Online Learning: Myths vs. Facts

Online learning is not new, but it is becoming a more and more powerful tool for teaching and learning. That's why we think it's important to debunk some of the more common myths about online learning. These misconceptions might already sound familiar, or they may surprise you. But they have gotten in the way of some students who then found it difficult or impossible to complete their online courses successfully. We don't want you to be one of these students. We want to give you a clear idea of what you can expect from online learning and provide you with some tips that will help you not only to succeed, but to excel in your online course.

Let's start by addressing the seven most common myths about online learning:

"I've heard that the online course is way easier than taking the same course on campus. You don't have to go to class, you just have to hand in assignments and you're done."

THE FACTS: the workload for any particular course is the same regardless of the way it's delivered. In fact, in the online environment, you need to be more self-disciplined and motivated because you won't be facing the instructor every session.

The good news is that online classes will give you the flexibility to learn when you are ready to learn and at times that work with your schedule. This can be a real plus for students with busy lives. In an asynchronous online class you are not limited by "class times," so you don't have to worry about conflicts with other classes you want to take, your work schedule, or other time constraints!

Whether you decide to take your classes in a traditional or an online setting is up to you. One option really isn't easier than the other. It's all about finding the best fit for your life, your time, and your habits.

"If I'm taking an online class, I can turn in assignments whenever I want, right? I'll just get all of the assignments from the instructor and blast through it in two weeks rather than wasting a whole semester."

THE FACTS: regardless of what you think you may be able to accomplish at your own speed, most online courses are NOT self-paced. Some instructors reveal all assignments ahead of time and others may roll out course topics and assignments incrementally. The most successful students will concentrate on their work at the pace that the teacher has laid out and are mindful of deadlines and due dates. Give yourself time to really focus on the course material and put your best effort into assignments - don't try to rush though the course just to "get it done". The online learning world is not much different from traditional campus courses: the more you put into a class, the more you'll get out of it.

The good news is: Students who successfully complete online courses have found that the organizational skills they learned and used to complete their online courses made them better students in traditional courses they took later on.

"Online courses are always cheaper than taking classes on campus. Unless you're taking classes online, you're really just wasting your time and money."

THE FACTS: Tuition fees for online courses are typically the same as your traditional on campus classes. But there some "hidden" costs in taking a class on campus that you may have not considered (like transportation, parking, childcare, eating meals out, etc.). Either way, the class itself will likely cost the same no matter how you take it.

"Professors randomly call on students for answers in a lecture, but in an online class I can fly under the radar."

THE FACTS: don't be fooled by the illusion of anonymity in your virtual classroom. Even though you and your instructor may not be able to see one another, participation is still a key component of online learning. Instructors may ask you to participate in regular online discussions or collaborate with your classmates on group projects. They will ask for, and be able to see, your participation in multiple ways. In fact, sometimes faculty know more about their online students than their on-campus students.

The good news is online learning can provide you with the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships with your professors and with other students taking the same course. In an online course everyone has a chance to provide their input, and you have time to craft your thoughts before "speak." You're not bounded by the end of a class period or a limited discussion time. But you'll also need to commit to participating effectively and you'll need specific strategies to make this happen.

(Myth #5 actually comes in two parts, but both center on your technical IQ.)

Myth #5A:

"I spend a lot of time on social media and I text my friends more than I talk to them. I don't need to learn any technical skills in order to take a class online."

Myth #5B:

"I don't really know my way around a computer, but clearly my instructor does. I'll just rely on him or her to help me figure it out during the course of the semester. My online class will teach me any of the technical skills I need to figure it out, right?"

THE FACTS: Online learning generally does not require extensive technical knowledge, but you have to understand the basics about your computer, the internet, and how to use your school's course management system (CMS). Visit our Getting Started Online page for a list of Canvas tutorials. Take the time to really understand your online environment before you get too far into the semester: you won't want to wait until minutes before an assignment is due to learn which buttons you need to push in order to submit it.

"Email is basically instant, and I know my teacher checks her email all of the time. So if I don't understand something or have a last-minute question about an assignment, I can email her and she should respond right away. She's definitely up at 10 PM, and it would only take her 2 minutes to write back with the answer."

THE FACTS: this is a misconception that we're sure all instructors would like to be cleared up from the outset. Most of your instructors provide a maximum email turnaround time, typically between 24-48 hours. As a student, you need to plan ahead as much as possible, and be sure to have an alternate solution if you don't hear back from your instructor before an assignment is due (remember, your assignments are your responsibility, not theirs). Some instructors include a "Questions About the Course" discussion thread where they encourage students to answer one another's questions. This could be immensely helpful for you, and might be a way for you to help other students in turn. Another approach would be to reach out to another member of the class and exchange private emails to support each other throughout the semester. Because you're not meeting with each other once or more times every week, it's easy to feel isolated in an online course. Try some of these tactics so you can connect with others - you will get a lot more out of your classes if you do.

Building supportive online relationships and friendships requires skill and practice. The good news is that students who develop good communication skills, learn to be assertive, and are able to cooperate and collaborate well in a virtual environment will find these skills highly transferrable (and valued) in their personal and professional lives long after their course is over.

"If I didn't finish an assignment on time, I used to tell my instructor that I accidentally brought the wrong notebook to class or that my printer ran out of ink. Now I can just say that my computer crashed, that I accidentally deleted my finished assignment, or that I just sent in the wrong attachment."

THE FACTS: probably none of these excuses will work. Remember, your instructors have not only heard every excuse in the book (probably more than once), but they are also pretty tech savvy themselves—they are, after all, teaching a college-level online course. Make sure you fully understand your instructor's expectations and that you comply with them in a timely manner, and keep an open channel of communication with them if you need help or have questions. Detailed information about your instructor's policies and expectations should be included on their course syllabus. Some instructors also provide checklists for all deadlines. If your instructor does not, it might be helpful to create your own assignment checklist. The organizational and study skills you develop for your first online course will put you on the road to success for all your future learning experiences, whether they are online or in a traditional learning environment.

Information on this page was adapted from the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative