15 Happy Surprises About My Online Learning Experience

Educators are embracing the Internet as the newest classroom tool. It’s now entirely possible to pursue an education from home, or as you travel the world.

I started taking online classes as I finished high school. As a result, I was able to get ahead on my university work, and transfer directly to an influential university without ever enduring the hassle of the dreaded SAT.

Still, I had a few misconceptions about online learning when I first got started. As I’ve taken several virtual courses, I’ve learned that many of the assumptions I and others had made about this space were wrong.

Here are the 15 things I found most surprising about online learning:

1. Online education is hands-on.

When I first enrolled in distance courses through a university, I was worried. I didn’t want to spend all of my study time on a computer. I know that I’m more likely to retain knowledge if I can apply it in the real world. How would an online class possibly provide those kinds of assignments? I pictured a virtual classroom full of glassy-eyed students reading articles on the university webpage and filling in standardized electronic tests.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Much of the work assigned in the classes I’ve taken has been hands-on. Students are actively encouraged to leave their computers behind and explore the world around them for applicable solutions to problems. You can expect to do a lot of research on your own time. How involved you are in creating an interactive, hands-on experience is almost entirely up to you, but you’ll be encouraged to think outside the box and take charge of your own assignments.

2. Online courses aren’t a second-best alternative to face-to-face classes.

Why would you take online classes if you could just as easily attend on-site? Online education must be for travelers and students with a less-than-flexible schedule, right? Not quite.

I was surprised to find that many of the other students I learned with weren’t dealing with an unmanageable schedule or learning long-distance. Some enjoyed the flexibility of virtual learning, some preferred to work from the comfort of home, and others liked the ability to customize the material to their own learning styles. A few, myself included, had finished high school years ahead of time and enjoyed the anonymity of distance education. As it turns out, there are many reasons online education may be ideal for passionate students from all walks of life.

3. Online education encourages lots of human interaction.

Again, I went into distance education with a mental image of a classroom of students all staring into their laptops. In reality, there’s a great deal of human interaction that goes on in a virtual classroom. You regularly partner with other students to complete projects and the professor is always on hand via email, chat, or video call to answer questions and work as a tutor.

4. You can build long-lasting relationships through online classes.

In my early teen years, I was just getting into freelance writing and blogging. So, as part of my school year, I signed up for an online teen blogging mentorship course. That was my first real experience with online education, and it was life-changing. I was exposed to new ideas, other kids who had similar dreams and goals, and teachers who were passionate about what I wanted to do. We bonded instantly. Years later, I still collaborate with my mentors and some of my fellow students from that class. Some have become my very close friends. It’s absolutely possible to create long-lasting business relationships and friendships through online classes.

5. You don’t have to do everything alone.

When my friends who are learning on a campus hear about my traveling and online coursework, they say “Wow! That’s great. I wish I could do that, but I’m just terrible at time management. I would never get anything done unless I had the teacher standing over my head.”

But online courses function much as in-person courses do. You show up for lectures. You take quizzes. You complete assignments. You’re expected to participate, and a good professor will contact you if your grades drop and you aren’t attending lectures. Of course you have more freedom to do it your way, on your time, but there is accountability. You will be a part of a community that will notice if you seem to be struggling and reach out to provide support.

6. Online classes also mean offline learning.

One would think online education would be, well, online! For the most part, it is, but you can expect to spend a good deal of time away from the computer working on projects. Maybe you’ll find yourself painting in the park for an art class, or tracking down local politicians for interviews. I ended up working as a community volunteer for one paper, and spending time at a coffee shop down the road practicing my Spanish for another exam.

7. I didn’t even think about books — books are a pain.

I assumed online education wouldn’t require books. I will say that this is one aspect of distance education that I struggle with, primarily because I’m pursuing a degree and traveling simultaneously. Getting books shipped from the U.S. to backwater Southeast Asia is an unbelievable hassle, especially if you only have a couple of weeks before class starts. The best way to ease the struggle is to find a wonderfully patient bookstore assistant, look for your books online first, pay the big bucks for decent shipping, and hope for the best. If you aren’t shipping internationally, it’s no problem. If you are, good luck to you.

8. Online education doesn’t just cater to one learning style.

It’s easy to assume that online education is best for those who learn best visually. Really, I found the courses to be quite customizable. If you learn best by reading, looking at charts, and writing, like myself, you’ll be in the majority. If you prefer to listen to lectures or get really hands-on, you’ll find that the professors work to create substitutes to accommodate your learning style. There’s often videos to watch, recorded lectures or notes to listen to, and alternative ways to complete assignments.

9. You don’t need to join a program to participate in online learning.

You don’t need to be actively pursuing a degree to take online courses through a university. In fact, you don’t even need to take university-level courses to pursue an online education. Sites like Noodle make it easy to find tutors on a wide range of subjects, and resources like Coursera offer hundreds of free accredited classes to students of all ages and experience levels. The number of subjects you can pursue via the Internet is limitless and you can mix and match courses from various providers to build your academic pathway.

10. You need to be a “student” to pursue an online education.

You don’t need to be a student at a school or college to take classes online. You simply need to have a passion for a subject, the ability to commit time and effort to the class, and an Internet-connected computer. Often you don’t need any kind of qualifications to sign up for online classes (unless you decide to pursue an online degree). You can start whenever you’d like!

11. You don’t have to take a standardized test to be part of an online university.

I never took any of the evaluative tests required of a high school student planning to attend university. Instead, I enrolled in distance education through Oregon State University as a non-degree-seeking student, took a few classes, and then used my transcript to transfer into Queen’s University in Canada.

12. There are no education requirements for enrolling in online classes.

Didn’t finish high school? Online universities don’t care about your credentials so long as you aren’t applying to pursue a degree on-site. It’s absolutely possible for you to take distance courses through a university, or online courses through a program like Coursera. And once you have a few university credits under your belt, you can easily apply as a degree-seeking student. This is an education hack few people know about, but it can save you a great deal of hassle.

13. You can succeed in the online classroom without being an expert at self-teaching.

When I first started taking classes from the comfort of a hostel dorm, I expected tons of material to be thrown my way. I thought it’d be my job to sort everything out, take charge of my own learning process, and essentially self-teach. Which was ridiculous, of course. The professors are always on hand if you need help, the materials are explained thoroughly in lectures and small group chats, and it’s incredibly easy to figure out even during your first course. You don’t need to be an efficient super-genius with amazing time-management and self-teaching skills. As a student, I was able to relax, follow the guidelines, and focus on the content of the courses I enrolled in.

14. You don’t need a high GPA to take an online course.

You don’t need to be young, brilliant, or “have it all figured out” to learn something new. A poor GPA won’t hold you back from taking online courses. In fact, you don’t even need a GPA to begin with. Another upside of this new method of education is that it’s accessible to anyone with a high-speed Internet connection and a working computer. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you have those two things, you can start today.

15. Online education isn’t an easy way out of a difficult course.

This is a common misconception. If there’s a course a student is worried about struggling with, she may be tempted to take it online because it’s “easier.” Don’t fall prey to this. Online courses are just as intense and demanding as on-campus courses. Perhaps more so, because there is more freedom and it can be easier for some to stop taking the course seriously. Know your limitations. How do you handle stress? Will you be better able to focus in a physical classroom or in your living room? What hours are your best for studying? All these things will factor into your final decision. The important thing to remember is that online education is not necessarily the easy way out of a tough class.

Ready to take your learning outside the classroom? Check out: College on the Road: A Traveller’s Guide to School.