Are Online Courses a Proper Replacement for Schools and Colleges?

Anamika Nair
6 min readDec 30, 2021

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I want to preface this by saying: it depends. You can’t really compare teaching a year’s worth of curriculum for different subjects and conducting exams to teaching one specialized course online.

It all comes down to the end-user: the student.

There are two types of people in a crisis. One type hordes the toilet paper while still somehow believing there’s nothing to worry about and that the news media is getting paid to exaggerate. The other type capitalizes on the situation and creates something you will need.

There’s no denying that the pandemic has caused team management platforms and video calling apps to skyrocket in sales and subscriptions. Did any of us even use Zoom before isolation?

“Experts” have already decided for the rest of the population that online is the future of education and shouldn’t be considered “just a phase.” Even politicians like Jeb Bush have jumped on that train. Apparently, the old model finished.

Though I may be biased to online courses (my job is literally creating them), I like to think of myself as objective. People like Jeb Bush and Bill Gates are far beyond the age where they would ever need online school, so I’m not sure why we’re taking their word for it. Maybe rent for a school space is getting high or, heaven forbid, the teachers are demanding better salaries. I wouldn’t look to a sheep for an unbiased opinion on wool coats, and I wouldn’t ask tech billionaires and the people funding public schools to give me an unbiased view on e-learning.

This entire situation concerns one party: students.

In an article published in Inside Higher ED, author and teacher Peter C. Herman talks about a study he conducted with his students.

Here, he explained that the switch from physical classes to online classes in the middle of the semester has given students the opportunity to compare the two styles of teaching. Plus, since many of those students are likely taking more than 3 courses at once, they have experienced multiple modalities of education, from live sessions on Zoom to offline, pre-recorded classes and podcasts.

For the first time, they’re in a position to say, “I’ve taken the course both ways and experienced the different modes of teaching… here’s what I think.”

So what do they think? 🤔

To find their responses, Herman asked his students to write an evaluation of their experiences with online education. The study sample was made up of a healthy diversity of traditional, nontraditional, male, female, LGBTQ, first-generation college students, non-first generation, single parent, people of color, different religions, foreign (one student from Germany), some with a learning disability, and veterans. All were “digital natives,” which means they were already tech-savvy and didn’t face technical issues with the transition.

And for all their differences, one thing was clear: they all hated online classes.

  • One student felt she wasn’t getting even 10% of the regular classes.
  • One wrote, “I haven’t learned anything since we went online.”
  • Another said, “I did not feel challenged like I had been in the first half of the semester, and I felt the quality of learning had gone way down.”
  • Yet another: “I watched the lectures posted, but I wasn’t learning the material.”

What is the problem?

Idleness

With physical classes canceled, people losing their jobs, and professionals moving to work remotely, an element of discipline has been lost. Before the pandemic, there were rules to show up on time, do the work, and show up regularly to keep your attendance high. Without that consistency, and with no fear of consequences (what are they going to do… send you back home?), students didn’t feel the need to take classes as seriously as they did before. It was easier to let a few classes slide.

Distractions

For those who don’t have their own rooms, regular distractions from parents or siblings became a chief reason for losing interest in learning. And since everybody is working and studying online, there are multiple people on different Zoom meetings, conducting business or taking classes.

And people who do have their own rooms aren’t free either; the internet is right there at your fingertips, which means everything you need to game, shop, and socialize is right there in front of you.

And who is going to hold you accountable? Nobody.

Asynchronousity

The biggest reason online classes don’t work for schools is, ironically, the biggest selling point of them. The “anytime, anywhere” factor.

For classes that have pre-recorded lectures, there is no specific time you have to show up to take them. Which means you’re essentially taking these classes alone, with no immediate interaction with your peers or teacher.

The article provides a quote from a student:

“we basically have to teach ourselves. It’s like paying tuition to watch YouTube videos.”

And I agree!

Schools and colleges explore subjects that require immediate feedback and discussions and having pre-recorded lectures and podcasts don’t hold a candle to the real thing.

But that’s not even the biggest problem.

Cost

If someone told you you have to pay $5000 to $35,000 in tuition to sit on your bed and watch YouTube videos, you’d probably throw something at them.

The fact is… it’s a lot of money. Too much money for sitting at home and not getting to engage in class discussions, get hands-on experience in labs, and make friends.

So… how are online courses any different?

Well first… they don’t cost as much as traditional schools and colleges. Second, they aren’t trying to replace schools and colleges. They merely make use of multimedia to explain specific concepts to people who might need a little extra help with their curriculum or for people who want to develop a new skillset.

I go more in-depth into why online courses are useful in other articles, but here is a summary:

  1. Higher retention (thanks to the usage of multiple formats)
  2. Less investment of time and money
  3. Wide selection of programs across the internet, right from your home
  4. Accessible (especially after Elon Musk’s Starlink project is complete!)
  5. Customizable

Are they a replacement for traditional schools? Well, despite what totally unbiased studies funded by IBM and Google will tell you… no. They are not.

But all is not lost… students might not be fans of online classes, but they have found one thing useful in all of this: live classes on Zoom.

Live sessions

The farther a class got from traditional face-to-face lessons, the more students hated it, and the less value they got from it. But Zoom sessions managed to somewhat solve that problem, because -

  • Zoom sessions started and ended at the same time, restoring discipline and consistency.
  • Live classes also allowed students to ask questions and engage in discussions.
  • In smaller classes of 8–10 people, there was proper individual attention given to students that built trust.

Zoom isn’t perfect, but it does make a bad situation slightly better.

Many teachers now fear that once all this blows over, they won’t get to return to traditional classrooms. After all, politicians are convinced online classes are the future.

But this simply isn’t true. And after 2 years of dealing with online classes, students would love it if they never had to use Zoom again. After experiencing both traditional and online classes, it’s clear to see what format is preferred.

Yes, online classes have their own place (when considering students who are unable to attend physical classes due to health reasons), but it will never be a replacement for schools, colleges, and universities.

But you should still make your course!

This article might have turned you off from making online courses… but it shouldn’t! Everything has its space, and your expertise needs to be shared online! Check out my other articles where I advocate for online lessons, and you’ll see there is always space for you!

If you’re thinking of creating a course and need some guidance on structuring and scriptwriting, you can contact me through my website! I offer additional services like branding, animation, voice-over, and promotional content creation.

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Anamika Nair

Helping freelancers tap into A.I to improve their businesses and mental health