Real & Surprising Insights from Online Students

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Are online colleges as good as traditional colleges? Students who have experienced both, tell us online college is better for some very good reasons!

The big positive of online education has been the same for years: flexibility. For many working adults wanting to earn a college degree without having to quit their jobs, online education is their only option. But flexibility isn't the surprising answer.

As expected, the majority of testimonials put flexibility at the top of the list. Almost every student, in fact, mentioned how the flexibility of online college made getting a degree possible, or at minimum made it easier for them and their families.

Check out our ranking of the 50 Best Online Colleges

Flexibility is clearly the top-cited advantage of an online degree. But one is left to wonder how this reflects on the quality of the education received.

After the team at TheBestSchools.org reviewed over 1,000 student testimonials, a second major theme became clear, and it focuses directly on that unanswered question.

The second most cited advantage of online education: online students reported more positive and helpful interaction with classmates, and better access to their instructors and communication with them, than they experienced as traditional on-campus students.

The common belief — which may now be a misconception — has been that earning a degree online provides flexibility, but you will likely earn that degree on your own, with limited access to classmates and professors.

Imagine our surprise when testimonial after testimonial, like the ones below, talked about students having more interactions with fellow classmates and more access to professors than they had while attending courses in a traditional classroom setting.

Better Interaction with Classmates

Online students reported to us that interaction with classmates was far better, and indeed, farther reaching. It only makes sense when you think about it. In the traditional classroom, most students, and typically some of the smartest students, stay quiet. Besides sharing a room and organizing yourselves to navigate the doorway at the end of class, little interaction with peers occurs in a classroom. Sure, some professors try to fix that by requiring a group project or two in a semester, but it serves only to force students into a handful of exchanges with a limited number of classmates.

But what if every classroom discussion included comments from each of your classmates? And what if their thoughts had been deliberated and carefully composed because they were visible to everyone? Well, online courses make that possible. Students share their ideas in writing, so sharing becomes expected and taking time to write out thoughts clearly is the standard.

Our online students interviewed mentioned a few more bonuses. They appreciate that everyone shares, but they also claimed the online forums have a lot of back and forth between students and with their instructors. And, since students experience no geographical boundaries online, exchanges occur with students around the world, which students report as expanding their viewpoint on matters discussed.

And there’s more. Students also like that they can return to the conversation later. Discussions don’t end when the class period does, with little chance of being rekindled. Some students told us that conversations went deeper with some classmates, and — by mutual agreement — continued for weeks afterward. In terms of educational quality metrics, this is a remarkable outcome.

Better Accessibility & Communication with Professors

Online students reported improved interaction with a more diverse set of classmates. But notice also the mention of the professor’s involvement. Even if student interaction with an instructor was more limited than with fellow classmates, that students and professors reportedly conversed more often online than in an on-campus classroom is a major finding. Even when online course professors didn’t engage in dialog online, they saw the thoughts shared by their students and better understood how students are responding to the material taught. This level of student-instructor interaction doesn’t happen easily nor often in a traditional classroom setting. Too often, professors can’t asses their students' grasp of material until grading an assignment or test.

In addition to more engagement with the professor in topical forums, online students reported greater access to online course instructors. Traditionally, busy professors limit office hour availability for students outside of class times. If you need something, don’t email, just visit me during my office hours, they say, then some may secretly wish no one shows. And many times, no one does.

Busy student schedules don’t always align with an instructor’s office hours either. Yes, most professors will accommodate students as needed, but whether outwardly expressed or not, students feel constrained to office hours or feel like they are taking advantage of a professor’s limited time. This puts students in an uncomfortable spot, and that’s often enough to turn them away.

Online instructors, however, expect alternative means for communicating with students. Whether during office hours or outside of them, they expect to handle student emails, phone calls, and computer interface conversations. Because the expectation of the professor must change for online students – who can’t make it to the instructor’s office – professors are prepared to engage students in more accommodating ways.

Conclusion

Our team at TheBestSchools.org spends most of our time researching online education, from reviewing and ranking online degree programs, to reporting student news relevant to online students through our magazine, The Quad. Our goal is to provide helpful content, but reviewing the student testimonials we regularly received has been a major highlight and great encouragement for our work. Helping students find the best online degree programs for their interests matters greatly to us. And, it’s good to know that, in many cases, we’re presenting to our visitors direction for obtaining that elusive college degree. But receiving feedback from students that we are also pointing them toward a higher-quality, deeper-level of learning — well, that’s priceless motivation for our mission.

A Sampling of Student Testimonials

While we could provide hundreds, here are just a few examples confirming the claims above, all of which came from students who have attended a traditional university in the past.

STUDENT TESTIMONIAL
Being a high school assistant principal requires devoting many nights and weekends to school functions. With an online program, I can complete my work and interact with my peers at any time as I am not confined to a few hours once a week. Also, my conversations with my peers extend over days and allow both my fellow students and me to interact in authentic and meaningful dialogue. We are able to analyze and evaluate our thoughts before posting them on discussion boards. Sometimes people are not comfortable speaking in front of others or take time to think through their answers; an online platform solves both of these issues. So far, my interactions with my peers have been rich and insightful while also allowing for multiple perspectives.
 — Nicole, F., EdD in Leadership and Innovation, Arizona State University
STUDENT TESTIMONIAL
The amazing professors at Liberty University have made the entire experience extremely positive. They are eager to help with our studies, and it truly feels like they want us to succeed. The students also give feedback on our assignments through discussion boards, and I feel as though I have grown through hearing what my peers have to say about my work. I have also been able to use my work to start building my design portfolio, which allows me to start applying for design jobs as I study.
 — Lydia, M., BFA in Graphic Design, Liberty University Online
STUDENT TESTIMONIAL
One of the most positive experiences of my online program has been connecting with people in similar situations taking courses from all over the world. In my last class, I connected with an army wife who was stationed in Germany at the time. I think that this is a unique experience. Secondly, I enjoy the flexibility online classes offer. While they are not self-paced in theory, I am able to spend more or less time on a topic within the outlined time frame based on my needs.
 — Hilary, L., BS in Health Sciences - Physical Therapy Assisting, Northern Arizona University
STUDENT TESTIMONIAL
One positive experience I have had thus far with online college is to be a role model for my kids that you can always reinvent yourself, think outside of the box, and reach your goals no matter what your age. As I register for classes and take online training, they are nearby and see that higher learning is real and everyone can do it. A second positive experience is that the staff at my university is open and helpful to online students. I was fearful that I would be alone in my educational pursuits. However, there have been multiple connections on what to expect, how to connect and be a part of a larger team with the same goals. I am connecting with people I would never have the opportunity to meet otherwise.
 — Julie, H., Master of Public Health, Texas Tech University Health Science Center
STUDENT TESTIMONIAL
In my online college experience I have been pleasantly surprised at the diverse student body and the variety of academic and practical real-world experience that they bring to the program. In my opinion, that adds tremendously to the academic experience as there exists a sharing of knowledge and expertise that enhances the overall value of the program. As many students can relate, grasping knowledge from merely reading a textbook, watching a video, or listening to a professor can be a challenging experience. As such, having the ability to share ideas and knowledge from a wide cross-section of students aids tremendously in the learning process. Moreover, being able to pursue your education on your schedule via online technology is priceless.
 — Roderick, K., MEng - Construction Engineering Management, University of Alabama, Birmingham

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