The Pros and Cons of Online Courses

computer courses

I have been teaching in university settings for over 12 years now.  I have taught F2F, hybrid and purely online courses over that period and have observed the learning process for my students and my role in it all under all 3 conditions.   Over this time span I have averaged teaching 50 credit hours per year which means I have taught at or over 600 total credit hours of courses and have taught those courses within 5 different institutions ranging from state schools to private institutions to online for-profits.  Needless to say, I have lots of teaching experience.

There are pros and cons to all 3 systems but honestly I think my preference is the hybrid model, which entails some F2F and some online components.  If the newest research is correct, this may also be the model that exhibits the best learning outcomes for students as well.   But how best to compare these models?  I will discuss the online model commonly used by the for-profits here.

Pros of Online Courses (students)

1)   Convenience (students can literally work it into their schedules)

2)   Self-paced or asynchronous learning (within the confines of the course infrastructure)

3)   Self-motivation (forces students to be pretty self-motivated)

4)   Heavy reliance on group discussions (much learning can happen with good discussions but the instructor has to be present to really monitor and facilitate that process)


Cons of Online Courses (students)

1)   Lack of social infrastructure.  Students literally only interact with their instructors and fellow classmates.  No social interaction beyond the classroom so no diverse or differing perspectives on things they might normally discuss in dorm rooms or over lunch in the cafeteria. They can also self-select into just interacting with a few of their classmates in discussions further limiting their interactions.

2)   Collaboration is difficult.  Collaborative projects are doable, but difficult without a truly collaborative workspace.

3)   Self-motivation (successful students have to be pretty self-motivated and directed and there is no real way to facilitate that if they don’t connect with the material, instructor or class).  It’s harder to “connect” online because of the asynchronous nature since everyone is kind of fitting it into their schedule and their timeline, it can breed this sense of disconnection.

4)   Heavy reliance on standardized courses (for-profits).  Makes it really easy to cheat on just about everything because the classes are all the same.  If I were a really savvy student, I would keep everything from my group discussions to my papers to my tests and projects and sell them to a new student taking the same class at the same institution!  Because all the classes are “taught” by adjuncts and so highly outsourced, the likelihood it would be the same instructor is also minimal.


Pros of Online Courses (instructor)

1)   Less energy goes into “teaching” because the instructor doesn’t have to “perform” for students like in a F2F class where the instructor constantly has to be enthusiastic and energetic to keep their attention.  This is why the online students have to be more self-motivated.

2)   Convenience (instructors can literally work it into their schedules)

3)   Standardized courses.  The classes are heavily standardized and pre-prepared for the instructor.  For some less experienced instructors or instructors who don’t really know how to be creative or adaptive in a classroom this works perfectly.  Little work goes into course infrastructure and set-up.


Cons of Online Courses (instructor)

1)   Standardized courses.   For instructors who value creative license and academic freedom in the classroom, this is a negative because they are forced to use the pre-prepared course infrastructure.  They can work within the confines of that but really can’t deviate much since these schools want every student to have the “exact same experience”.  I think this is a big disservice to students.  It’s part of what makes the US higher education system the envy of the world.  The ability of every instructor to bring their own teaching style, expertise and creative license to the classroom and this is lacking in the for-profit online model.

2)   Time.  Although it’s convenient, to truly facilitate those online discussions in the classroom, it takes a lot of time to guide that process.

3)   Pay.  No one goes into teaching for money, that’s a given.  As an adjunct, few of these online schools differentiate between PhD’s and Master’s degrees.  And why should they?   The courses are so standardized being an “expert” is really irrelevant and meaningless.  They tend to pay the instructor per student so teaching experience doesn’t really matter either.  Still comparing my adjunct salaries between the brick and mortar non-profits and the online for-profits it does tend to be around 25%-35% less than the traditional schools pay their adjuncts.  It’s important to understand the adjunct salaries at traditional universities are also about 50% less than what a full-time faculty would be paid per course and there are far more adjuncts than full-time faculty at most universities these days.  Welcome to the outsourcing of higher education.

So let me just add a couple of caveats here.  I think we do have a negative perception of online learning, and I am not sure it’s correct.  In my experience, in every type of classroom setting about 25%-30% of students are motivated, driven, organized, structured and eager to learn, online or F2F.  These students will be successful regardless of the platform.  About 50%-60% will do okay because they are kind of interested, kind of motivated….maybe they have to work full-time or have families and other responsibilities, but they will do okay…again, regardless of the platform. It’s more hit or miss, but overall they will get through the class okay.   Then there are the students in the 10%-15% that just struggle for any number of reasons.  Lack of motivation, lack of time, other stressors….maybe they just aren’t ready for college or just aren’t interested enough.  These are the ones that get lost in the online mechanism.  There are no fellow classmates to support them, to help them study or bump into them on campus and remind them of class.  There is no social infrastructure of support.  These students will struggle, alone really.  Most of the online schools have implemented online tutors, advisers, etc… but it may not be enough but it might not be enough in the F2F environment either.  So really, it is about the same statistically between the 2 learning models.  Which is why I really like the hybrid model best, because it catches the pros of both environments and minimizes the cons of online learning particularly for both instructors and students.  It would be nice to see this model implemented more frequently although perhaps not as logistically convenient.

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Tiffany Reiss

Passionate educator, entrepreneur and health promoter.