When online learning first arrived, it was billed as being a more accessible and flexible way for students to learn the same material that was offered on college campuses, even if they could not actually attend classes on those campuses. Students who simply were not able to attend a typical university could, instead, go online. But for many people, online learning was seen as a last resort, as something less valuable than in-class learning. Over the last ten years, however, both students and educators have begun to change their tune when it comes to online courses. In the fall of 2015, nearly six million students were taking an online course, with almost three million of those students taking only online courses. Those numbers and that ratio has only continued to rise. But does online learning really compare to in-class learning? Are students who take classes online, whether offered by a university or by an online entity, really getting as high quality an education as their counterparts who are attending classes on campuses around the world? Do students who learn online really learn?

According to evaluations of thousands of online classes, the four criteria that determined whether or not a student succeeded in online learning were:

  1. How engaged the student was in the activities provided during the course
  2. How in contact the faculty and students were and how accessible the faculty was to the students in his or her class
  3. How related the class was to a student’s degree (or similar goal in learning)
  4. What opportunities for learning were provided by the course

So, what have we learned about online courses and online learning in general? Here are some of the most major points that have become apparent over the last twenty years:

Students who are good at learning to learn are more likely to succeed in online classes. There are some students who learned, in addition to math, English, science, etc., how to learn. These students are highly adaptable. They do well in classes not because they are necessarily skilled in that particular subject, but because they are capable of quickly understanding what is expected of them and changing their learning style to make sure they are fulfilling those requirements.

When teachers are involved in the online learning, students learn more. It is possible for an online class today to be run totally autonomously. Students can take quizzes that are automatically graded, the system will tell them when homework is due, they will be prompted to participate in class discussions about prearranged topics. This does not, however, produce the most agreeable results. Students still do better in classes when their professor is just as engaged as they are in the class.

Feedback from the teacher and from other students is extremely valuable. This is a carryover from classroom learning. Students who saw feedback from their peers or from their teacher were much more likely to get more out of the course than students in courses where they never got any kind of feedback. Constructive criticism helps a person perform better the next time they have to do that task.

Students who turn their work in early did better on those assignments than students who just barely turned their work in on time. What does this mean when it comes to online learning? Students should not only be notified of something being due on the day that it is due. A syllabus that tells them what assignments are going to be due and when can be very helpful for online learning, especially because online learning requires a much higher level of self-direction than other types of learning.

Students who take a class online that is also offered on campus actually perform better than their counterparts in the face-to-face class. Studies have shown that students taking a class online will perform better than the students who are taking that exact same class on a campus. While there are many factors that go into determining whether or not someone will be successful in an online class, it is hard to deny that the flexibility provided by an online class is not preferable over the rigidity of an on-campus class.

Connecting of assignments to the final outcome of the class is even more important in online learning than it is in in-class learning. Even more than students who are actively sitting in a class, online students hate to feel that their time is being wasted. Busy work simply does not fly for the typical online student. These students are far more likely to complete and perform better on tasks where they actually understand why they are doing that assignment.