Online Classes vs. Traditional Classes: Pros and Cons

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As you start the next chapter in your educational journey, you may be wondering what the differences are between online classes vs. traditional classes.

Online Classes vs Traditional Classes

Luckily, online classes are no longer a novelty as they are quickly changing the entire structure and experience of college. For some, this is a welcome change. For others, it can feel intimidating.

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But with more and more colleges offering online courses, and even entire programs online, it’s important to understand what taking an online course entails, if it’s right for you, and how to succeed if you do choose to enroll.

Online Classes vs. Traditional Classes

Students in a Traditional Class

Understanding the basic structure of online programs will help you feel confident when choosing your program and starting your class. But before we dive into all of the details, let’s look at some of the pros and cons of online classes vs. traditional classes.

Nonetheless, both traditional and online learning comes with advantages and disadvantages, as listed below:

  • Schedule: Online classes tend to be more flexible as students can log in from anywhere and complete the coursework anytime before the due date. With traditional classes, you have a set schedule and classes to attend.
  • Costs: Online classes may cost less than traditional classes depending on your major and lifestyle. Traditional classes require you to attend each course on-campus which can involve room and board, or transportation costs, while online classes allow you to complete the coursework from home eliminating those costs.
  • Support and Interaction: Online classes offer support and interaction but in a virtual way. Traditional classes allow you to interact with peers and professors in person.

It’s important to consider both the pros and cons when deciding if online classes are more convenient than traditional classes for your learning needs.

The Advantages of Online Classes

The ability to take complete college courses and programs online can be invaluable for so many students. While there are some disadvantages, the benefits may outweigh them depending on your situation.

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This is one of the reasons why many people are opting to enroll online versus in person classes. In fact, more than 7 million people are enrolled in at least one online course.

Flexible Scheduling

Student planning his schedule

Most online courses provide you with more flexibility than a traditional on-campus class. This means you can do your coursework around your work schedule and family life.

Rather than needing to attend class at a specific time each week, you can, for the most part, choose when you study, so long as you submit your work by the deadlines given. The flexible schedule allows you to keep commitments to your job, family, or other situations that you must be responsible for while attending classes and earning your degree.

Faster Completion

Student taking online course with faster completion

A large number of colleges and universities now offer shorter semesters. Instead of attending classes for 16 weeks, you can enroll in 8-week online courses and spend half the time earning your credits in that subject.

It’s important to keep in mind that the same coursework will be squeezed into the 8-week course so you may have more assignments due throughout the shorter semester. In many cases, new classes start every month or every other month giving you the opportunity to start classes now instead of waiting until the beginning of the traditional fall or spring semester.

Study Anytime

Student studying during his free time

With online class vs. in person, you have the ability to study as it suits your schedule. You may not have a 4-hour block of time to sit down and study, but you can fit studying in throughout your day.

You can log on to the message boards while eating breakfast, listen to a lecture on the drive to work, read a few chapters during your lunch break, or take a practice test while preparing dinner. Studies show that learning in shorter bursts is actually better than long study sessions because it promotes retention and genuine understanding.

Login from Anywhere

Student attending online class

Since online courses allow you to live virtually anywhere, you enjoy the convenience of getting to live where you want to or need to, and even travel while you are studying. These courses rely on an online classroom software program that allows you to log on via any location where you have an internet connection.

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You could attend an online school located on the East coast while living and working on the West coast. Online courses may allow you to attend to the school of your choosing without uprooting your life or family.

Access to More Colleges

Student checking which online college to enroll to

Depending on the course or program you want to take, your local college may not offer exactly what you are looking for.

With online courses, you can take a specialty program at a college that is thousands of miles away without the inconvenience of needing to relocate. This can allow you to attend the right college for your career goals and save money on room, board, and transportation. You’re also able to fulfill your daily commitments while attending a college that is out of state.

No Commute

Man studying from home

Commuting to class can waste valuable time and money. It also makes you susceptible to problems beyond your control like traffic back-ups, car trouble, and dangerous weather conditions, which can keep you from getting to class on time or at all.

To attend an online class, you just need to log on. You won’t waste time and money commuting, and you won’t have to worry about what’s going on between your home and campus. If you’re running late to a class, you can likely log on later and complete the coursework and listen to a recorded lecture.

Potentially Lower Costs

Online class student working on her assignment

One of the top reasons students choose an online program is to save money. A majority of students list cost as their number one priority.

As students opt for affordability, this means that more and more colleges are figuring out ways to get creative so that the cost of these programs can remain manageable. By attending classes online you potentially save money on transportation, room and board, food costs, and more. These savings can significantly cut down on the overall amount you pay for your degree.

Accredited Programs

University that offers online classes

To be accredited, a school must meet certain standards of quality. While not all online schools are regionally accredited, most are and you can refer to the U.S. Department of Education’s website to ensure the college you choose is accredited.

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Attending an accredited school may help you qualify for financial aid since to apply for Federal assistance, the school you attend must be accredited. Choosing an accredited school can also help to ensure your credits are transferable as well. You may even have better employment opportunities after graduating with a degree from an accredited school as employers will see your degree as valid.

The Disadvantages of Online Classes

Now that we’ve discussed the various advantages of online classes, it’s important to also consider the disadvantages of online classes to ensure you’re making the best choice for your needs.

No Face-to-Face Interaction

Woman attending her online class, taking notes

Online learning can’t adequately replicate the relationship and human experience that develops in a face-to-face learning environment.

When a professor is physically in front of you, you can read his or her body language, mannerisms, gestures, tone, volume, and so on. These things help you to interpret and recall the information being presented. You are also able to engage in natural, spontaneous conversations with classmates that can enrich the learning experience.

Not All Majors are Available

Student checking on available majors online

Some subjects don’t lend themselves to an online format. For example, fields that require hands-on training or the use of specialized equipment may fall into this category.

If you’re interested in biochemistry, sonography, public speaking, or physical therapy, for example, you will likely need to attend at least some of your classes on campus. Still, you may be able to take hybrid or blended classes, which will provide both online and in-personal learning opportunities.

Increased Personal Responsibility

Online class student making his to-do list for the day

With online classes, you’re on your own. While you may still have the guidance of the admissions office via email or virtual meetings, you will be responsible for understanding your coursework deadlines and creating the best schedule for your own time management nets.

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It will be up to you when you log in to class message boards or do the assigned work. To juggle it all, you will need to be organized and manage time efficiently. Smartphone apps can be helpful tools to help keep you on track as can daily agendas.

Networking Challenges

Student interacting during an in-person activity

On campus, you’re surrounded by people who are enthusiastic about your field. You can introduce yourself to and chat with professors (even if you’re not in their class) and faculty, fellow students, guest lecturers, and so on. You can get involved in on-campus professional organizations that connect you with real-life professionals.

Those face-to-face meetings, no matter how brief, can leave an impression and may eventually lead to a job offer. Online students don’t have the same opportunities to make connections, but they don’t have to miss out on networking entirely as if you live local, you are still eligible to attend on-campus events.

Requires Self-Direction

College student studying her lessons

As an online learner, it will be important to be able and willing to self-direct your educational journey. This means taking full control.

You will likely have to determine your course load and the pace you’ll work at, what your educational goals are and how to handle setbacks. You will need to take the initiative to connect with advisors, professors, and classmates to ensure you’re meeting expectations.

As an on-campus student, there are reminders and safeguards to help keep students on track, but as an online learner, you’ll need to be in charge of your own education.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Traditional Classes

Students in a traditional class, interacting with classmates

When choosing between an online college vs. traditional college, it’s important to research and advantages and disadvantages of both options. We discussed online schooling pros and cons, but what about traditional classes?

Traditional classes may be a good fit for you based on your needs and here are some of the advantages of choosing on-campus courses:

  • Structured Schedule: Traditional classes offer a more structured schedule of when to attend classes, when you can meet with professors, and when assignments are due. For those who struggle with time management, this structured program may be best for your learning needs. A structured schedule can also help you learn how to operate under the pressure of strict deadlines and getting to class on time.
  • Hands-on Training: For specific degree programs, hands-on training is invaluable and requires you to attend in person. By learning via hands-on training, you can start to adapt to real-life situations of your potential career and also learn from others who are undertaking the same task.
  • Networking: Traditional classes allow you to network with other students and professors throughout the day. You’ll be on-campus for a full day of classes, which can open the door to meeting a lot of new people and interacting with those you may not otherwise see if you are taking online classes.

While the above touches on the various advantages of traditional classes, it’s important to also consider the disadvantages in order to make the best decision for you. Here are some of the downfalls of traditional learning:

  • Less Flexibility: As mentioned above, traditional classes offer a more structured schedule. This means less flexibility for other commitments you may have. Having less flexibility can make it hard to hold a job or take care of a family.
  • Cost: Traditional classes can end up costing a bit more than online classes. For traditional courses, you will likely have to stay on campus and pay for room and board, or commute every day back and forth from home and school. These costs can add up and add significantly to your overall education costs.

It’s also important to consider what type of student you are. Do you feel comfortable speaking in front of a class? If so, traditional learning may be a good fit for you. Those who are a bit shyer, may prefer online courses where you are less likely to be called upon in front of a large class. Ultimately, the choice of online education vs. traditional depends on your personal needs and preferred learning style.

How to Choose a Course Format

Two friends checking for online courses

How you like to learn and your personality are both huge factors to consider when determining which type of learning is right for you. There are two main course formats, synchronous which run in real-time and more scheduled, and asynchronous, which is more flexible and offers pre-recorded lectures.

When choosing what’s right for you, consider the following:

  • Do you need a schedule created for you to adhere to in order to keep you motivated
  • Is real-time interaction with peers important to you?
  • Is your schedule constantly fluctuating, making it hard to know when you’ll have time to study?
  • Do you have a timeline for when you need to finish this course or program?

Before you enroll, think about which environment will best help you succeed based on your personal needs and learning style.

How Online Classes Work

Student attending an online classes

Another important thing you need to succeed in online courses is a solid understanding of how these classes work.

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For students that are accustomed to in-person, on-campus classes, the structure of online courses can feel completely foreign. Each university or college will have a slightly different online structure, and so will programs in different fields.

Required Interaction With Professors and Classmates

Student greeting her classmates during online class

While you won’t be spending face-to-face time with your professor and peers, that doesn’t mean that you won’t be getting to know them.

In fact, some students in online courses argue that they actually felt like they interacted more at both 2-year and 4-year online colleges than they did in traditional classes. For the most part, this interaction comes in the form of graded discussions, responses, and journals. You are held accountable for how much you interact and your understanding of the material being covered.


Student testing his laptop to prepare for online class

Various technology is used by different programs and colleges to ensure that online learning is valuable. From how you submit your work to how you receive it, technology plays a huge role.

Advances in technology, such as easy-to-access video cameras, are allowing colleges to offer more rigorous (and helpful) experiences for online students. For the most part, the majority of prospective students have everything they need right now in order to take part in online learning.

Special programs, especially those in design or science, may require you to purchase or download additional technology. All of these requirements are clearly spelled out in the course syllabus and college handbook.


Student checking his weekly modules

Most online programs deliver weekly coursework in the form of modules. Each module can contain reading assignments, discussion boards, tests, projects, and essay assignments.

While you can typically see all of the coursework you will be doing at the start of the term, most programs keep modules closed until you arrive at that week, which means you can’t submit work or participate in discussions in advance.

Tests and Exams

Woman preparing to answer an essay exam

The majority of online programs offer their tests and exams in the form of multiple-choice tests (either timed or not) or essays.

Since the environment cannot be controlled in most cases (although some programs will require you to take a test in a proctored and monitored location), the exams are designed around the idea that you will have access to your notes, the internet, and your textbook.

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While there are always opportunities to cheat, new technology is ensuring that even students in online courses are held accountable.

Enrolling in an Online Degree Program

Student enrolled to an online class

With more and more colleges offering online courses, enrollment is becoming more streamlined to help students apply and begin online degrees. There are some main points of consideration when applying to an online college.

Admissions Requirements

Student preparing requirements for her online class

Depending on if you are enrolling in a single course or an entire program, what field it’s in, whether it’s at the undergraduate or graduate level, and the college itself, the requirements will, of course, be different.

  • Standardized test scores (if required)
  • Official transcripts
  • Completed admissions application

While these are the main requirements, depending on the college, personal statements of interest and intent and references may also be required.


Student discussing a lesson with his professor

Almost every online course or program gives you access to an advisor, which is an invaluable tool as you go through your degree program. Your advisor can answer your questions, help you apply for financial aid and scholarships, and even take care of enrollment for you.

Your advisor is also a great person to talk to when you need advice or want to make sure you are on the right track. An advisor will also help you choose the proper coursework for upcoming semesters to ensure your degree program is on track.

Online Class Requirements

Student checking the books required for his online class

While you may not have to be physically present in class, online classes do have requirements you should be aware of.

  • Textbooks: Many online courses still require you to purchase physical books as part of their requirements. This may come as a surprise to some, thinking that everything will be delivered solely online. Depending on the type of course you are taking, you may be required to order or purchase several textbooks.
  • Computer & Internet: While a computer may seem obvious for an online course, it’s important to note that this computer needs to be reliable and available. Fast internet will help to make accessing your coursework convenient as well.
  • Devoted Time: Just because there may not be a scheduled meeting time for online classes, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t create a schedule to follow. Most online courses are even more rigorous than traditional ones, which means it’s extra important that you consistently devote time.

Depending on the class, there may be a few other requirements but these are the typical requirements to have a successful online class experience.

Tips for Success in Your Online Classes

Online college student during an individual presentation

If you choose to enroll in an online class, dedication and discipline are important for success. Understanding how a specific course, program, or degree is going to help you in the future may give you the motivation to succeed.


Student attending online tutoring

There are very few, if any, online colleges that don’t offer free tutoring to all students. These tutors are paid for by your tuition, so not using them means that your money is going to waste. They are there to help you, so it is a good idea to take advantage of that help.

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Many students in online courses may forget to use tutors, simply because the idea of tutoring brings to mind the picture of face-to-face interaction. However, online tutors are just as helpful, willing to read assignments before you submit them, and even set up virtual sessions to answer your questions.

Communicate With Your Professor

Student on video call with a professor

Just because you are completing the course outside of the classroom doesn’t mean that your professor isn’t there to help. When you have questions or need help, don’t hesitate to reach out to your professor via email or discussion boards.

Knowing that your professor is there to help you can reduce stress and will most certainly help you succeed. Your professors may set aside time specifically for online virtual meetings as they would for in-office times for traditional classes.

Class Participation

Man participating at his online class

While you can only complete half the reading or stop responding to questions because you’ve met your quota for participation, know that participation is the key to success. It may be easy to slack off when taking an online course but class participation is just as important as it would be for traditional classes.

Whenever possible, ask questions, respond to comments, engage with your professor and peers, and, of course, stay on top of the work that is assigned to you. This extra step shows your initiative and can help you learn from others.

Why are More and More Students Taking Online Classes?

Student pursuing her degree via online class

Online classes are becoming more popular for a variety of reasons:

  • Potentially Lower Costs: You may save money in the long run by not having to pay for room and board, or transportation costs.
  • Finish Your Degree Quickly: Highly-respected schools offer 6-week online classes. You may be able to finish your classes in about one-third of the time it takes you on campus. This solely depends on the number of courses you take during one semester.
  • Flexibility: Online courses are a good fit because they offer so much flexibility. You do not have to sacrifice family time or your full-time job to finish your degree.

The ultimate reason why a student chooses an online class depends on their personal situation and educational needs. Some may learn better in a traditional classroom while others have the self-discipline to learn effectively in an online setting.

What’s the Difference Between Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Online Classes?

When looking at online courses, you can choose between a synchronous or asynchronous schedule. It’s important to understand the differences between the two so you can make the right choice for your learning needs.

Synchronous Online Classes Asynchronous Online Classes
  • Classes start at a scheduled time each week
  • Live participation
  • More live interaction with other students
  • More of a structured schedule
  • Classes are flexible and do not have a strict start time each week
  • Participate based on your own schedule by answering questions, using a forum, etc.
  • Interact with students via messages
  • More of a flexible schedule

While there is more freedom in asynchronous courses, it is also up to you to make sure you meet all of your class deadlines on your own schedule. Synchronous online courses are a bit more structured for those who learn better that way.

Online Classes vs. Campus Classes: Which are Right for You?

Student taking online courses

Choosing between traditional learning vs. online learning can be intimidating. Online learning is increasing in popularity thanks to advancements in technology that allow you to study virtually but still feel connected thanks to forums, video chats, and other platforms.

Choosing online courses also allows you to have a flexible schedule and meet the demands of other commitments like work or family. While making the adjustment to online learning can be a big change, knowing you have support from your peers and professor, even remotely, will help to keep you on the path to success.

If online learning sounds right for you, research accredited online colleges and start the next step in your educational journey today.

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Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.