Given the rising rates of students taking online courses (more and more students are taking online courses every year) and new data regarding the differences in completion and drop-out rates for online versus face-to-face courses (online courses have higher drop-out rates), this article provides some information to consider when decide whether online coursework is the right choice for you.

Online Education is the Wave of the Future

Online education is the wave of the future. The numbers of students who have taken online courses or online degrees has dramatically increased over the last few years. Currently, nearly one third of all higher education students complete an online course.

Allen & Seaman (2010) reported that during the Fall 2009 term more than 29% of higher education students took at least one online course, which represents a 21% increase over the number reported the previous year. These percentages far exceed the 1.2% growth of the overall higher education student population.

A recently released report by Xu and Jaggars (2011) followed 51,000 community college students in the state of Washington between 2004 and 2009 and found some interesting results regarding online versus traditional face-to-face classroom students.

Characteristics of Online Students

Xu and Jaggars (2011) found that “online courses were consistently more popular among women, White and multiracial students, students who applied and were eligible for federal need-based aid, English-fluent students, students from higher quintiles of socioeconomic status (SES), and students with a stronger level of academic preparation” (p. 5). In addition, among those students for whom employment information was available, those who worked more hours were also more likely to take online courses.

Traditional Classroom vs. Online Education

Xu and Jaggars (2011) found an 8-percentage point difference in completion rates between online and traditional classes, with 82% of online students completing their courses versus 90% completion rates for face-to-face classroom students. This difference was especially evident in the early college years. Students who took online courses early in their college careers were more likely to drop out than were those who took only face-to-face courses. Similarly, among those students who took any online courses, those with the most online or web-based credits were the least likely to graduate or to transfer to a four-year college or university.

These researchers conclude, “online coursework may be more difficult for some students to complete, which in turn could inhibit their academic progression and eventual completion.” (p. 21).

Jaggars (2011) reviewed the online learning literature and reported the following four challenges faced by students in online courses:

  1. technical difficulties,
  2. a sense of social distance and isolation,
  3. a lack of the “high learner control” that may be needed for success in the relatively unstructured and flexible online environment, and
  4. limited availability of online student support services.

Misperceptions about Online Courses

Perhaps one of the biggest contributors to the lack of success in online course completion compared to traditional face-to-face classroom course completion lies in the third challenge outline above: a lack of “higher leaner control” that is needed for success in the unstructured (at least when compared with traditional face-to-face classroom courses) and flexible online learning environment.

There appears to exist an inaccurate perception of online courses—that they are somehow easier than traditional face-to-face courses. That is, there exists confusion between the convenience and flexibility allowed by online courses and the amount or level of work required, with some students believing that this convenience, flexibility and relative lack of structure somehow makes the course easier. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, online courses are most often more difficult than the tradition face-to-face classroom courses and require more work from both students and instructors alike.

The hard truth is that students taking online courses need to be able to structure their own time (as opposed to having it structured for them in the form of showing up to a face-to-face class meeting on certain dates at certain times) and need to be able to motivate themselves to perform the required coursework.

Much of the online pedagogy employed by top instructors includes the use of discussion boards (to have students engage with each other and with the instructor in discussion of the various course materials), thought papers or reaction papers (to allow/require students the opportunity to critically evaluate the course material and consider their own points of view on such), web-based research (allowing students the opportunity to develop web-based research skills and to critically evaluate information in the public domain), and weekly quizzes or tests (as a means of evaluating the extent to which the student has understood the weekly assigned materials).

Compare the above to many traditional face-to-face courses where students are expected to read the weekly assigned materials (although are not typically required to have their knowledge or understanding of these materials evaluated through weekly quizzes or tests since this takes up too much of the precious face-to-face time) and show up to class to listen to a lecture and, perhaps if there is time, engage in discussion about the lecture material.

Online courses typically require at least as many hours devoted to the course as face-to-face courses and often they require more. In addition, online courses require that students have the intrinsic motivation to complete the required weekly tasks since there do not exist many extrinsic motivators such as the fear of showing up to class unprepared and being called out.

Consider Your Personal Characteristics and Level of Motivation

The students who do the best in online courses are those who are able to schedule their time accordingly, motivate themselves to perform the required coursework, and who take the time to read the course syllabus and all the details for each assignment. It is often the case that the students who do not do well in online courses are those who do not read the syllabus and related course materials, are not intrinsically motivated to perform the coursework, and who are not adept at scheduling their time.

Consideration of your personal characteristics, such as how well you are able to self-motivate, how adept you are at time management, and how attentive to detail you are will assist you in determining whether online education is the right medium for you.


Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2010). Class differences: Online education in the United States, 2010. Needham, MA: Sloan Consortium.

Jaggars, S. S. (2011). Online learning: Does it help low-income and underprepared students? (CCRC Working Paper No. 26, Assessment of Evidence Series). New York, NY: Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center.

Xu, D., & Jaggars, S. S. (2011). Online and hybrid course enrollment and performance in Washington state community and technical colleges. (CCRC Working Paper No. 31). New York, NY: Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center.

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