For many college students enrolled in online classes, spending the mornings on a message board discussing last night's assigned reading with classmates they've never met while in the comfort of their pajamas and slippers has become the norm. According to a 2012 study by the American Sociological Association, there is no significant difference in the quality of education students receive in well-designed online classes versus face-to-face. However, being aware of the differences in methods, class structure and needed study skills can help you decide which environment best fits your learning style.

Self-Directed Learning

Traditionally, students in college courses see their instructors a few times a week and are given explicit direction about reading and writing assignments during that time. In online classes, students are expected to be self-directed in completing requirements. Many students who work or have families have found online classes to be a good avenue because of the flexibility they provide. With no commute to school and no set class meetings, they are free to continue other responsibilities while getting an education at the same time.

Class Participation

In a face-to-face classroom, students are expected to arrive having done the assigned reading and ready to discuss it during the specific class period. In online classes, discussions take place on message boards or in chat rooms, where students are required to respond to reading assignments and interact with each other. The discussions can also occur over several days, as different people join in the conversation on their own time. A major advantage of online classes is that the playing field is leveled; everyone gets a chance to participate without the intimidation often induced in face-to-face environments. Online discussions also leave a record of responses that can be reviewed later, unlike the impermanence of class discussion.

Teaching Methods

For teachers, working with online students requires a different methodology than working in person. Since students are primarily learning the material through reading assignments, teachers must provide them with the most relevant literature and compose handouts that communicate major concepts. Making information accessible and interesting is also a challenge since students in online classes have a harder time focusing than in a classroom, where there is accountability for attentiveness. Gail McGovern, editor of the American Library Association's Continuing Library Education Network & Exchange Round Table's newsletter, recommends that teachers present their most relevant, engaging remarks first, then gradually move to what would be presented in an in-person lecture. Online classes also tend to use many multimedia presentations to take advantage of the medium they are working in. Teachers in face-to-face classes can rely more on immediate, interactive discussions and body language to facilitate understanding in a lecture setting.

Classroom Camaraderie

According to the American Library Association, many instructors feel that a drawback of online teaching is not being able to work as closely with students on an individual basis. These instructors believe that while some students thrive in an independent learning setting, others "feel disconnected from each other and the instructor." While a sense of community can still be forged through online discussion, the class dynamic will be different due to the lack of in-person contact and the common physical context of a classroom.