10 Notable Differences Between Online and Traditional College Settings

Online learning has been increasing exponentially over the last decade. In fall 2010, more than 6.1 million students in the United States took at least one online class, representing a 10.1 percent increase over the year before. In comparison, traditional college learning (also called “brick-and-mortar” courses, in which the professor and students meet face-to-face) grew much slower; that same semester (fall 2010) saw an increase of just .6 percent over the year before.

And the online learning environment is an effective one: The U.S. Department of Education released a study in 2010 concluding that “students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction.” However, the study also found that “the effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types.” (Read the full study here.) If you are considering an online college education, you need to be aware of the differences between the two settings so you can make an informed decision about whether online learning is right for you.

Difference #1: Online learning can include both synchronous and asynchronous activities, with an emphasis on the latter.

“Synchronous” activities are those that take place at a scheduled time and place, such as in a classroom or, with an online course, in a live web conference or chat room. “Asynchronous” activities are those for which the student determines the time and place to complete work, which is an advantage for people like parents and working students who need a flexible schedule in order to pursue their education. Traditional classrooms also incorporate asynchronous activities — ever heard of homework? — but online classrooms tend to rely more heavily on the asynchronous completion of assignments.

Difference #2: Because of its asynchronous nature, online learning requires more self-direction and discipline.

Online learning is best suited to the highly motivated student who is willing to take the full responsibility for his or her own learning. Given how easy it is to ignore coursework in favor of social events, trashy TV marathons, and all the other distractions that life has to offer, online learners must be particularly diligent with time management. You must gauge how much time it takes to complete assignments and organize your personal schedule accordingly — which is easier said than done. The advantage is that you have the flexibility to work at your own pace and schedule.

Difference #3: Reading is paramount in online learning.

This is a simple but overlooked truth: In an online course, up to 100% of your classroom materials will consist of assigned reading (with the occasional multimedia presentation). This is not the case in traditional classroom settings, which rely more heavily on lectures and face-to-face interaction. If you struggle to get through reading-based learning, you may struggle in an online classroom.

Difference #4: Online feedback can be slower than face-to-face feedback.

As noted above, online education heavily relies on written material; if you get stuck on something, your professor and peers won’t necessarily be readily available to provide feedback on the spot, though effective professors will make themselves available through a variety of methods, including online office hours. On the flipside, if you prefer to take your time to develop responses to course material and peers’ comments, you may prefer this lag time in the learning process.

Difference #5: Writing skills are paramount in online learning.

In a traditional classroom setting, writing skills represent just one of the tools you use to communicate; while important, writing usually complements other forms of communication and assessment, notably in-person dialogue and presentations. If you’re not a solid writer, you can usually compensate with these other forms of communication in a traditional classroom. With online learning, the bulk of assignments and class communication is written and via email or instant messaging, so solid writing skills are essential for success. This is true not only for written assignments, but also for interacting with fellow students and your professors; if you are unable to concisely articulate what you need or don’t understand, you will waste time over miscommunications and ambiguities.

Difference #6: Digital literacy makes the difference between hanging on by your fingernails and thriving in an online classroom.

The old “dog ate my homework” excuse has been replaced with “the Internet went out” or “the program froze before I could save my 200-page report.” But these excuses are just that — excuses — and your professors don’t want to hear it. Online learning requires a higher level of digital literacy, or the ability to navigate, evaluate, and create information using a range of digital technologies, including an online course management system (i.e. the website where your lessons, assignments, and other materials are stored and made accessible to the students in the class). It doesn’t mean you need to learn programming languages, but it does mean you can’t balk at the emerging technologies that are being employed by online programs. In fact, the most successful online students embrace these technologies and increase their own digital IQ independent of the online classroom.

Difference #7: In online synchronous debates and discussion, the writer is advantaged instead of the talker.

In a traditional classroom setting, the loudest or most forceful student often gains the advantage in discussion. But in a chat room or instant messaging forum, each student stands on equal footing, including with the professor. This can result in a more even, open discussion, but it also gives the quick, skilled writer an advantage, particularly in content areas and classes that involve debate.

Difference #8: The professor is a facilitator in online learning, not a dictator.

In a traditional classroom setting, the professor is the indisputable leader of the learning process; they stand in the front of the room, call on people, and maintain authority over the chalkboard. In an online classroom, the professor is still the authority figure, but their role is reduced to facilitating the students’ digestion of and response to the information. Less instructor supervision means more student autonomy.

Difference #9: Networking and social interaction differ in the two settings.

While traditional classroom settings offer opportunities to network with peers on your campus, online classrooms may contain students from all over the world. If you find it easier to network face-to-face, you will obviously prefer the traditional setting, but the advantages of the larger networking pool of locations and personalities will give a different atmosphere to the classroom dynamic.

Difference #10: Online learning is an individual pursuit.

The learning process in a traditional classroom is inevitably a group activity, but the bulk of online learning takes place individually or, depending on the online class structure and content area, in small groups. However, camaraderie can be developed in both traditional and online settings; in fact, many online learners report that they interact with their peers more through synchronous and asynchronous online class discussions than in a traditional setting. But at the end of the day, it’s up to you, sitting alone in front of your computer, likely with a large mug of coffee at your side — because you can take the student out of the classroom, but you certainly can’t decaffeinate them.

Five Best Online Colleges

While there are certainly no “official” rankings for online colleges, we have listed five of the most popular accredited online colleges according to our user data to help in your search. Click on the school links to request information from a particular college.

Kaplan University — Kaplan University offers online degree programs in the fields of Arts, Sciences, Business, Criminal Justice, Education, Health Sciences, Information Systems, Technology, Legal Studies, Nursing, and Law. Degree programs are designed with the working professional in mind, and afford you the flexibility to work while earning your degree. Learn more about Kaplan University here.

Ashford University — Ashford University offers degrees at the associates, bachelor's, and master's level. Like traditional universities, students at Ashford usually complete their bachelors in four years. Programs can be found in the College of Business and Professional Studies, College of Education, College of Health, Human Services, and Science, and the College of Liberal Arts. Ashford is accredited by WASC Senior College and University Commission, 985 Atlantic Avenue, Ste 100, Alameda, CA 94501, 5107489001, www.wascsenior.org.

Grand Canyon University — Grand Canyon University features numerous schools including the College of Education, Fine Arts and Production, Arts and Sciences, Nursing, and Business. Founded in 1949, the small liberal arts university is known for supporting its online programs with the integrity and prestige of its traditional campus-based college.

Northcentral University — Northcentral University offers degrees online in accounting, business administration, biology, criminal justice, computer information systems, environmental science, equine management, and finance. Post also provides students with interesting, dynamic courses in early childhood education, legal studies, management, human services, psychology, and sociology. NCU will provide you with the degree you need to advance your career.

Walden University — At Walden University, prospective students have more than 15 online bachelor degree programs and 55 different concentrations from which to choose. Advisors are ready to help you select the degree that will allow you to achieve your career and personal goals. Walden understands the rigors of working full time while earning a degree. Learn more about Walden University here.

Click here to learn about more online colleges.

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