Are Online Courses Comparable?

Are there limits to online courses? What are the advantages to this form of education with the growth of technology and the abundance of online learning programs?  In what ways does this differ from learning in the classroom?

These are questions that I considered after recently speaking with a speech-language pathologist about her experience in a graduate program through East Carolina University’s (ECU) Distance Education program. This was a good fit as she was working in a small town outside of Charlotte at the time and was looking for a program to peruse her master’s degree. This virtual learning program required her to take required master’s-level courses, watch lectures, and complete online assessments, along with visiting the program at ECU for meetings and “progress-checks” while completing her internships and fellowships at approved facilities in the Charlotte area. Enrolling in a program online allowed for her to complete her coursework according to her schedule and forced her to be accountable for her learning accordingly. While this was convenient, this required dedication of large sums of time towards learning the material taught in the lectures as she was responsible retaining the material that she would be using in practice one day. In all, this Distance Education program strongly resembled ECU’s in-person master’s program with the opportunity to complete one’s master’s degree from a more remote locations.

I found this to be very interesting and it led me to reflect on my own experience with taking an online class at the University of North Carolina. Last semester, I took a philosophy general education class online through the Friday Center and there were many differences between this course and the other in-person courses that have taken. The reason I initially enrolled in this course was due to the fact that it is challenge to register for a philosophy general education course as taking one “PH course” is required for all undergraduate students. Although I was fearful of the structure, my experience consisted of weekly textbook readings, analysis of lecture material (which was presented in text format), the completion of a forum posts and two constructive comments on classmate’s posts each week, and exams that consisted of 2-3 essays that analyzed a deeper understanding of the material. In all, I would say this three-credit-hour course consumed around three hours per week and generally I would complete the majority of the weekly work on the weekends preceding the Tuesday deadlines. Although I don’t think this was the intention, these requirements consumed significantly less time than my other classes that designated around three hours per week to lecture and additional hours spent outside of class studying and completing assignments. Even though this course seemed to be less structured than the traditional classroom, my professor still provided opportunities to ask questions, schedule meetings for office hours, and obtain feedback about how to better comprehend the philosophical readings. And, while I did enjoy this course and would never complain about a less time-consuming workload, my experience didn’t match the challenge and time commitment that I have experienced from physical courses at UNC.


Check out this post titled, “Online Courses: Worth it or Not?” that was written on UNC’s “Student Voices” blog surrounding a senior’s experiences and perspective on online courses at Carolina.

With these experiences in mind, are there opportunities for online courses to match the difficulty and rigor of physical courses?

Realistically, I think the short answer is “yes.” From other students at UNC I have heard remarks about online classes being “so much less work” than physical classes and the stigma that these classes provided online are easy. Even in my online class last semester, I could tell that some students neglected to put forth ample time and effort when completing assignments. This was obvious when their writings were very vague, drawing details from the summaries and abstracts of the weekly readings. This shouldn’t be the case, though. Online courses should be provided for the convenience of the student and should be taken with the same rigor and seriousness as physical classes. This is the only way that I can see these courses being as successful and comparable to in-person courses.

Online learning has grown dramatically in the past decade with the advancements in technology and the creation of numerous platforms that makes it possible to administer these resources. In reality, these courses have additional benefits apart from the increased flexibility and ability to take courses from remote locations (See article titled “10 Advantages to Taking Online Classes”). These advantages include a larger variety in programs/courses, lower total costs (in some cases), more interaction than traditional lecture-style classrooms, the ability to avoid lengthy commutes to a university, the transfer of credit hours, and the potential to continue learning and expanding technical skills while working. Amongst these benefits, it is imperative that students planning to take an online course consider their ability to manage their time, assess their drive and motivation to complete coursework, and commit to learning the material and taking the course seriously. This is the only way to prove online courses to be both effective and comparable to more traditional learning environments.





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