Online Learning For Dummies
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Despite the growing popularity of online courses, a number of myths related to online learning persist. People don’t know what to make of studying and learning online. In this article, we bust ten of the most common myths about online education.

The average online learner is middle-aged. © Studio Romantic /

The average online learner is middle-aged.

Online learning is anytime/anywhere

Asynchronous courses have no set meeting times, and you should be able to complete your assignments whenever it’s convenient for you. In theory, as long as you have a decent internet connection, you can access course materials and submit assignments at any time.

That said, learners sometimes fall into a trap with this statement because they fail to recognize that even an asynchronous course maintains a schedule. Your instructor expects you to turn in work by the stated deadlines. For example, you may be required to respond to a question on Wednesday and then read and respond to posts submitted by your peers by Sunday. Though you can decide what time of day to submit your posts, if you don’t follow the class schedule, you’ll probably find yourself losing ground in the grading scheme.

The other area in which this statement becomes problematic is the “anywhere” part. In theory, you should be able to travel and do your work as long as you have a decent internet connection. However, our experience is that online education and vacations do not mix! If you must take a two-week vacation in the midst of an eight-week course, consider rescheduling one or the other. Even if your hotel has free internet, do you seriously want to stop playing on the beach to come inside and do homework? The reality is that you probably won’t.

Online courses come in two flavors: synchronous and asynchronous. In a synchronous (real-time) course, you meet at a prescribed time using web conferencing software. In an asynchronous course, you have no set time to meet, but you do have deadlines. You should know which of these two course types you’re taking before you run into problems.

Also, remember that a lot of workplace learning has shifted to an online format. Webinars abound! In some cases you can watch a recording after the fact, but find out first whether it’s an option. If your company schedules the annual security compliance training at 10 a.m., plan to be there!

Only kids take online courses

Check the statistics for some of the larger online programs and you’ll find that the average online learner is middle-aged. The convenience of studying while balancing work and family attracts slightly older students to online courses. Younger, traditional-age college students are also online, but they’re more likely to be blending web-based and traditional courses at a land-based college (or they were forced online by the COVID-19 pandemic).

The notion that young kids know how to use computers to their advantage and slightly older students do not is an erroneous assumption. Don’t overlook the computer skills of working professionals. Few of us complete the workday without email, shared projects, and collaboration. These are the same skills needed in online learning!

An online course is a helpful way to learn how to use your computer

This statement may be true if you’re enrolled in a personal development course on using a computer. However, taking an online course to learn how to use your computer is a bad idea. People who do this spend so much time focusing on learning to use their computer that they waste money by not learning anything about the content area of the course. Why pay $300 for a geology course and not learn about rocks?

Additionally, the instructor may not have the time or patience to walk you through every little course related task. Even if you have 24/7 technical support, their job is to help you with software related to your course, not tell you how to use your computer.

In fairness to the other students and your instructor, learn how to use your computer well before you enroll in an online course.

Contact your local two-year college or continuing education department to see what kinds of basic computer courses they offer. Chances are good that they have an introductory course that would be perfect for you!

You must be a computer geek to take an online course

You do need to understand the basics of how your computer works as well as how to find files (see the preceding section), but you don’t need to be a full-fledged geek to survive in an online course! Here’s a short list of skills you should have before you enroll. You should be able to:
  • Turn on your computer and start a web browser (the software that connects to the internet)
  • Navigate the web, including opening links in new tabs or windows
  • Create a folder on your hard drive to store course related information and know how to locate that information for later access
  • Open and answer email with and without attachments
  • Download and install applications and application plugins
  • Figure out some basic audio and camera settings if you’re enrolled in a course that is synchronous and requires these tools

Online learning is easier than face-to-face classes

Some people assume that online learning is easier than the traditional method, where you show up to a class with an instructor in front, but we don’t know what easier means. To some people, it means less work, but guess what? In an accredited educational program, the amount of work expected of a student is the same whether the course is delivered in a traditional classroom or online.

Here’s an example: If you attend a course offered once a week in a regular classroom, the instructor may lecture or guide activities for three hours and expect you to work on your own, completing readings or assignments for another six hours, resulting in a total of nine hours of active involvement in learning. The same course transferred online may deliver the lecture or activities by way of technology tools, but the assignments and the outcomes are the same. And, most importantly, you’re expected to be engaged for approximately nine hours total.

Many online programs are accelerated, which has the potential of doubling your workload per course. For example, an on-campus course might take 16 weeks, whereas online, the same course covering the same amount of material may be only 8 to 12 weeks. We can’t see how that’s any easier.

We will allow, however, that online learning can be much more convenient in that you can do the work when it suits your lifestyle and schedule — as long as you still meet required deadlines set forth by the instructor.

Online courses are lower quality than face-to-face courses

In the early days of online education, some courses were little more than technology-enhanced correspondence courses with hardly any accountability for how well the students learned. We’ve come a long way since then, and today’s online courses offer the same standards and outcomes as traditional courses. Research fails to reveal not only a statistically significant difference between online and traditional delivery methods but also that online courses are of lower quality. In fact, reputable institutions routinely review their courses using accepted standards of quality. Online programs are also beginning to participate in separate accreditation processes from agencies such as the United States Distance Learning Association.

That said, when COVID-19 began disrupting colleges, universities, and training providers around the world, some moved their programs online without having the time or luxury to redesign them and train faculty. Admittedly, the result wasn’t good for the learner. Fairly quickly, quality standards were enacted and the situation is much improved.

Look for an accredited program or institution.

Online learning is always independent

Though you may do a considerable amount of work independently, such as reading or writing assignments, most online courses require students to interact with each other in a manner that’s far from independent. This list describes two examples:
  • In discussion forums, students read one another’s submissions and comment on or reply to them. This rich exchange of ideas extends everyone’s understanding of the concepts. This manner of learning is hardly independent! In fact, it can’t happen without participation from multiple voices, including the instructor’s.
  • Group projects are carried out online, too. Often students collaborate with peers to create a final product. These situations may require even more time and commitment specific to communicating with others than traditional classroom projects.

Taken directly from how people work in the 21st century (across distances and with others), teamwork rather than independence seems to rule in online courses.

Online learning is less personal than traditional learning

An amusing video on the internet from the mid-2010s shows a professor refusing to accept a late exam from a student. The student asks, “Do you know who I am?” to which the professor replies that he doesn’t. The student jams his paper into the middle of the stack of exams, smirks, and walks away. That’s impersonal!

You can’t hide in an online course. Your instructor will get to know you and your ideas possibly better than they would have had you sat in a traditional classroom and said nothing. This is because the majority of online classes require participation — you can’t log in and lurk and not do the work. In fact, if you try to approach your course that way, at the very least you can expect to have a few intimate conversations with your instructor!

There’s another explanation for why online education is not impersonal. Have you ever noticed that some people feel free to disclose information about themselves to strangers? Some instructors report similar occurrences with online students, indicating that learners are freer to share insights and personal details that support course concepts than they would if they had to face a classroom full of live people.

Plus, anyone who has lived, worked, or attended school during the COVID-19 pandemic has inevitably seen their coworkers’ kids, teachers’ spouses, inadvertent bathroom shots or similar. You can’t say that’s not personal!

You need a webcam for an online class

Determining whether to install a webcam for an online class kind of depends. On one hand, no one needs to see you sitting in your pajamas at the computer. Though webcams have real advantages for communication, they’re rarely required in online courses. For starters, you only use a webcam if you have a synchronous component that accommodates video — for example, an office hour in a web conferencing tool. Even then, because webcams require greater bandwidth, instructors may ask you to turn them off. However, it doesn’t hurt to go ahead and purchase a webcam for those occasional synchronous sessions.

In business settings, it’s nice to have the option to turn on the camera. There’s something reassuring about seeing the others in the room. Because laptops come supplied with this item as a standard feature, it’s rarely an issue. Then again, in business webinars, because the focus is on whatever topic the speaker is covering, it may be less important for you to be on camera.

Most of the communication in an online course occurs on the discussion boards or via email. These aren’t communication tools that require a real-time connection or video. If classmates are curious about what you look like, a photo works just as well.

Everyone cheats online

There is no evidence of greater cheating online than in a face-to-face classroom. Unfortunately, too much cheating takes place everywhere! However, smart online instructors now design their courses to minimize the possibility of cheating and use tools to help detect plagiarism. Cheating online simply doesn’t pay, because the technology is on the instructor’s side, as described in these examples:
  • Partial submissions: Instructors ask for major projects to be submitted in pieces showing earlier drafts and revisions. Or they ask for projects that are based on personal or professional circumstances, knowing that no one else can possibly write about your life the way you can.
  • Software: Some institutions use sophisticated software that checks written submissions for plagiarism.
  • One-on-one conversations: Some instructors have these chats with learners where they ask questions to see whether students can properly articulate course materials.

A working definition of plagiarism is presenting someone else’s ideas as your own without giving proper citation.

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