Online vs. Traditional Classroom Learning

By: Sara Mathov, director of MS exercise and sports science

In 2013, there were 7.1 million higher education students taking at least one online course, which represents 33.5 percent of all higher education students.* With so many students now enrolling in online courses, it is important to look at the differences between learning online and learning in the traditional face-to-face classroom setting.

When online courses started being offered, there was a common belief that the education received from an online course was inferior. But that is not true of today’s online courses. Similarly to the traditional classroom model, online classes have clearly stated learning objectives and outcomes. . In addition, most online courses are designed to have interactive components. It is common to see a mix of videos, group assignments, discussions on a given topic, and many other strategies to increase communication with fellow students and instructors. These activities increase active learning of the student. Many believe that online courses can be superior to traditional classroom learning because of this “active learning” strategy. As with everything, however, you get out of it what you put into it.

Below, I have listed my top five strategies to succeed in an online course and get the most out your learning experience:

  1. Check in more than once a week. One of the biggest downfalls of online courses is that it is very easy to procrastinate and get behind. The easiest way to avoid this is to log into the course regularly – ideally once a day (even if just for five minutes), but realistically a few times per week. This allows you to catch important course announcements, review upcoming deadlines, participate in the discussion forum and possibly interact more with other students and your instructor.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Some courses will have a forum specifically designed for this purpose. Other courses may require you to email the instructor directly with questions. Don’t be shy, just ask! In a traditional classroom, it may seem easier to get information because the teacher is in front of you and there are classmates close by. In the online setting, they’re still all around you just can’t see them. You can usually assume that if you have a question, there are others wondering about it too. By posting in a forum, not only is the instructor able to address the question but other classmates can also weigh in and give feedback.
  3. Read announcements and emails. One of my biggest frustrations as a teacher is when I make an announcement in class and then get asked the same information moments later. It is no less frustrating when that information is given in the form of a course announcement or class email only to find out that very few people actually read it. In this digital era, it is very easy to access email and online courses from nearly anywhere on nearly every device. It’s also easy to be overloaded and therefore ignore information coming at you on a regular basis. I recommend setting an alert or having a specific folder so that you never miss a course announcement. It’s never an acceptable excuse to say, “I didn’t read the email/announcement” if you miss an important deadline.
  4. Be active in the discussion forum. Yes, I know that it can seem frustrating to be forced to reply to other posts, but the intention is to help you learn. There is a lot of research behind various learning styles and it is well known that if you participate in your learning you are much more likely to retain that information. The purpose of the discussion forum is to create the discussion that might occur in the traditional classroom setting: teacher asks a question, long silence follows, finally someone answers and often there is some discussion that occurs afterward. It is also a great place to pose a question (see #2 above) of both the teacher and your classmates and see what discussion may arise from that. When you create a thoughtful post that answers a question, it forces you to digest the material enough to be able to form an opinion about it. Each response afterward helps reinforce that knowledge and can also help others see things in a different way.
  5. Don’t count on your exams being “open-book”. When online courses started, this was one of the biggest criticisms. Not only did we question who was actually taking the exam, but also whether the student was using something to help (whether the book, notes or Google). These days, most courses have strict time limits that do not allow one to search various sources for every question and many courses will also use proctoring websites which monitor you while you take the exam (and make sure you are who you say you are). Just as you need to study and prepare for an exam in advance for a face-to-face course, you must prepare for an online exam and not expect that you can use materials to help you.

If you haven’t already taken an online course, the chances are quite high that you will soon. I hope that the suggestions above help you succeed in those courses.


*Reference: Allen IE, Seaman J. Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group, 2014.