Differences Between Classroom and Online Courses

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By Kathryn Tyler May 1, 2010

0510cover.gifSome elements of online and on-campus courses are the same. “You are still expected to follow the syllabus and get the work done in a timely manner,” says Marie Joyce Razon, PHR, assistant HR director at Akahi Services Inc., a landscaping company in Pearl City, Hawaii. She received her master’s in business administration with a concentration in HR management at Hawaii Pacific University in 2006.

However, many elements of online courses differ significantly from classroom courses. Some examples:

Semester length. Typical college semesters are 10 to 15 weeks long. “Most business schools build curriculum around 10 weeks,” says Sid A. Benraouane, a professor of HR management and labor studies in the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Most online classes are only seven or eight weeks—a short span, but intense.

Independence. While some courses include recorded lectures, many do not. This means students cannot rely on an instructor to spoon-feed the information to them. “A lot of the lessons are self-taught, either by reading a book or researching the topic using other sources, such as journals, rather than listening to a professor lecture,” says Christine Wagenknecht, an HR specialist studying online for a Master of Arts in human resources and industrial relations at the University of Minnesota. It’s independent study. You read and learn on your own time, she says. “I enjoy the freedom.”

Instructor attention. Although students in a classroom course may have to wait a week for an instructor’s feedback, students in an online course may hear from their instructors within days, hours or minutes. However, that interaction may lack the communication benefits of an in-person meeting.

“It depends on the professor,” says Sabrina Gren of the Honolulu-area town of Aiea. A former hotel employment manager, she’s now a full-time student in a blended master’s degree program in HR management at Hawaii Pacific University. She also interns two days a week at a resort hotel. “If the professors are hands-on and technological, they post voice and PowerPoint slides for you to listen to and watch. They use a lot of YouTube videos or other Internet sites. Others, you don’t have any contact with them other than the assignments, unless you contact them.”

Technology. Online students need to be technology-savvy. They should be able to navigate the course platform, such as WebCT, and should know how to take tests online, do Internet research beyond Google, download MP3 audio lectures and meet virtually with other students in chat rooms.

If you dislike reading on a screen for long periods of time, online courses may not be your best choice. Some courses still have hardbound textbooks, but many online courses rely heavily on electronic books, blogs, online journals and electronic articles.

Although traditional courses are incorporating more of this technology, online courses primarily use digital content. Wendy Howard, acting dean of the business school at Strayer University in Washington, D.C., says online students:

  • Download PowerPoint files to mobile devices.
  • Watch videos.
  • Play interactive games.
  • Tap social media.
  • Rely on Biz Flix to watch clips from popular movies to illustrate concepts, such as conflict management and group dynamics from “The Breakfast Club.

Homework. Unable to gauge students’ grasp of material by questioning them in a classroom, teachers of online courses must ask for written responses for every assignment. This translates into more written work. Also, the teacher may assign more reading, projects and papers to compensate for the lack of classroom time.

“There’s more homework” than in a classroom course, says Colleen C. Caldwell, PHR, an HR specialist for Ovations Food Services in Lutz, Fla. She received a bachelor’s degree in HR management from a blended program at Saint Leo University and is now enrolled in an online program for an MBA with a concentration in HR management. “When you’re in an on-campus class, there’s face-to-face discussion and break-out groups. You don’t have that, so they try to compensate for it by giving extra work. When you meet once a week, you have an assignment due once a week. When you’re in an online class, you might have an assignment due every three days.”

Benraouane agrees. “The workload is more than the workload of the normal classes. We compensate for the convenience of the course.” In a seven-week term, he continues, students “will have a six- to eight-page paper due in week four and a 10- to 25-page final project due in week seven. For each week in between, they have class participation postings, about four pages per week.”

Benraouane requires students to contribute three posts per week to message board discussions, and each post must be a minimum of 200 words. Students who don’t post don’t get credit for that week. They aren’t able to participate unless they read the chapters.

Compare that to the classroom: “I know only 2 percent to 5 percent of students coming to class have read the chapter,” he says. “Why? They rely on the teacher to tell them what was in the textbook. They are put into a passive mode of learning. Requiring students to participate when reading—that is where the learning takes place.”

Nicole M. Luniewski, who is studying for a master’s in human resources and industrial relations at the University of Minnesota, spends about five hours per week reading, writing posts and preparing for midterm and final projects. Other students’ time commitments range from five to 20 hours per week, depending on the program and course.

“Online formats require postings, individual papers and group papers,” says Heather M. Hammitt, SPHR, executive vice president and head of HR at St. Louis-based Centrue Bank. She took online graduate courses at the University of Phoenix. “Group assignments were the most challenging,” she says. “Trying to hold the weak links accountable for deadlines, assigning group roles when there was no face-to-face interaction to establish rapport and juggling the unusual demands of our multiple time zones were all unique challenges within the online classroom setting.”

Nonetheless, Benraouane says, the written discussions are one of the most important components in online learning.


The author, a former HR generalist and trainer, is a freelance writer in Wixom, Mich.

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