Students flocking back to college campuses this fall may be surprised to learn that overall college enrollments are decreasing. At the same time, however, online enrollment continues to grow. And as traditional colleges and universities add new online programs to their catalogs, more students have the option to take either online or on-campus courses.
Today, students can create schedules with a combination of course formats. According to our 2019 "Online Education Trends Report", the number of learners reporting that they take both fully online and completely in-person (i.e., face-to-face) classes is on the rise, increasing from 9% in 2016 to 17% in 2018.
School administrators participating in this study also reported a growing trend: On-campus students are adding online courses to their schedules to decrease the total time to graduation, which increases their flexibility to work while they are still in school.
So, which classes are better to take online? What type of course is better in a face-to-face format? To aid students in their decision-making process, I'll explore some of these questions in detail.
The College Course as an Experience
At a recent distant education conference, Rovy Branon, vice provost for Continuum College at the University of Washington, explained the need for students and faculty alike to think about how we use the term "course." According to Branon, a course is not just the material conveyed through a learning management system (LMS); in other words, a course is more than just links, readings, and videos. It is the interactions between students, professors, and the content that truly define a course experience.
But not all courses (or students) are the same. One format might be better than another depending on variables such as the individual student's priorities, preferences, and abilities. The topic of a specific course, the technologies used, and the instructor's teaching style are also important factors to consider.
As classes start gearing up this academic term, make the following considerations part of your planning.
Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses
For some students, making the switch to online learning from a traditional classroom is an easy transition, while others struggle to adapt to a virtual learning environment that requires a different set of skills.
Minnesota State University provides a list of skills that make a successful online learner. In addition to technology-related topics, you'll find sections on persistence, time management, effective communication, self-motivation, and more. How would you rate yourself in each of these areas? Try the Online Course Readiness Quiz from the University of Arkansas to find out.
You should also consider your interests and abilities as they relate to specific course topics. If you've always struggled with chemistry, for example, a face-to-face class with study groups and teaching assistants may be the better option. But, if you've already taken advanced chemistry classes and done well, completing a chemistry course online instead of in person might give you the flexibility you need elsewhere in your schedule.
Think About What You Want to Learn
Learning how to become a better writer will be a different experience than developing project management skills. Learning how to play a musical instrument will be different than learning how to administer a vaccine or repair technical equipment. This is true for both online and face-to-face learning.
Online education has come a long way in recent years. Virtual learning environments now successfully tackle topics that have been traditionally tough to teach online, like math and music. Even classes with labs (e.g., biology, physics, chemistry) are now available online.
Straigherline and Oregon State University provide two examples where students use at-home lab kits and work through interactive virtual simulations to understand and apply course concepts. Thanks to continuously emerging technologies, it seems like anything is possible with online learning.
Think About How You Want to Learn
How do you want to interact with your classmates, professors, and class materials? Today's college courses often involve more than just listening to lectures, reading assigned chapters, and writing papers. While you may have the opportunity to study any topic online, you also have to be prepared to actively participate in the process.
There is an ongoing debate among educators about the validity of learning styles, i.e., unique ways of learning based on individual capabilities. But regardless of whether we have a particular learning styles, many agree that we do have learning preferences. The VARK Questionnaire can help you think through the preferences you may have for learning, keeping in mind that preferences are not always strengths and that most of us learn in a variety of ways (e.g., seeing, hearing, reading, doing). Compare your preferences to the strategies used in the online and on-campus courses you are considering.
Are You, or Do You Want to Be, "Tech-Savvy"?
The use of technology should also be part of your decision-making about course formats. Online students can expect to be faced with new tools in their classes designed to increase their participation and facilitate effective learning. These tools often come with a learning curve of their own.
Some online classes now include regularly scheduled, live, interactive sessions known as "synchronous" classes. These sessions are often conducted through software like Blackboard Collaborate, Zoom, and BigBlueButton, which may be integrated with your school's LMS. Many online classes also integrate tools like FlipGrid and VoiceThread that rely on audio and video recordings for class discussions and assignment submission.
Also making headlines in education circles are augmented and virtual reality. The use of these tools for learning is in the early stages, but is highly anticipated. You'll also find technology in your face-to-face classes (e.g., smartphone polling apps, presentation software), but perhaps to a lesser degree.
Don't Skip Academic Advising
Make an appointment before the beginning of every academic term to discuss not only which courses you'll register for, but also in what format they will be offered. Your advisor can help you align your class schedule with your degree plan and discuss the options available to help you set realistic expectations for your learning experience. Advisors can also help you find information about course details and formats, such as:
- Types of Assignments, Activities, and Technologies
Many departments provide sample syllabi for their courses. These documents often include helpful information about types of assignments, due dates, expected technology use, and more.
- Course Scope and Participation Requirements
Course schedules and catalogs may provide details about learning objectives and how each course is offered, including in-person or synchronous meeting requirements, or the need to purchase specific software applications or devices.
- Instructor Profiles
Find out more about your professors by viewing their faculty bios on your institution's website or by contacting them directly to ask for more details about their expectations for students enrolled in their classes.
- Assistance After You Enroll
You can access technology help through a variety of resources, such as help desks and hotlines, tutorials, and orientations. Academic support is available through online writing centers, virtual libraries, and many other services.
Which Courses Are Right for You?
Do you want to gain knowledge about a particular topic? Are you interested in developing a new skill? Perhaps a course is simply required as part of your degree plan. College students now have more options than ever including online, on-campus, and hybrid or blended course options.
Take some time to assess your own academic strengths and weaknesses, learning preferences, and willingness to learn how to use new tools to participate in your classes. Don't rule out online options for a specific course before you find out more about how your school offers it. Through your own research and reflection — and your advisor's guidance — you can make the best possible decisions about the courses you take.