Q&A: How are Online Courses Reliable

Q: What's the main difference between online classes you take at a traditional school and classes at a school specializing in online studies, or with a strong commitment to online education?

A: To be honest, if you only take one class, especially if it is an introductory class, like Composition I, the differences aren't likely to be that visible. The differences tend to show up if you take more than one class at a school.

At a traditional school, instructors have a great deal of autonomy. They design their own courses, choose their own books, establish their own grading systems, and so on. If you have a good teacher, this can be great. You get ambitious teachers designing classes that are unique: Some are truly wonderful. Professors might build classes around rare phenomena or current events -- for example, analyzing the political rhetoric being used in a presidential race, in very close to real time.

This autonomy translates to unpredictability, for either in-person or Web-based studies, and many students taking online classes are living lives where they need predictability. Schools focused on virtual coursework recognize this, and they have instituted considerably more standardization, for example:

  • Limiting the number of book choices available to teachers, or simply selecting a single textbook for all instructors.
  • Providing instructional design support for course design.
  • Offering guidelines on how much reading and writing students do for each level of a course.
  • Using standard grading scales and even standard rubrics for grading papers.

Functionally, that means that you are less likely to experience spontaneity at one of these online schools; it takes time to change all courses in a system. On the other hand, it means you know how much work to expect, and other key details like how long an instructor can take to answer your email.

Greg Beatty

Greg BeattyGreg Beatty has a PhD in English from the University of Iowa and over twenty years experience in higher education. He’s taught everything from standardized test prep courses and freshman orientation and composition courses on up to serving on doctoral committees. He’s taught in the traditional classroom, correspondence courses, online courses, and hybrid courses. He’s developed curriculum for several colleges (sometimes as sole author, sometimes working collaboratively), and served as a textbook manuscript reviewer for Longman. He’s won grants for course development, and awards for his teaching. Greg has mentored new teachers and co-taught workshops on teaching excellence. He’s also served on a range of committees and college advisory boards, and has served as an area chair for humanities.