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  • Writer's pictureDr. Caitlin Barnes

5 Misconceptions of Online Education

Updated: Jan 30, 2021

There are some fairly common misconceptions about both teaching and taking online courses. I think it’s important I bring these to your attention so we can move past some of these inaccuracies and negative perceptions.

Misconception #1: Online is Easier.

I hear this a lot. And not just easier for the students, but also easier to teach the course because you don’t have to go to class and there’s less work involved.

But this is really misleading, because there is a lot of work in an online course. Students aren’t able to catch you after class and ask questions, so you can end up answering far more emails from students than a traditional lecture-based course. In class discussions, you can’t simply award points by passing around an attendance sheet.

For an online discussion, each discussion board post is read and graded. If you asked for video submissions, you have to watch every video which can be time consuming.

The prep is possibly the most time consuming. Instructors could spend 3-6 months recording videos and preparing all of the materials they need for it to work effectively online.

Please know that I’m not saying an online instructor’s work is always harder or more work, but I am definitely saying we can no longer assume that it’s easier to teach online.

From the students’ perspective, they almost always assume that there will be less work to do in an online course, when in fact, it’s often more work than traditional courses.

Instructors tend to see the lack of physical presence in a classroom as fair game to create additional homework assignments or to assign more readings per week than usual to make up for that time. We need to be very clear about our expectations, and explain on the first day how long students should be working for the class each week.

It’s a matter of investment from the instructor. It’s our responsibility to ensure our online courses are no easier or more difficult than the face-to-face courses we offer.

Misconception #2: Online students are just lazy on-campus students.

It’s true that you may find the majority of your students right now to be traditional, on-campus students. Most likely, they have the ability to physically attend class.

But, we can’t effectively expand our online presence to the ever-growing population of distance learners without classes that can be completed 100% online. In a fully online course, there should never be a required assignment or extra credit opportunity that does not have an equivalent online option.

If the course is presented as 100% online, then we have to make sure that students can, in fact, complete the course without ever stepping foot on campus.

Remember: it’s not only distance learners that find online courses appealing.

Imagine you are a student who has debilitating anxiety, or extreme introversion. Online programs across the nation are popular with these students. Perhaps English is not your first language, or maybe you have trouble keeping up with a fast-paced lecture and love being able to watch, rewatch or slow down the lectures to learn at your own pace.

You never know what social, economic or learning backgrounds your students come from. It is so important for online instructors to hold an abundance of compassion and empathy for students when designing a course.

Don’t assume your students are lazy, they may be working two jobs or have recently had a traumatic experience and are just trying to get their degree wrapped up. Don’t jump into an email request ready to fight. Jump in and be ready to listen. The best way to address the needs of your students is on a case-by-case basis.

Misconception #3: Cheating is Rampant.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make as an online instructor is thinking you can 100% prevent ALL cheating in the class.

Cheating is an issue in face-to-face classes, too. If we haven’t eradicated it face-to-face, then we aren’t going to eradicate it online either.

But it may ease your mind a bit to know that there aren’t as many cheaters as you might expect. A study in 2009 found that students anonymously self-reported they were less likely to cheat in an online course than a face-to-face course.

And on an even larger scale, students reported a tiny difference in cheating between their face-to-face and online courses. Interestingly, there was significantly higher academic dishonesty in face-to-face courses, which includes things like copying homework assignments and other dishonest work outside of just exams.

Now, there’s A LOT of inconclusive research when it comes to cheating in an online course. And there are plenty of blogs and news articles out there to scare even the most dedicated online instructors.

But the results of this research verify that it is possible to have less cheating online, which means we can no longer assume cheating is raging through online courses with no control.

I’d like to share an example conversation I had with a faculty member, which represents a common misconception among instructors.

The instructor explained there was an average face-to-face exam score of 65% in a course taught for many years, but when the exam moved online for the first time, it went up to 85%. The instructor sees cheating as the reason the average went up, since the content was exactly the same.

I see comparing in-person to online assessments the same as comparing apples to oranges.

Much more evidence is needed before drawing the cheating conclusion. It may be the same content, but it was delivered differently than it was before. The change in average is an alarm that something isn’t the same, but you can’t assume the modality is to blame. It wasn’t just the assessment that moved online, it was the entire course.

Moving online doesn’t change just one variable, it changes all of them. So you have to look into the bigger picture to isolate the real issue.

It could be because no online, research-based strategies were implemented to reduce cheating.

It could be that the instructor was so focused on having the online version be successful that the students were given more resources than the in-person version.

It could be due to students being able to rewatch video lectures for optimal understanding.

Call me optimistic, but I want to give the students the benefit of the doubt. We do our students a disservice to think “what did they do” without first looking at the structure of the course.

Now, it is entirely possible that cheating was the reason for the increase in scores. There are several practices to reduce (not eliminate, just reduce) cheating in an online course, which I’ll talk about more in depth in another blog post.

Keep in mind that if students make up their minds that they want to cheat, they will be very dedicated to making that happen. There may not be any proactive measure that can prevent it, no matter what classroom setting we are talking about.

If you’ve been teaching for a while you’ll know that cheating is usually a very small percentage of students in your classes, and that reality carries over into online as well. The big takeaway message here is that cheating is everywhere and it’s not exclusive to online.

When online strategies are in place, cheating is no more prevalent than face-to-face cheating.

Misconception #4: Online quality is less than traditional face-to-face courses

Well if this were true then it would be on us, not on the students or on the online format, right?

It is up to the instructor to ensure the course is as rigorous as its equivalent face-to-face version. And at most universities, online courses are transcripted exactly the same as in-person courses.

Again, it is our responsibility to make sure all online courses are rigorous and uphold academic integrity standards. Academic rigor is difficult to measure, and should be determined by the content experts.

When addressing the quality or academic rigor of your online course, it really includes oversight of three things.

The first is to follow best practices for teaching an online course.

The second is to embrace everyone who teaches in your discipline, including adjuncts and teaching assistants, as part of the faculty to ensure they receive the training needed to conduct the course according to your standards.

Any instructor in your discipline will most definitely make connections with students in their courses, and it is vital that they are well prepared and connected with the rest of the institution. Take every opportunity to make those connections meaningful.

The third is to frequently review all online courses collaboratively to ensure quality is upheld over the years. Even if it’s just a matter of getting a colleague’s opinion, it’s best to have an outside perspective when it comes to the rigor of your online course.

While you are reviewing the course, make sure to avoid simply comparing whether your online course is as good as your face-to-face courses…meaning your face-to-face course should not be the standard of quality for online, because online is different.

You may not be doing the same activities online, so if the courses are different then you can’t compare the methods. Always focus on whether the students are meeting the course objectives, not whether it’s the same as another offering.

Enhance the quality of your course through regular assessment. Redesign and update your course at least every three years. Make sure your videos are current. And make sure your colleagues take a look at the course to help you remain up-to-date with the rigor you’ve established through your objectives.

Misconception #5: You can’t connect with students online

This one is just flat out not true.

I run into my online students on campus frequently, and I recognize them instantly. I can start up conversations with them on the spot, even if it’s the first time we’ve met face-to-face, because it feels like we’ve already met.

Think of online dating sites, or celebrities or even politicians. I am confident you have made emotional connections --or at least opinions -- about someone you have never met. This is usually done through one-sided communication.

You can feel connected to a person without ever meeting them face-to-face.

If you want to get to know your students, and if that is a priority for you, you will get to know your students.

But here’s the thing. Don’t have unrealistic expectations heading into the online environment.

You may still have those students who don’t attend class no matter what you do as an instructor.

You may have students who don’t participate in discussions, even if it’s required.

And you may not get to know all 150 students’ personalities in your online course, but you can get to know 15-20 really well…and really, that is similar to a face-to-face course.

Placing unrealistic expectations on your online students or on online learning as a whole is really just setting it up for failure before it has a chance to grow.


So to recap, there are 5 misconceptions about online courses that you should know are misleading and here are the reasons why:

First, online is not any easier or less work than a face-to-face course, because there can be more prep, emails and grading than a traditional course.

Second, online students are not just on-campus students who don’t want to go to class and that assumption can defeat the success of distance learners and students with non-traditional backgrounds.

Third, cheating is no more rampant than what occurs in a face-to-face course, and there are strategies we can implement to uphold academic integrity.

Fourth, quality is something each instructor controls. The online format should not make any difference to the quality of the course.

And fifth, if you want to get to know your online students, you will create opportunities to do so.



Stuber-McEwen, D., Wiseley, P., & Hoggatt, S. (2009). Point, click, and cheat: Frequency and type of academic dishonesty in the virtual classroom. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 12(3), 1-10.

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