An "online course" can mean any several things:
- A distance learning course is the online analogue of a limited-enrollment, for-credit course.
- A Massive Open Online Course [MOOC] is an open-enrollment course, the vast majority of which currently do not provide credit beyond a completion certificate.
- In a hybrid course some instruction is delivered online, but some still occurs in a campus or classroom setting.
- Many variations are possible, such as having all instruction and student work take place online but with in-person discussions, office hours and/or exams.
Online courses can offer many advantages in terms of flexibility and access:
- Instruction may take the form of live video streams, pre-recorded video or audio, text, or student exercises embedded within instructional media, or a combination of these.
- Course development and deployment may be less constrained by the traditional academic calendar.
- If the course allows for it, students can similarly do their coursework with fewer calendar or schedule constraints.
- A larger and/or more varied student population may be reached.
- Online course platforms typically feature data tracking of student access and performance which can aid in learning assessment and educational research.
- MOOCs in particular provide a "large N", allowing for more fine-grained research opportunities such as assessing differentiated instruction and assessment methods.
However, there are possible downsides to online education; many of these are a consequence of the inevitable limitations of having a network mediating all interactions, the scalability to large numbers of geographically dispersed students, or both:
- While online platforms can be used to foster active learning by students, they may also induce student passivity if a course relies overmuch on video-based instruction.
- Interpersonal interactions which occur fairly naturally in a campus setting need to be deliberately engineered online, if they are possible at all.
- Even simple assignments may require having special tools developed in order for students to do them online.
- Providing appropriate feedback to students so they can progress in their learning can be a huge logistical and cultural challenge.
- Best practices for assessing student work, especially in non-technical and non-introductory courses, have not yet been determined.
- The anonymity allowed by only knowing your students and their work through the internet opens up questions of academic integrity and its verification.
- In principle, relying on an online platform to deliver a course may result in a long-term reduction in workload for the instructor(s), but the initial overhead of setting up an online course is usually much higher than anticipated and the long-term time savings may be more than overcome by ongoing course-management and updating tasks.
Of course, comparing residential and online courses is somewhat of an "apple and oranges" exercise, given the potential large differences in student numbers and demographics. Your choice to offer a course online will likely be motivated by the opportunity to reach more or different students, or the same students in a different way, rather than by issues of course management.