This might seem like an oxymoron, but it’s happening at colleges everywhere.

Last semester, my son took what’s called a “hybrid” course: the lectures were taught online but discussions and quizzes were in a classroom on campus. He took a hybrid because all of the on-campus sections for this particular class were filled by the time he registered.

At freshman orientation, your student might end up in a similar situation if they’re in one of the last sessions–many of the sections for required courses are closed by then. Read on and share the details about online courses with your teen before they head to campus.

Photo laptop & coffee

The reasons why As a parent, I was confused as to why my son needed to take an online course when he attended one of the largest universities in the country. With all of those buildings on campus full of classrooms and professors, how did he end up sitting in front of his computer in his dorm room taking a class?

After doing some research, I learned the answer is simply economics. Colleges, particularly public ones, have faced dramatic state funding cuts in the last few years, forcing them to come up with creative ways to offer the same courses for less money—tuition hikes can’t cover the entire shortfall.

The way colleges sees it, in an online course hundreds of or even a thousand students can be taught at the same time by one professor without the need for classroom space.

The options Online courses have been around for a while, usually as part of distance learning programs for students who can’t attend classes on campus for a variety of reasons.

An online class means the course is taught and exams given via computer. Some lectures are taught live and students are expected to participate. Other courses are video lectures, but require students to be online at specific times for discussion groups or to take tests. And there are classes that allow students to work at their own pace, as long as they complete all the required coursework by the end of the semester.

The hybrid option involves a combination of online and in-classroom work. The latter can be a lab, a discussion group and/or a site for testing.

For full-time, on-campus students, online and in-person classes cost the same.

The upside of online and hybrid classes Flexibility is a key motivation for students to go this route. For kids who are not by nature early risers, like my son, the chance to avoid an 8 AM class makes this a good option. Lectures can usually be viewed several times, helpful when a student needs extra time to learn the material or review for an exam. If the only available section for this course conflicts with another class, the student can now take both. (This is important for classes that must be taken in a set order.)

With hybrid classes, students still receive classroom interaction and support, but they watch lectures at a time that best fits their schedule. My son often watched the three weekly lectures consecutively for continuity. The flexibility also provides more time to complete homework. Plus, as a parent, you might appreciate knowing that the fancy new computer you bought is being used for academic purposes and not just social media, YouTube and Hulu.

The downside Some research implies students don’t learn as well through online classes. My son said that was the case with his course, but he attributed it more to the professor’s teaching abilities than to the online format.

This type of course challenges kids who prefer to ask questions during class, although some classes include a weekly online discussion component. The same for those who like to develop personal relationships with their professors. While hybrids offer more interaction, a teaching assistant, not the professor, usually leads the recitation sessions.

Who is best suited for an online course Students who know how to manage their time, have decent computer skills, are self-disciplined, need to take specific courses during specific semesters, don’t require a lot of interaction with an instructor or other students, and who like to sleep late or rise very early will do the best learning online.

In the comments section below, share your thoughts and advice about online classes for on-campus students.