General Education

Are Online Classes Easier Than On-Campus Classes?

Are Online Classes Easier Than On-Campus Classes?
Of all of the changes to the higher education landscape as a result of the pandemic, the rapid move to online learning may be the most significant. Image from Unsplash
Mairead Kelly profile
Mairead Kelly July 10, 2020

Online learning was already proliferating when the COVID-19 pandemic gave it the proverbial steroid injection. How different is online learning from in-person learning? Are online classes easier, as some claim? We explore that question.

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Colleges were among the first US institutions to respond to the coronavirus in the spring of 2020. As the country went into lockdown, campuses closed, transitioning all classes to remote instruction. Now, as college administrators contemplate how life on campuses will resume this fall, their plans paint a much different picture of how the traditional college experience will look.

Schools are considering a range of options. Ithaca College, for example, has delayed starting its in-person fall semester until October 5. The delay will allow the school to assess conditions at other schools and adjust health and safety planning appropriately. Purdue University Main Campus expects to hold in-person classes from the fall until Thanksgiving to avoid exposing students and faculty to the highly contagious virus through holiday season travel.

As a second round of Covid-19 cases remains “inevitable” in the fall and into the colder months, many schools are preparing for hybrid instruction with limited in-person classes. Others, like the University of Texas at Austin, plan to move thousands of fall courses to an exclusively online learning environment, allowing students to continue their education without returning to campus.

Of all of the changes to the higher education landscape as a result of the pandemic, the rapid move to online learning may be the most significant. However, it’s only accelerating a trend that has been growing over the past several years. As online learning has developed and evolved, more students have embraced the format and helped push it to the mainstream. Yet some misconceptions remain, including that accredited online courses are generally less difficult than their on-campus counterparts.

Are they really? To answer that question, let’s take the following factors into account.

The workload doesn’t change

Online classes typically follow the curricula of their on-campus counterparts, meaning that the workload in both is identical. In both traditional and online formats, students are expected to interact with their instructors and peers and to engage actively with course content and instructor feedback. The availability of message boards and other interactive tools often results in greater student participation, particularly compared to large on-campus lectures, where it’s much easier to hide in the back of the room.

The real difference in coursework isn’t how much there is, but how it’s done. In in-person classes, it’s common for students to expect virtually every type of assessment, from written work and tests to performances and presentations.

Online classes, on the other hand, are often more limited when considering the types of assignments students complete. Typically, online instructors grade students through papers, open-book examinations, and student contributions to online class discussions. Some online courses include live student presentations, but only when the professor is motivated—and technically proficient—enough to make it happen. Once you reach a certain age, Zoom apparently becomes an unsolvable mystery.

They require a greater degree of self-discipline

With the misconception that online classes are easier comes the idea that students can participate in a more lackadaisical manner. In reality, most online courses require students to have stronger organizational skills, polished academic writing skills, and a greater sense of self-discipline than in the traditional classroom. When classes are entirely online and asynchronous—i.e., without any live sessions—students must work at their own pace, which requires a significant degree of self-motivation.

Many online courses also require a rigorous schedule of biweekly, weekly, or daily assignments and contributions to group discussion boards. What they lack is the built-in pressure that occurs naturally in in-person classes. That makes it easier to fall behind until the workload becomes insurmountable. You will definitely test your time-management skills in your online courses.

They may require more participation

In online courses, participation is typically mandatory, usually through written discussions in chat rooms or message boards. As a result, students may hear a broader range of perspectives, including from those who struggle to participate during in-person classes, where participation is often voluntary.

Some online courses deliver content asynchronously, i.e., via pre-recorded online lectures. In such classes, the lack of face-to-face interaction with instructors and peers can complicate learning, especially for students who prefer to learn in groups or with other people. On the other hand, students who prefer to work alone may benefit from online classes, where they won’t be overwhelmed by group discussions.

Not all online courses operate asynchronously. More and more, in-person instruction—facilitated through an online meeting platform such as Zoom—is being integrated into online learning. In some programs—especially in graduate programs—live sections are limited to 15 or 20 students, virtually ensuring that everyone will get called on at some point.

They’re often pursued by students with significant outside obligations

According to Educationdata statistics, the average age of full-time online undergraduate students was 21.8 in 2018-2019, compared to 27.2 for part-time students. At the graduate and professional level, full-time online students were, on average, 29.7 years old, while the average age of part-time students enrolled in online programs was 34.9. Until COVID-19 came along, most online education served part-time students.

Given the findings, it’s clear that online education is well-suited to older students, who are most likely to balance school with work, family, and other obligations. While the decision to go back to school as an adult isn’t easy, it’s not the idea of juggling competing priorities and responsibilities that turns prospective students away from enrollment. A recent national survey from Champlain College Online found that 60 percent of US adults age 23 to 55 without a bachelor’s degree have considered returning to school, but costs and student debt were deterrents.

Cheating is difficult—and only becoming more so

The evidence for whether online or face-to-face students are more likely to cheat is inconclusive. But thanks to tools that monitor academic dishonesty in online courses, schools have been able to minimize cheating among online students with the hopes of eliminating it entirely in the long run.

One way they do this is through proctored exams, which require students to report to campus or official off-site testing centers for testing. Online proctoring—or eProctoring—is also on the rise, a service that combines machine learning and artificial intelligence to ensure academic integrity is maintained during testing.

Keystroke verification software is another common tech-based method. Students type a short phrase, which is then analyzed by a software program. The program learns students’ IP addresses as well as their typing speed, rhythm, and other characteristics, such as how long they tend to press specific keys.

Simplest of all methods for deterring cheating in online courses may be honor codes. Schools that enforce them typically require students to sign a written agreement at the beginning of their program, vowing that they will not cheat.

The repercussions of breaking an honor code typically depend on the specific school and circumstances. In the event of a violation, some students may face a reduced grade for the assignment. Others may find that their final grade for a course will take a hit. It’s also common for students found guilty of academic misconduct to receive additional academic work. In some cases, cheating can get you expelled.

Is it easier to cheat artificial intelligence than a live proctor in a traditional classroom? Our advice: don’t try to find out.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com


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