Online Versus Face-To-Face Courses

Illustration by Elizabeth Dettmann

Online courses are becoming increasingly mainstream in universities around the world. With advantages and drawbacks to both online and face-to-face courses, which scenarios would be most beneficial for each?

The Pros and Cons

There are quite a few advantages to taking online courses. Julie Johannes, associate chair and principal lecturer of the English department, laid out a few of these.

“Taking online classes frees up so much time for sports or extracurriculars,” she said. “It’s also good for non-traditional students with child care or parents to care for.”

“Taking online classes frees up so much time for sports or extracurriculars.”

Online courses are particularly good to take in the summer if you need the credit hours. You can take the classes from anywhere in the world, and you don’t need to pay room and board to RIT. Johannes also mentioned that online classes are good for more restrictive majors, and can help to mitigate challenges with registration.

Charles Barber, fifth year Software Engineering major, suggested another advantage.

“You get to choose what to work on and when to work on it,” he said.

In contrast, face-to-face courses don't have this luxury. Johannes mentioned that you have less “wiggle room” in your schedule with face-to-face courses. Barber agreed by mentioning how missing classes can affect your grades, and can be harder to make up.

Face-to-face courses do have their merits, though. You have regular accountability in those courses.

Barber agreed with this, stating, "You have an established meeting time. It's more rigid and you're more engaged with faculty."

On the other hand, the main drawback for online courses, as Johannes explained, is that there are “a lot of pathways to failure.” You don’t have the accountability that you get in face-to-face courses; there aren’t faculty constantly reminding you about what’s due.

“It sounds silly," Johannes said, "but it’s very easy to forget you have [the class] ... when you don’t log into myCourses every day and stay on top of things.”

Johannes also mentioned another advantage for face-to-face courses: there is less “lag-time.” If you ask the professor a question in class, more times than not you get an immediate answer. With online courses, you’re often waiting for a professor to email you back with an answer.

Johannes’s last advantage for face-to-face courses lies in relationships with faculty. If you want a letter of recommendation or a job reference, it’s better to build a relationship with the faculty member in person.

Personality Influence

There are certain habits that often make online or face-to-face courses difficult for students. If you have poor time management skills, for example, it will be very difficult for you to take an online class.

“You have to be very responsible with your work; you need to set your own schedule,” explained Johannes. “ ... If you have trouble keeping to a particular schedule, you will have issues.”

If you're in this position, you can treat the class as if it were face-to-face. Schedule in time to work on the class each day.

On the other hand, social anxiety can make face-to-face classes a huge stressor.

“If you struggle with social anxiety and groups of people, then online classes might be a good option,” explained Johannes. “ ... I don’t want people to be penalized for their anxiety.”

“If you struggle with social anxiety and groups of people, then online classes might be a good option.”

Many professors will randomly call on students to provide answers if participation is low. This can be anxiety-inducing, and many sit in fear of being called on. However, online classes can be difficult if you’re the type of person who is intimidated by faculty office hours. If you don’t understand the material, you need to see the professor!

Best and Worst Case Scenario

There are certain scenarios where you would definitely want to take either online or face-to-face courses. You may want to take online courses if you anticipate “significant disruption” to your ability to attend classes, according to Johannes. This includes anticipation of surgery recovery time, transportation or mobility challenges, health-related challenges or regular travel.

“If for some reason you couldn’t be here physically, you would want to take an online course,” Barber said.

He provided the example of co-ops and internships. If you want to take classes while you’re away, online courses can be good for this. This also allows students from outside of the country to take online courses.

According to Johannes, it’s smart to take face-to-face classes when they are in your major due to the faculty. If you know you need to build relationships with faculty for letters of recommendation or research opportunities, it’s best to get to know those professors personally. You'll also get to know peers in your major and year; this is good for potential study groups and networking.

Johannes explained that if you are a new college student, it is not a good idea to take online courses. College can take some getting used to. After your first year, you likely have enough of a handle on college life to be able to tackle something new like an online class.

Class Types

There are some types of courses that may prove to be difficult to take online.

For starters, Johannes mentioned that computationally based courses can be incredibly challenging. The professor may post their notes online for you to follow step by step, but how can you know how the professor got from point A to point B without them explaining it in a live format?

“It’s difficult to resolve misunderstanding in content. It’s more difficult to figure out what you don’t know if you have to have those delays in communication,” Johannes explained.

Barber also had some thoughts regarding this.

“Classes involving critiquing would benefit from face-to-face classes — College of Art and Design classes in particular,” he said.

Classes that involve giving feedback on portfolios or artistic work would struggle to transition online. It’s difficult to provide feedback to someone who isn’t right in front of you. Words often get lost in translation and tone is frequently skewed when online. On the other hand, Johannes explained how discussion-based courses work well online.

There are many pros and cons to both online and face-to-face courses. In the end, you need to judge which learning environment is best for you.