Chapter 10 Online Learning

10.1 Common Assumptions

If you have taken an online course before, you may know if it is right for you. If you haven’t, it is a good idea to consider the pros and cons of learning online, before signing up.

One of the mistakes that people often make when deciding to take an online course is to make assumptions about learning online. They may have taken or heard of an online course and assumed that all online courses work the same way.

Common assumptions about online learning:

  • Assuming you can take as long as you like to complete it
  • Assuming you can fit it into your already busy schedule because there aren’t scheduled classes to attend
  • Assuming that online means that there are no class caps
  • Assuming that you can start anytime
  • Assuming there are no face-to-face components or scheduled online time commitments
  • Assuming that online courses are as portable as a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection
  • Assuming that online isn’t as much work


Although these assumptions are sometimes true, often they are not. Online courses can be structured very differently from each other. You will need to find out about the structure of the course you want to take when deciding if it is right for you. Here are some things you will want to consider.

Completion time: Most courses have a completion deadline. If it is six months to a year, you should have plenty of time to complete the course. Some courses give only four to sixteen weeks, and these are usually more demanding to keep up with coursework every week. For some courses the deadline only entails a date by which the whole course must be completed by. It doesn’t matter if you spread it out evenly or cram it all in at the end (though not a recommended study skills strategy) as long as it is completed before the deadline. However, other online courses have strict deadlines throughout the course. For example, the course might have a regular schedule where assignments are due every Friday, forum posts need to be made throughout the week, and specific tests are scheduled throughout the term. Don’t get caught making assumptions, and check out the schedule for the course you want to take. Make sure it is doable for you.

Busy schedules: Many people think that just because there are no scheduled classes that they will be able to fit in their studies in all their free time. Many students overestimate how much free time they have and are panicked when they realize that only a few weeks into the course they are already very behind. Many post-secondary courses require between nine to twelve hours per week per course. Look at a typical week’s schedule and mark in your commitments such as your job, volunteer commitments, and family responsibilities. Schedule where you will work on your course. If you can’t carve out nine to twelve hours per week regularly, you may not have the time to do the course, or you may have to give things up to make the time.

Class caps: For some, their experience with online courses includes short certification courses such as Serving it Right or FoodSafe. These courses can be taken online, and the tests are multiple choice so people can get their results instantly. The whole test is automated. People mistakenly assume that all online courses are like that and, as a result, think they can sign up anytime and that unlimited numbers of people can take the course at a time. Post-secondary courses offered online are rarely like that. They have instructors who mark your assignments, give individual feedback, and are available for help. Courses include class discussions and forum posts, and they have many of the components of a face-to-face class. As a result, instructors cannot have limitless people in their online classes, and institutions have class caps (maximum class sizes) for online courses just as they do for face-to-face courses. Online courses fill up and have wait lists just like traditional classes. Don’t assume you can sign up for your course anytime. Register early to ensure a “seat” in the class.

Start dates: Another common misunderstanding about online courses is that people assume they can start anytime. Some post-secondary institutions, such as Open Learning-Thompson Rivers University, are generally structured that way and have continuous intake, however many are not. They have semester start dates just like face-to-face classes. These are usually at the start of September for the fall semester and the start of January for the winter semester. Others may have start dates at the beginning of every month. Do your research and see what start dates are available to you as you do your planning.

Synchronous or asynchronous: Synchronous online courses have a class cohort that meets at regular times. They have lectures or class forums requiring everyone to be online at the same time. It is somewhat like having scheduled class times in the face-to-face classroom, but in this case everyone has to be at their computer at the same time. If this is the case in the course you are considering, you’ll need to see if the course schedule works with your personal schedule. Some classes have some parts of the course as synchronous. For example, a class may need to meet to do labs in person. These are often referred to as hybrid courses. Some courses are completely asynchronous (self-paced) but they require an on-site seminar every few months. Know what the requirements of the course are before spending your money on something you are unable to commit to.

Portability: Often online learning conjures up the image of traveling around with a laptop, light and easy, knowing that all your learning material is digital. This is often not the case. Just because the course is online doesn’t mean that everything you’ll need is online. There are often a stack of textbooks, lab equipment, journal articles, and manipulatives that accompany an online course. Sometimes online courses are not as portable as you would expect.

Author’s Story: Online Portability

While I was on an educational leave working on my Master’s of Distance Education, I expected online learning to be very portable. I planned on moving to a new place every month for variety and adventure. I soon learned that was very impractical. In each place I set up my studying environment, I filled the desk with textbooks and materials. I usually used two laptops so that I could use one for research and the other for working on my assignments (essentially creating a double-screen). This, of course, wasn’t necessary but it was convenient and I appreciated the ease of having more than one screen open in front of me. I also found that I liked to print off many of the journal articles that I was using in my research essays. It helped to physically have them to mark up, highlight, and organize in piles. In the end, my studying environment was very efficient, but certainly not portable, so I didn’t travel nearly as much as I thought I would.

— Mary Shier, College of the Rockies

Nice and easy: Another assumption is that an online class will be easy. This also is rarely true. In fact, it can pose challenges for some learners. Instead of being able to listen to a lecture, students may have much more reading to do. This can be more time consuming for some learners. If students are working in isolation, it can take more time just figuring out what is required rather than having classmates to discuss things with. (However, many online courses have chat rooms for classmates to discuss these kinds of issues.) Thoughtfully crafting forum posts (the online version of a class discussion) to add to online discussions can be far more time-consuming than just adding to a verbal discussion in class. Online courses are rarely easier than their face-to-face counterparts, however, they do often save time in other ways, such as travelling to and from class, so it can work itself out.

Here are some typical questions to research answers for when considering an online course.

  • What are the course start dates? Is it continuous intake, or are there specified start dates?
  • Is it semesterized or self-paced?
  • How long do I have to complete the course?
  • What happens if I don’t complete the course in time?
  • Are there any synchronous components to the class?
  • What are the office hours or times of availability for instructor help?

Asking these questions will help you avoid falling into the trap of making typical assumptions.



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Student Success Copyright © 2020 by Mary Shier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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