Online Learning Experience vs Traditional Classroom Experience

by Carol Aslanian

Once you’ve made that important decision to pursue a degree program, the next logical question is whether to study online or take part in the traditional classroom experience. The reality is there are pros and cons to both learning options, but today many students are choosing to pursue their degrees online. In fact, official 2012 data from the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education System (IPEDS) survey showed that 5.5 million students took at least one online course and 2.6 million studied completely online. [i] To find out why, let’s look at three key considerations when choosing a degree program and examine whether online or traditional learning options come out on top.


By now, you’re aware that online degree programs offer greater flexibility than campus-based programs. Flexibility is generally more of a concern for students who have to consider how they will fit their studies into their work and family commitments—and online classes win out by allowing students to tailor their schedules accordingly. With the traditional classroom experience, students must choose from a fixed schedule of options that may not work with their personal schedules. To that end, in our 2014 survey of online students, 15% indicated that they didn’t choose a campus-based program because the classes they wanted weren’t available when they needed them. Twenty-two percent of students also reported leaving traditional learning settings because they got a new job that prevented them from attending classes—and 20% said that they left a campus-based program because they moved. Particularly in the latter two instances, these types of situations could have been avoided by studying online. [i]


In my experience, many students worry—unnecessarily—that they won’t be able to interact effectively with their classmates when they study online. While it is true that some students may thrive from the in-person interactions of a classroom setting, there are many online learning tools such video and chat software that facilitate communication in a very meaningful way. And for some students, interacting online—rather than face-to-face—can help can alleviate feelings of shyness or social anxiety to help them more effectively contribute to group conversations than would be possible in a classroom. Less distractions, and more time to work out clear arguments, can actually lead to better overall critical discussion!

Transfer Credits

Transferring credits could be an important way for students to reduce the time and cost of earning a degree. In fact, of those online undergraduate students surveyed, 80% reported having credits to transfer—the typical number falling between 30-60 credits. Roughly half of these students said “most” or “all” of their transfer credits were accepted into an online program. Not only that, but 80% reported that it was easy to find information about transfer credits, have their questions answered quickly and receive prompt decisions about acceptance of transfer credit. Receiving this type of easy access to information—and timely responses—may be a more difficult prospect when dealing with traditional learning institutions. [i]

What Does It All Mean?

Students seem to be finding satisfaction with the online learning model. Almost half (47%) of online learners surveyed in 2014 rated online classes as “better” than those in a classroom setting. It’s clear that online students, and most students in all likelihood, are looking to enhance their careers by earning their degrees, whether that be by pursuing full-time work, new jobs, or better positions. Within a year of graduation, 40% of online students surveyed reported improvement in their employment status—typically in the form of a raise or a promotion. And 60% of undergraduates and 70% of graduate students said they were completely satisfied with their investment of time and money in their online degree. Given the current realities of today’s job market and the high cost of education—these numbers may illuminate that students regard online learning in a positive way. [i]

Sources: [i]