Online vs. On-Campus: How The Virtual Classroom Experience Works

Considering pursuing your college degree online? You might have read about the recent US Department of Education study that concluded, based on 12 years of research, that online learning can result in better performance than traditional classroom learning. Or there was the study that found a group of physicians who took a professional development course online scored the same on a test as traditionally educated physicians—only with fewer hours of study.

But you’re probably curious about the logistics of how actually taking courses online will work. The specifics will vary from online school to online school, but here’s a general comparison of how the on-campus experience varies from the online experience.

Flexible Scheduling

In a traditional college, classes meet at a fixed time in a specific place. Online learning gives you much more flexibility as to when and where you learn. Anywhere you access the Internet—a coffee shop, your living room, your military base—becomes your classroom. Some online universities even make course materials configured for portable devices, such as mobile phones, PDAs, and iPods. And your course materials will be made available to you whenever you need them, so you can study on your lunch break, or on your commute, or in the morning before the kids wake up.

Control of Content

In a classroom, the professor delivers a lecture, usually based on your readings, and you listen. In a virtual learning environment, your lectures are recorded, usually as video. You can play them back on your own time, and stop and start whenever you need to write something down or look something up (or go back to the office, or feed your pets). If you don’t understand something, your control over the content lets you revisit it again and again until you master it.

Farther Away But Closer Together

There’s a very limited amount of personal attention the professor can give to each student in a busy classroom, and group interactions are, again, limited by time. Discussions might get going, but not everyone always has a chance (or the motivation) to take part. Digressions may result in the class period ending before the entire agenda has been covered.

Online learners have the advantage of being able to chat in real time, or interact on message boards, social media sites, and teleconferences. Instructors can also require everyone to form a reply to discussion questions, so everyone’s viewpoint on specific readings or activities is taken into account. When professors and students have time to write out their thoughts, it can result in more meaningful discussion. Online learning makes this sort of reflective communication possible.

Interactive Class Activities

The time-and-space limited nature of traditional classrooms means that instructors have limited options when they plan group activities. If they decide to administer a quiz in class, they have to collect the papers, grade, and return them. Virtual classrooms let instructors develop multimedia activity modules that let students solve problems, either alone or in groups. Quizzes and discussion questions can give instant feedback, helping students learn where they need to work harder at mastering their course material.

In short, online learning is as effective as classroom learning—only more convenient.

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