the instructor.

During class, students off site generally have a microphone and web cam (although my work doesn’t allow me to use them for security reasons). I am, however, allowed to type questions in live chat. The lectures are also conveniently recorded for later review. I’ve lost track by now, but I’ve taken 40+ credits by this method.

The most difficult part, IMHO, is finding the motivation to complete the class. It’s a lot different when you don’t actually see your professor live and in person twice a week. The course work is identical, and at the graduate level there’s really no such thing as cheating, per se. Any and all reference material is available; the trick is finding it.

I would definitely suggest the distance type of course over the online type. It’s more personal, and having a lecture really helps me out; I learn much easier by listening and being shown than by reading. I’ve been fortunate in both cases that all my professors in both online and distance courses have been very responsive, usually getting back to my email questions within twenty four hours.

Feel free to ask any more specific questions you may have that I may be able to answer.

I will second what Santo said.

I finished a masters degree last summer through distance learning. A couple of the classes, though, were “online classes” meaning there was no on campus class, just a professor taping lectures. The regular distance learning classes were much better because, although I couldn’t participate in the class discussions myself, I could watch and listen to the discussions the on-campus class had.

Another thing in my opinion that did not work well with the true online classes was mandatory discussion board entries. All of the online classes required participation in online discussions. I realize it was a way for the professor to verify that the students were involved with the subject matter, but it seemed to me that most of the entries were very uninspired and very shallow in regards to the subject matter. In my opinion these mandatory discussions were busy work that added nothing to my learning experience.

Although I feel I learned a lot (more than I expected) in my distance learning program, there is nothing like being in a classroom with the professor and other students. I took one on campus lab class that was much more enriching because I both got to meet several of my fellow students and learn a little about them, and I also got to meet a couple of my professors and have real conversations with them.

I think it also depends on where you take your classes, and what the subject matter is. I was taking online courses from University of Phoenix for a little over a year. Mostly to try and use as much of my GI bill as I could before it expired.

As was mentioned above, the mandatory discussions each week were a pain in the rear. UoP required substantial participation (3 or more posts) at least 4 of 7 days per week. Some instructors were good about giving seed topics that could generate discussion, others just sort of left it up to the class to find something to talk about. Usually a lot of reading each week, weekly questions that required…a 500 word response I think…one or two papers during the 5 week course…and oh yes, the group project. In 3 of my classes, I ended up doing the damn thing myself as the rest of the group was just worthless. It’s beyond a pain in the ass to coordinate a group of 3 to 5 people to meet the deadlines for different parts of the project. I hated that part.

I found the online courses to be harder than I thought, just because of the mandatory participation and group projects. The actual work wasn’t hard, but all the added fluff made it more a pain in the ass than an interesting challenge.

Just to add to what I have said earlier, in addition to the coursework I mentioned my degree program also required a substantial group project.

Over the span of our classes on analysis, system design and development each group was required to complete a full software development lifecycle project for a real client. We had to:

  • find a real client
  • conduct analysis and produce a data flow diagram, functional requirements, and business rules
  • design the reports
  • create a design document
  • create technical specifications
  • design and architect the database in Oracle
  • develop the application in .NET
  • develop the reports in Crystal Reports
  • create test scripts
  • create a training course including trainer handbook and trainee workbook
  • conduct all testing
  • present application to class
  • conduct training for classmates on application

In a lot of ways, doing these tasks online was not very different from how I have done them in my current job. Often, you’re working with contractors or clients that are not on site, so you have to make things work for you through email, conference calls, and webinars. I suppose in an ideal world all of this would be done in one place, but working with a virtual team helped prepare me for the challenges I have since faced in the workplace.

Santo – thanks for the info on distance vs. online – I hadn’t realized there were two categories there to be dealt with.

Sounds like most of you have taken mostly technical type courses – has anyone taken “softer” courses in the humanities or social sciences?

twickster that is what most of my courses were. Another down side is that with only 5 weeks for a course, a lot of the courses seemed too similar. Com 310 and Com 315 (just and example) were so similar that I refused to take the rest of the course. As I said, they weren’t hard technically, just a lot of reading. This only really applies to the accelerated 5 week courses. It’s a lot of information to have to process that fast. We’d usually have 3 to 6 chapters per week to get through.

Yes, the majority of all my schooling was done online, including the required general classes like literature, psychology, speech, sociology, political science, biology, American history, etc.

Atrael – :smack: – sorry, no excuse for ignoring your post other than that I was reading carelessly. My apologies.

Sounds that in an online course, like a “real” course, how good your experience is going to be dependent on the caliber of your fellow students (for keeping the discussion interesting) and your teacher (for providing good topics and guidance for the discussion).

For those who have done both online and traditional – what’s your sense of the amt. of time required? Sounds like if you have to log on daily to monitor the discussion, it can be way more than the 150 classroom minutes you’d spend per week n a traditional classroom. Does the convenience of picking when that time is invested outweigh that?

I’m going to school online. It’s really up to me what I learn. Tons of writing - you have to do that - but you can fudge what you know and don’t know. The interaction with your classmates via the online message boards is totally bogus. If you make an online friend and start emailing and IMing it’s fine, but most of your online interaction with classmates is bullshit, to fill a word count participation requirement. Lots of busy writing work to fill up time. Way more reading and writing than a conventional in-person college class.

Yes, I wound up spending way more time in class for my online classes than for those I took on campus.

I’ve taken a few classes in different subjects online (trying to figure out what, if anything I might want to do next).

The biggest difference between the good and bad classes was how much the instructor was into the online thing. The ones who thought it was cool and cared about the class (answered questions by email or web classroom, had assignments that simulated in-class discussions via email or message board, put their class materials online, etc.) tended to be good. Even instructors who were barely computer literate, but had a positive attitude toward teaching a class online (and actually thought of it as a class, but online) taught good classes.

The instructors who were obviously told by the department heads that they would be teaching a class online, and who responded by delivering a syllabus and then never being seen again all term long tended to have classes that sucked. If an instructor hates teaching a certain in-person class, he’ll generally be present in the classroom more often than not and might occasionally deliver a lecture or two. If students raise their hands and ask questions, answers may be growled back and peppered with insults, but there will be answers. An online instructor who really doesn’t want to teach the class can get away with not bothering to teach the class.

I know of no good way to check that before signing up for the class.

Other than that - students need reliable internet. They’ll probably need to read more (audio lectures are rare and lecture information must be delivered somehow). In a good class, they’ll have to interact. The number of posts made to the class message board is easily countable - and “I know I spoke last Thursday” isn’t going to cut it.

In 2007 I finished a Master’s from Virginia Tech online. I’ll boil this down since there have already been some comprehensive answers here.

The method was using client software that provided live audio streaming of the instructor’s lecture with any PowerPoint slides he prepared, including live audio interaction with other students, plus a back-channel chat panel (say that five times fast). If you missed the class live, you could replay the recorded event and see and hear just what the live participants did.


No travel to campus

Because of the nature of the class, class information and materials are readily available online and online communication infrastructure is all there (but a good brick & mortar school has this too).

You can multi-task during class, but I don’t recommend it.


Lack of offline interaction with faculty and students. Yes, there are message boards and what-not, but nothing beats a hallway conversation after class.

Less stimulating/engaging class discussion. One of my courses was a business course that used the case study method and all the work was group projects, including the exams. My group formed based on geography so we could meet in person, which helped immensely. Further, the class discussions were rather stunted, compared to a similar class I took years ago in person. The dynamics of what amounts to a conference call when nobody has ever met are much different than a roomful of people who get to see each other every week. The assertive people tend to dominate the discussion and the less assertive people drop more easily into the background, just because they can–no stares from the professor.

My masters in industrial/organizational psychology was blended. We had two two-week sessions on campus, and then two years of online course work. I personally would have found watching a taped lecture horrible, but that’s a matter of different learning styles.

In fact I’d go so far as to say how someone experiences online or distance learning (both ways) will be highly affected by his or her learning style. I prefer to read and then distill down what I’ve learned. Others really prefer to see lectures. There’s no right or wrong, its just helpful to know which way you are wired. Some in my program really disliked the online portion while I found them far more valuable and didn’t much care for the campus parts.

In my experience, it really depends on the instructor. The course work was basically identical in my case, but I could chose to simply skip a recorded lecture. The “substantial” posts in my online (humanities) class on the message board by most people looked like the most meager of correct answers in GQ. For my most recent classes, I spent about three hours a week total on each one. In fairness, I’ve been focusing on the management portion of my degree recently, the engineering courses take a lot more time (and I can’t really, nor do I want to, skip the lectures). Depending on your reading speed, it might take longer to read the lectures in the online course I had than it would be to sit through a 50 minute lecture, but I usually got through each one in about 15 minutes. In short, it’s pretty easy to half-ass it, but it’s easy to half-ass classroom instruction too, IMHO. Just like anything else, you get out of it what you put into it.