Are Online Classes Working For You?

   by Suzanne Pekow

Does online education work as well as in-classroom education? Every year the Babson Survey Research Group, in collaboration with the College Board, conducts a survey of Chief Academic Officers to find out how they perceive the success of digital teaching and learning at their institutions.

Below is a graph that represents a small portion of their report, "Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011."

We wanted to see how veterans of online education felt about their experiences. So we enlisted APM's Public Insight Network (PIN) to query people who had enrolled in or taught an online course.

Though not a scientific study, it helps give a voice to the Babson data and shed light on what it's like to take a college course in your living room.


What works about online education?

Two weeks after I attended my graduation ceremony, I applied for and accepted a promotion at my job specifically related to my degree. This college worked for me and I am so proud of all I have been able to accomplish.
Rhiannon Hastings
Virginia Beach, VA
Western Governors University
The anonymity of online classes presents more opportunities for candor and genuine discussion that often goes deeper than traditional classroom debates. I feel that this is special to the online format, and very valuable.
Autumn Irizarry
Spirit Lake, IA
Currently I commute approximately 3 hours each day, I have a toddler, am planning a wedding and just bought a house. There is not a traditional classroom on the planet that could fit into my life! I started my degree almost ten years ago, and I finally found a way to finish it without sacrificing my family, or anything else, in the process.
Stephanie Heavey
Newport, RI
Western Governors University
I have been a college instructor since 1976. As much as I love teaching face-to-face (former professional clown/improvisational actor), my course has improved significantly since I converted to online in 2001. The interaction and support between online students simply cannot be duplicated in the classroom. All students are drawn into the discussion, which in the classroom tends to be dominated by those who are most outgoing. Students pick up on each other's accomplishments and enthusiasm. It is a joy to read their questions and comments each day.
Bob Van Oosterhout
Harrison, MI
Lansing Community College
1. I was able to take a class not available at local community college. 2. Participating online let me fit reading, writing and posting around my work schedule. 3. I participated in lively on-line discussions with people of all backgrounds and experiences, all over the world, enriching the experience and lending depth to my studies. 4. Posting on line gave me time to think about my opinions and beliefs, choose the right words and especially determine what not to say based on my evaluation of my fellow students.
Therese Carson
Harbor Springs, MI
University of Dayton
There's no way I could get my degree if I had to drive up to the local university & sit for hours in a classroom with students who are either below my learning level or not as interested in the subject. I don't have the patience for that or the desire to waste my money and time.
Ashly Mae
Salt Lake City, UT
Western Governors University
You can actually get to know classmates better, because of interactive discussion… [Online education] has provided me with the opportunity to obtain a Bachelor's Degree. Only five years ago - it would not have been possible for me, as our area did not have reliable fast internet.
Ida Hildebrand
Valley, WA
I work full time and still have teenage children at home. They have lots of homework and I was feeling like we couldn't really go as many places as we used to as a family, so while they were working on homework, I could, too. They could see me as a model of what I expect of them.
Terri Lachance
Cheshire, CT
Post University


What could use improvement about online education?

There is a difference between online courses and correspondence courses. Correspondence courses operate at whatever pace the student sets; it could be weeks or months. The online courses I take are 9 weeks with hard end of term deadlines, which I feel adds scholastic credibility. I want to keep studying and pursue a PhD, and I am glad I took online graduate courses to bridge that gap between doctoral study and undergrad. It works for me and for what I want to do, but I'm skeptical about the quality of education when comparing to a traditional format- particularly in social sciences.
John Nordstrom
Minot, ND
Troy University
I do not like when classes rely solely on online technology to complete the course. Often I have had issues uploading or accessing assignments, or if a teacher doesn't mention an assignment has been uploaded it is easy to not notice you have an assignment due if you don't have access to a computer for a day or two. I have had multiple issues with assignments, even tests and quizzes either not uploading correctly or shutting down in the middle of me working on it either as a result of a bad internet connection, the website going down, or something random happening with your personal computer.
Megan Sullivan
Statesboro, GA
Georgia Southern University
I was hoping that online degrees would become cheaper and more widely available. My husband finished his associate's degree at the local community college, and we are now reviewing the local universities for him so he can transfer and complete his bachelor's degree. The cost of schooling is high here, and we were hoping that online degrees are not any cheaper. If the costs are the same, then he might as well benefit from in-class discussions, etc., of being on a ground campus. I think there has to be a more compelling reason for him to go than the novelty of it being online.
Monica Prochnow
Keller, TX
The University of Phoenix
Like traditional instruction, it's the quality of the teacher that counts most. The instructor still has to meet the learning goals of the course, albeit in a different environment. Professional development and support of online instructors is crucial.
Lee Henrikson
Palmer, AK
I feel that online classes are a ripoff to those going to class everyday. The schools want more of them because they are PURE PROFIT. ... I would think that online course[s] would be good since if you are busy you can go to school anytime, yet I feel that everyone is using the online classes to build up the bottom line while providing little. As a mentioned before with all that I provide to take an online class I should have paid 200 to 400 dollars instead of over 800 dollars.
Rick Fifield
Phoenix, AZ
Arizona State University
I have been in the field 26 years. Looking through the 3 lenses of administrator, instructor, and student I think the biggest concern in distance/online education is that there is not enough orientation and preparation for students to understand how to learn online; it is very different. Also instructors need to understand that they cannot teach the same way they do in the classroom.
Deb Gearhart
Athens, OH
For an online class to work, both the teacher and the student need to be good with the technology. A teacher should be trained to create videos of their lectures for students to replay at will. A great live professor might not make a great online professor. A great online professor might not make a good live professor. Different skills are required for each type of class.
Michael Greco
Hollywood, FL
Broward College


What doesn't work about online education?

Disciplining yourself to sit in front of a computer to complete online classwork is hard. Your mind is on Facebook, Twitter or other things but you have to dedicate your time to finishing the classwork. Also you miss out on the classroom experience. I tend to learn better in a classroom where I can do hands on and talk to people rather than sit in front of a computer.
Thamara Jean
Miramar, FL
Broward College
It's fairly difficult to develop social bonds or career networking when you never meet other students. The only students I've gotten to know (online) aren't near me, so while I'm sure they'll have good advice in the future, it would be better if I knew some local people in my program.
Erin Tidwell
Redmond, WA
WGU Washington
Online courses need to be designed for online delivery, with attention to activities and assignments that promote interaction among the students. When this is not done well, the courses can lack interactivity and a sense of community. When it is done well, online courses can actually be more interactive and rewarding than seat-based classes.
Terri Straut
Littleton, CO
University of Colorado
Director of CU Online
Even though online courses aren't face to face I feel I actually had more contact with the professors because there is more opportunity to email for clarification and instuctors often sent email updates. The comfort level in contacting the instructor was much higher than in "real" classrooms. I felt there was more interpersonal dialog. Personal motivation is important though. Although I completed all of my work and recieved high marks, I found it difficult to make myself complete my work unless there were imposed deadlines. Many students do not have the kind of self discipline that it takes to complete online courses. Definitely not for everyone.
Diana Angelo
Perryville, AR
University of Illinois - Macomb
Sometimes it can be difficult when the people who are grading your assignments seem like complete strangers somewhere far away (essentially, since I live in Kansas, that is exactly what they are). It takes a good amount of communication between your advisers and the teachers in charge of the class and also using the resources that are given to you effectively.
Jennifer Barnes
Wichita, KS
Western Governors University
We haven't been good about training our students to be good online students. They frequently take online courses with the mistaken assumption that they are easier than [face to face], not realizing that if you don't stick with it, read the syllabus, know the schedule, and accept responsibility for your progress, you are likely to do poorly.
Kathleen Torrens
Providence, RI
University of Rhode Island
As an online adjunct instructor, the thing that seems most difficult for some students is time management and self-discipline. I see a very low retention rate, as many people sign up for class thinking it will be easy. When they realize the difficulty of working diligently on your own, many students simply drop out or leave the class without dropping. Even if I email, encourage, and work to connect with them, many times they just can't cut the discipline of working on their own and the lack of accountability that would come with meeting in a classroom two or three times a week.
Sarah Moore
Roe, AR
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
I feel somewhat disconnected which can sap my motivation to do schoolwork. It takes real willpower to stay on task some days. It is also hard get my family to not intrude during study time.
Samantha Bekkum
Franklin, MA
Western Governors University
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