Online education comparable to traditional learning, but still has flaws

Screenshot of UA Online’s website. (Screenshot by: Gloria Knott/Arizona Sonora News)

Online classes are convenient. But are they easier?

Sometimes the answer is yes. But the majority of the time, research says it’s no. In fact, some research shows that online classes are comparable to traditional classes.

Online classes in higher education have been on the rise. In 2014, the Online Learning Consortium reported that more than one in four college students enroll in at least one online course during their college careers, equating to 5.8 million students in the United States.

In 2014, 2.85 million students were enrolled entirely online, according to the organization.

Convenience and flexibility are the biggest reasons why students enroll online. Many online students are older, have families or maintain full-time jobs.

But are online courses academically rigorous?

Melissa Wuellner, assistant professor at the University of Nebraska Kearney and a former faculty member at South Dakota State, studied natural resources courses online and face-to-face and found that online students spent more time on their classwork than the face-to-face students. She also found that grades in both online and face-to-face classes of the same course, which offered the same type of assignments, were comparable.

“Mostly what we found was that students do about the same in both environments,” Wuellner said.

Although research shows that academic rigor and grades are similar in both environments, online education still has its flaws — just as face-to-face classes do.

When online education started to gain popularity, Wuellner said that many professors made the assumption that they’d spend less time teaching an online class. That assumption was soon debunked.

“For me, I had to spend a substantial amount of time just designing the course upfront,” she said. “And to give feedback to online students, just to see how they were doing, I was spending more time—whereas in a classroom, you can address 300 students at a time.”

However, David Diaz of Cuesta College in California, said online courses can sometimes take less time than face-to-face courses because taking attendance and repeating other mundane class information are eliminated in the online environment.

Most often though, similar to courses taught in person, the academic rigor and time consumption depends on the instructor.

In some cases, instructors of online courses don’t even know what it’s like to be a student in the online environment. This makes it difficult for them to understand the needs of online students.

All three public universities in Arizona offer fully online degree programs. (Photo by: Gloria Knott/Arizona Sonora News)

“In my opinion, if the online technologies are leveraged appropriately by the instructor, then the academic rigor should be established as for any other class,” Diaz said. “Unfortunately, many faculty members jump into teaching online classes thinking they can use the same methods that they have in the face-to-face classroom and they will work the same. I have found this to be untrue.”

Diaz said that teaching an online course is not as easy as moving your face-to-face class to a digital platform. He said, “One must become familiar with the various technologies and how to use those effectively.”

For example, many online instructors record their face-to-face lectures and post them to their online classes. Other technologies are used frequently, such as Voicethread, where professors can post a question and students can respond verbally in video format.

Some classes use Notebowl as their primary platform, which is in a similar format as Facebook, except it’s dedicated to online learning.

“I personally think that if students are matched well to the learning environment and if the instructor is well-trained in the science and art of teaching online, then the rigor should not be an issue,” Diaz said.

Jessica Shumake, faculty member of the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at Oakland University in Michigan, has taught a number of courses online. She agreed that rigor is dependent on the instructor.

At Oakland, Shumake said faculty members are required to take an online class prior to teaching digitally. In the class, faculty members are instructed to design their own online course and pass “quality assurance standards.” The course is part of an incentive program to help prepare staff members to teach online. For faculty members who earn a B or better, the university awards them with a $1,000 bonus.

But not all universities offer that kind of program.

“It’s a major issue — that some people have no background in online teaching or online learning, and yet they’re thrust into this online environment,” Shumake said. “You can’t really blame them for not knowing what they’re doing.”

Another big part of online education is that students must adapt to a more independent learning style.

“It definitely takes the right kind of student to thrive in the online environment,” Wuellner said. “The online environment can be a challenge because a lot of times, students haven’t been exposed to that type of learning previously.”

In many ways, the independence factor is enough to make an online course more difficult. When the professor isn’t physically standing in front of a class to teach the material or help with time management, the class can be harder, even when the content is the same.

Another loss of online education? The missing connection between students and their peers and instructors.

“A lot of times, the online environment can seem isolating, which is a reason why students may not thrive,” Wuellner said.

To help restore the dwindling connections between peers, Wuellner creates digital discussions surrounding the week’s topic. She said these discussion boards create a sense of community between her students and also help her evaluate what her students are learning (or not learning).

Shumake uses similar strategies, though she said it’s harder to foster conversations online.

“Conversations just happen more organically in face-to-face classes,” Shumake said.

“A good online learning environment has student-to-student interaction and faculty-to-student interaction,” she said. “It’s a learning space that feels alive. A bad online learning environment is where professors and students do the bare minimum. It’s a space where learning and teaching feel mechanical and human presence is minimal.”

Gloria Knott is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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