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The Advantages & Disadvantages of Online Classes Used in Colleges

by Dr. Mary Dowd, studioD

Online classes are offered by most colleges and universities to provide options for students with differing needs and interests. Instead of sitting in a traditional classroom, students participate in online classes using a computer, smart phone or tablet with an Internet connection to interact with instructors and classmates around the world. Students may take online courses in addition to traditional courses or complete an entire course of study online leading to a degree. Like any form of instruction, online education has advantages and disadvantages relative to the student's mobility, goals, priorities and preferred learning style.


According to a 2013 report by the Babson Survey Research Group, online education is proliferating in response to growing student demand. Online classes enable students to access course materials and contribute to discussion boards at their convenience, which helps students balance school with hectic work and family responsibilities. There are no traffic jams, parking hassles or adverse weather conditions to worry about en route to campus. Learning is self-paced, so students can spend more time on the material they don't fully understand. Students are encouraged to think critically and support their opinions with facts, in writing, when responding to discussion topics. Professors often incorporate multimedia into the curriculum to support the learning style of both audio and visual learners. Answers to commonly asked questions are frequently found in forums, or students can email the professor.

Added Perks

Online courses do not involve the added expenses of commuting, parking, childcare and activity fees. There is no need to worry about unforeseen transportation problems or last-minute childcare complications. Students in online degree programs are less likely to encounter closed classes, and class time is not wasted answering questions raised by students who clearly did not do their homework. It can also be easier for reserved students to find their voice in the relative anonymity of the online classroom, leading to more classroom discussion from students who wouldn't be inclined to participate in a face-to-face conversation.


Procrastination can make it difficult to catch up if a student falls behind. Computer problems or an unreliable Internet connection can cause a student to miss assignment deadlines. A student who is not familiar with Web browsers, email and newsgroups will not be successful in online courses, according to the Illinois Online Network. Written critiques in an online class may be misinterpreted without visual cues providing context. Because online education is fairly new, the quality of online classes can vary significantly, even from the same institution. It is not always easy to tell if an online course offers a good return on your investment before you begin.

Possible Challenges

Recent high school graduates may lack the self-discipline to keep up with the workload in online classes. Doing simulated laboratory activities in online classes can be more difficult than conducting experiments in a supervised campus laboratory. Employers also expect a job applicant to have people skills in addition to occupational knowledge, and students in online courses have fewer opportunities to practice interpersonal and public speaking skills.

Tips for Success

Students who excel in online classes develop a system for keeping track of upcoming online exams and assignment due dates. Successful students also have a back-up plan if computer or Internet problems occur. Other strategies include combining field practice and internships with online classes to acquire real-world experience.

Finding the Right Fit

Online college courses can provide an affordable, convenient and quality education if offered by a reputable, accredited college or university. Online courses are well-suited to students with drive and determination. Students who like structure, socializing with peers, meeting face-to-face with faculty and being reminded of deadlines may perform better in a traditional classroom setting.

About the Author

Mary Dowd holds a doctorate in educational leadership and a master's degree in counseling and student personnel from Minnesota State University, Mankato. In her 20 years of higher education experience, she has taught classes, served as interim dean of students, and worked in many areas of student affairs, including student discipline, career advising, orientation and violence prevention.

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