Are Online Courses Effective? (Advantages and Challenges, Explained)

Published by: Julia


In a post-COVID-19 world where students of all ages were thrown into online schooling and online certifications became increasingly popular, online education expanded virtually overnight by necessity and continues to grow with new technology.

While the idea of sitting in your pajamas, drinking hot chocolate, and getting your degree at the same time might sound appealing, are online courses effective?

What are the advantages and challenges faced by online courses in comparison with brick-and-mortar teaching? How can e-learning efficacy be improved?

If you’re thinking of taking an online course and are wondering how effective it is, there may be good news; just be sure to take the right course the right way. 

Types of online classes

Just as there is no one perfect learning style, there are a variety of styles when it comes to online learning. There are degree programs and formal education structures for K-12 and University degrees.

There are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) such as Coursera and LinkedIn Learning that aim at unlimited participation and open online access for anyone who wants to learn. And there are also immersive learning experiences, such as Masterclass and among others, that are video and production based where the learner can learn on their own terms and at their leisure in a binge or in smaller bite-sized pieces.

Why Online Classes Are Better

Can online classes really 100% replace face-to-face learning? Not really. However, they can still be an effective way to learn.

The online world offers new opportunities for people who might not otherwise have access to education or certification programs.

It also offers new ways of learning, teaching, and designing a course. With this newfound online education, there are several advantages that face-to-face classroom learning simply can’t beat. 

Any Time, Anywhere

Online learning allows students to get an education when scheduling, distance, physical ability, or even a dislike of social interaction become a factor – all you need are a computer and a stable internet connection. 

Being an asynchronous format, those who weren’t able to attend class in person are now able to participate thanks to non-simultaneous communication in class discussions, presentations, and deadlines. The work will get done, it’s just a matter of when it is more convenient. 

What’s more is that students have continual access to course materials, recorded lectures, and class discussions – regardless of the time of day.

This is especially helpful for those who need to read or listen to something multiple times to fully digest the material. 

Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, online learning can provide a learning environment for anyone. 

Access to Resources

The web is your oyster when it comes to one’s access to resources. Teachers are able to easily compile links to relevant materials and scholarly articles.

Distinguished experts are able to offer guest lectures via video. Regardless of the resource, it’s exponentially easier to access, record, and share thanks to online courses. 

Equal Playing Field

Although nothing online is really anonymous, it does offer a level of anonymity when it comes to courses.

Regardless of appearance, background, age, or ability, everyone can attend as they are without judgment.

The focus of the class isn’t what the person two rows in front of you is wearing or if they’re too “old” to take a course on AI but rather the attention is on the course content and an individual’s contributions to the course material. 

Creative Teaching

People learn in a variety of ways and everything can be taught through a multitude of methods. Online courses boost those methods by providing more layers of different interactive environments to facilitate learning and critical thinking. 

Challenges and Improving the Efficiency of Online Learning

While online courses offer a lot of strengths and accessibility to education, nothing is perfect and there is always room to improve.

Some challenges even pose a threat to the success of online education. In order for an online course to be truly successful, the technology, material and subjects, students, teachers and facilitators, and curriculum must all be taken into account.


Without technology, online courses wouldn’t exist and we, as humans, are limited by our own success. With all the great aspects that come with online learning, it wouldn’t be possible without functional technology

Accessibility and Equity

There is no point in producing an online course if students aren’t able to access it due to a lack of a computer or functional WiFi connection.

This is an exceptional issue with lower socioeconomic countries and rural areas. Although some online courses offer app-friendly platforms, that doesn’t mean the small phone screen is the most effective way to learn and produce coursework. 

Technology and Computer Literacy

If you don’t know how a computer or platform works, you won’t be able to function on the system and therefore be unsuccessful in the learning environment. Learning and understanding how your computer works in function with the online platform are essential for online success. 

Limitations of Technology

Although we created it and it’s ever-improving, technology has its limitations. It’s not always reliable (automatically updates in the middle of a lecture, for example) making it not always the best option to use whereas in-person courses, once you and the professor arrive, are able to run without worrying about your WiFi connection or school servers becoming overloaded. 


Imagine trying to teach novice sports players how to play football online. Recognizing that not all subjects can be taught online is important to the success of an online course.

If the material is very hands-on such as sports or medical surgery, an online course simply won’t cut it. There is a possibility of a successful hybrid learning environment making a portion of the course accessible online and a portion in person.

Simply because there is a technological possibility to simulate a learning experience doesn’t mean it’s the best way to teach it. 


A great online course is nothing without the right students. Online education requires self-discipline and responsibility to sit and learn the course material, not get distracted on YouTube.

There are more and more distractions on the internet and less oversight. Students who are dependent and/or young learners can have difficulty independently following along and completing an online course by themselves. 

However, with the right time and material, teachers can work with the less-engaged or dependent students to make online courses work exceptionally for them. However, that does greatly take away from a teacher’s resources and time which aren’t always abundant.

Another way for students to be successful is to have norms set for engagement – students being required to ask questions regularly and respond to their fellow students, for example.

Teachers and Facilitators

A course becomes great not necessarily from its content but from its delivery. When a teacher is great, it’s easy to learn.

When a learning platform works well, it helps in the learning process. However, just because a teacher was great at teaching in person doesn’t mean they would do well online.

Functioning well in a virtual classroom is a necessity for success.

Creating a supportive online environment is a great way to compensate for a lack of physical presence. However, failure to do so could also create failure in student success in the online course. 

The Curriculum

A successful on-the-ground curriculum doesn’t always work perfectly when used online thanks to instructional and learning paradigms.

For example, long lectures that college professors are known for don’t translate well to online classrooms. However, dialog among students and virtual group interactions do.

The Effectiveness of Online Learning

Online courses will surely continue to grow but e-learning effectiveness is essential in doing so. 

In K-12 Schools

In recent years, virtual courses have become a rapidly growing teaching method in K-12 (primary and secondary) schools around the world. For example, Florida requires at least one online course to be taken in order to graduate high school. 

Many of these K-12 courses aim to be similar to in-person courses – the teacher heads discussions (live video or written chat) and students engage using critical thinking skills and return material and projects to the course instructor throughout.

While there is promising literature on the effectiveness of online learning for students in K-12, there are also studies (1, 2) that contradict the literature and provide evidence that online courses are less effective overall.


It’s difficult being a graduate student or taking night classes with a full-time job. Luckily,  Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) facilitate the ability to learn when you have time.

Unlike other online course types, MOOCs are proven to be just as effective as classroom learning – regardless of how prepared the student is and their knowledge before the course begins.

In part, this is due to the flexibility of this type of online learning; students can create their own schedules, grow through experiential learning, and take more control of their education. 


So, are online courses effective? It depends. Some students do just as well in online courses, some do worse, and some do better. 

If a student isn’t willing to learn, they won’t. If a student has fewer resources at home or is too dependent on others to learn, they learn less when they are not at school.

However, if a student is an independent learners and motivated, they are more likely to succeed in an online course. In part, the success of online courses is what you make of it.  

If the course is formatted with a quality curriculum, produced on an intuitive platform, and carried out effectively thanks to the instructor, online courses can be effective. However, without the right pedagogical approach, the course won’t stand a chance – regardless of how great a student is.

Some people are skeptical of e-learning effectiveness and while not every course is well set up, not every student is eager and able to learn in an online environment, the future of learning is here and it’s time to embrace it.

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