Are online courses “easier” than face-to-face courses?

illustration of online learning
Debunking the common misconception that online courses are “easier” than face-to-face courses.

Here’s a common misconception floating around about online courses:

They’re easier than traditional courses. 

In a quality online class, this shouldn’t be the case. Students should not be able to click-through course content without demonstrating mastery or receiving feedback on their assignments.

We want to demystify this misconception and show what a quality online learning experience should look like.

Online courses shouldn’t be easier than face-to-face courses, and that’s a good thing.

Rather, online courses challenge students in ways that teach them valuable time management, communication, and technical skills that benefit them in future professional settings, including college and the workplace.

Here are a few reasons online learning — when done appropriately —  isn’t “easier” than traditional learning:

5 reasons online learning shouldn't be easier than traditional courses

#1: It takes time to adjust to online learning

Many students are surprised to find that online courses are more challenging than they originally expected.

In fact, in our end-of-course surveys, many students actually report that they find online courses to be at least as challenging — if not more so — than their face-to-face courses.

This may be explained by the fact that students have to learn the same content as they would in their face-to-face course, but they have to do so in an unfamiliar learning environment.

Students need time and support in order to acclimate to online learning. For example, they need to learn how to navigate a new learning management system, submit assignments, and contact their instructor if they need help.

For students who are struggling to adjust, having a trained and dedicated mentor who understands their challenges and supports them as they transition into the online learning space can make this process much smoother.

The silver lining: In college and the workplace, students are likely to be exposed to learning formats that are unfamiliar to them. Learning how to be agile and adaptable when transitioning to new ways of learning is a valuable skill for students to learn while still in high school.

#2: Students still need to submit assignments and receive feedback

Rather than being able to simply “click through” their online courses, students should be asked to provide substantive evidence for their learning and receive feedback from an expert instructor.

When it comes to K-12 online learning, we firmly believe that all online courses should be taught by a trained instructor who is an expert in their subject matter. That’s why all of our courses are taught by Michigan-certified, highly qualified teachers.

In an online classroom with an instructor, students will need to demonstrate content mastery in order to pass their class. The instructor serves as the responsible unit for ensuring a student has met course expectations and is ready to proceed to the next lesson.

Because students can work through course content at their own pace, the primary role of the instructor is to provide students with individualized feedback to help them move to the next level in their learning.

The silver lining: For many students, this 1:1 feedback is an advantage to online learning. The individualized attention they receive from their instructor helps to foster their growth.

#3 Time management is critical to success

What many students love about online learning is that it allows them to maintain a flexible schedule and work on assignments at their own pace.

That being said, in order to thrive in an environment where they have so much freedom, students need to be able to effectively manage their time, remain self-motivated, and develop independent study skills.

Nobody envies the position of a student who has procrastinated all semester and still needs to complete the majority of their assignments in the last two weeks. This situation is not an ideal learning experience and causes undue stress on the student.

Students who are already self-motivated and manage their time well may thrive in the online classroom. Others may need support and frequent reminders in order to stay on track. Here, the in-school mentor and instructor should form a team to keep the student accountable for completing their work on schedule.

The silver lining: For students who struggle with self-motivation and independent study skills, online learning can be a great opportunity for them to practice and develop these skills. The ability to set and meet your own personal goals and deadlines is an important skill needed for college, the workplace, and satisfaction in one’s personal life.

#4: Communication is key

Another challenge for students beginning online courses is learning how and when to communicate digitally with their instructor.

In traditional classrooms, students are typically in the same physical location as their teachers. In online classrooms, students communicate with their teachers through email, video conferencing, and, in some cases, texting.

While most students are accustomed to using these platforms, they may not yet understand how to use them appropriately to communicate professionally with adults.  They need to learn how to ask for help on assignments and communicate their needs in a respectful and specific manner.

The silver lining: A foundation of digital citizenship, the etiquette of online communication is a skill that can benefit students in their future personal and professional lives.

#5: Basic technology skills are a must

Sure, our current generation of learners are pretty tech-savvy. But despite their prowess on social media, they may still have a few things to learn when it comes to the technology skills required to succeed in an online course.

At a basic level, online learners need to know how to:

  • Create and/or save a document
  • Use various technology tools (e.g., dictionary, thesaurus, grammar checker, calculator)
  • Identify various file formats (e.g., doc, xls, pdf, jpg)

If a student has not yet been asked to create a GoogleSlide and upload it as a PDF before, for example, this task may initially present a learning curve that is unrelated to the academic content of the assignment.

The silver lining: Of course, today’s students are adaptable in digital environments. Once they learn how to navigate these various tools and file formats, they will have acquired some of the basic digital literacy skills that will be required of them in college courses and future workplaces.

At a more philosophical level, the way humans learn is changing. As adults, the majority of us have become accustomed to using Google or YouTube or Wikipedia to find answers to the problems we’re facing.

The Internet offers a rich, ever-growing pool of educational content, and it’s not going away anytime soon. It’s critical for our students to learn how to use the Internet to acquire new information in order to remain life-long learners in our increasingly digital society.

So. . . Why bother with online learning? 

There are many reasons students can benefit from online courses, but “easiness” should not be part of the equation.

Some students choose online learning because they want to take a course that isn’t offered at their local school district. Say, for example, that a student wants to take AP Physics, but they live in a rural area where this isn’t an option. By taking the course online, they can learn more about a career interest and earn college credit while still in high school.

Other students choose online learning to resolve scheduling conflicts. Perhaps a student is in marching band, but this class conflicts first hour with the Algebra 2A course they need to stay on track to graduate. By choosing to take Algebra online, they can still take both courses.

Taking an online course also offers flexible learning opportunities for student athletes or performers; migrant youth; pregnant or incarcerated students; or students who are homebound due to illness or injury. In these cases, online learning allows students to continue learning whenever and wherever life allows.

Other students simply prefer online learning because they have found that they excel in this environment which offers them the ability to work at their own pace and receive individualized feedback from their instructors.

So, no, online learning is not easier than face-to-face learning. But that’s a good thing. It provides a rich array of opportunities for students who are seeking more options and more flexibility in their learning.

The moral of the story is:

If you have a student who is interested in online learning, you ought to consider the challenges they might face when transitioning to the digital classroom.

If they struggle in any of the areas listed above (i.e. time management, communication, and technical skills), they may still succeed in their online courses, but they’ll likely need more support in order to do so.

That being said, if they are able to manage their time effectively, learn to communicate digitally, acquire the necessary digital literacy skills, and pass their online course, the skills they’ve acquired along the way will go far in preparing them for future success in college and the workplace.

This article is the first in our series on Myths About Online Learning. If you’d like to be notified when new articles in this series are released, please subscribe to our blog.

To learn more about what it takes to be a successful online learner or how you can best support online learners at your school, download one of the free guides created the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute.

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Nikki Herta

Nikki’s love for writing, editing and pedagogy brought her to Michigan Virtual as their Content Creator/Editor. A Michigan native, she studied writing at Grand Valley State University before continuing on to the University of Minnesota for her master’s degree. While there, she also taught first-year writing to college freshman. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking, playing table-top board games, and curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book and her sassy, ancient cat, Princess Eugene.

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