How Do Online Classes Work?

How Online Courses Work

You have likely heard that online learning is a growing trend, and with recent COVID-19 restrictions, online classes have been a necessary lifeline for education. But how do online classes work? Are they effective? Do people actually like taking online classes? Read on to find answers to some of the most common questions about online classes.

What should students know before starting an online class?

Students in elementary, junior high school or high school courses should organize their supplies and make copies of things like assignments and syllabi that will be needed in the subject or class. Checking in with the teacher to see what the expectations are goes a long way towards a successful online subject or class experience. Students can also talk with parents or peers to make sure they have all they need for class prior to the start. 

College students should prepare accordingly for an online college course, making sure to review the requirements prior to the start date. Gather needed materials, know when/if classes meet, and how often you need to post assignments. In addition, understand requirements for dropping a class with as little financial and time commitment as possible, just in case. 

What do I need to know before starting an online college program?

Prospective online college students looking for an online degree program with all classes online need to do their homework. They should check out the admissions page at the school of interest and understand the requirements for the degree they’re interested in earning in an online format. It’s not unusual that some in-person requirements may be part of an online degree program, so make sure you are prepared to make the trip if that is the case. 

How do online classes work?

No matter what level of courses you’re taking, online classes typically work in a similar way. Students have a username and password to log into a learning management system, or LMS. Examples of a LMS include Canvas, Blackboard, and Moodle. These learning management systems serve as a portal or dashboard where students can attend class, interact with other students, download PDF’s, monitor their academic progress, take quizzes and tests, and more. This is also where students contact their teachers with questions or concerns, with teachers sometimes having office hours through the LMS. 

What if I don’t have my own computer?

Although it’s highly recommended that online students have their own computer with reliable internet service, it is possible to manage without your own. Online students always need reliable access to a computer and internet.  This can be done through the school’s computer lab, a school or public library, or through a family member’s or friend’s computer. Access needs to be reliable to avoid disappointing class results. Keep in mind that there will be required software in addition to a computer. 

Can I access classes on devices other than my computer?

For ultimate flexibility, online classes that can be accessible through the LMS on devices such as a tablet or smartphone are sometimes a possibility. Not all schools offer this, so it would be a good idea to find out if your program offers this, if it is an important feature for you. If you have a demanding schedule and need to work your schoolwork in, finding a program that can be logged into from a mobile app would be needed. 

How are online classes structured?

Although structure may vary from class to class, all online students will be required to log into a LMS portal regularly. After logging into the portal, students typically have assignments to complete, may be required to respond to other students’ posts, and attend classes that are either live at a specific time or accessible at any time. 

Do online students need to be in class at a specific time? 

As far as structure, online classes will be either synchronous or asynchronous.

Asynchronous classes offer more flexibility for students. Lectures are accessible when students have time to view. Student experience is somewhat self-paced, but they still must meet weekly deadlines. Synchronous classes require students to view lectures at a specific time, similar to an in-person class that requires students to actually be present. 

Do online classes sometimes have times for in-person learning?

Sometimes schools require students to attend in-person programming before or during the program. The length of these requirements vary, so check before signing up for a class or program with residency requirements. These in-person requirements may include team-building activities, networking sessions, or intensive education sessions.

Do students interact and get to know each other and their instructor in an online class?

Students most typically communicate through group projects, discussion boards, videoconferencing, phone, or email. Students often need to communicate well and engage in conversations about course material. Online students need to be proactive if they want to develop relationships in the online class format. 

Is the workload of an online course similar to an in-person class?

If you think online classes are less challenging, think again. Like all courses, both in-person and online, difficulty will vary. Use this general rule of thumb for studying time needed for coursework: for subjects that are difficult, plan on four hours of study per week, per credit hour. For less challenging courses, plan on two to three hours per week, per credit hour. Don’t assume content is easy because it’s online. Many find online classes more challenging than in-person ones. 

What kind of assignments are required in online classes? 

Typical coursework for online classes may include readings with an online response, viewing video materials and responding, essays and papers, online exams, discussion boards, group projects, and journal entries. Assignments may be very similar to those done in classroom courses. Online assignments responding to their professor’s questions in a discussion board format is a very typical requirement. Online students should be prepared for group projects that require students to communicate virtually, as well as for remote online presentations.

How long are online classes?

Online college courses typically run the same length as in-person courses, around 13-15 weeks. Accelerated courses will be shorter in length, running two to seven weeks long. Some online degree programs adhere to traditional semester schedules, while other programs divide the year into shorter terms. For example, instead of taking four courses lasting 14 weeks, students may take two courses at a time with seven week sessions. College students should check the program’s format and course length to ensure that it meets their expectations.

Students in elementary, junior high school or high school will have marking periods just as if they were in class. 

How are tests and exams taken online?

What would a course be without some exams? Online learning typically includes exams of some kind. Some are taken through the class website. Others are administered through another online program. Some may require proctored exams, requiring students to visit a local testing site with an in-person proctor. There are also virtually-monitored online exams where the proctor watches students through a webcam. There is also computer software that detects cheating by checking the test taker’s screen. 

Exams are typically at set times, so test-takers should make sure their internet connection is secure for the testing period. Professors may allow for making up the exam if you’re logged off the internet, but of course nothing is guaranteed. 

Are online exams open-book?

Some instructors may have open-book quizzes and exams that allow students to refer to learning materials when answering questions, but of course, this may not always be the case. Closed-book exams and quizzes, using the honor system or some kind of online proctoring system, require students to not refer to any texts or other materials while answering questions. 

For college degree programs, can degree completion be accelerated?

In some cases, completing a degree can be accelerated, saving students both time and money. Some programs include competency-based online learning, allowing students to move quickly through material they already know and spend more time on topics new to them. Some programs have students earn credits for past work or military service experience. In addition, some universities offer a subscription-based program, allowing students to register for self-paced courses over several months and accelerating their program.

Are the education goals for online classes the same as for in-person classes?

In general, online classes have the same educational goals as traditional classes do. Online students are required to complete readings and homework assignments just like in-person students, but rather than turning in assignments in-person, assignments are uploaded on a website. 

Online students are required to participate just as they are in a traditional classroom, but through an online format. Students in an online class typically are required to respond to questions from the professor and to other student’s responses, making the experience more interactive. Online participation counts towards a final grade just as in-person participation does. 

Can online college students get financial aid?

Students registered for online classes at an accredited college or university are eligible for the same financial aid as students attending in-person. Online students can apply for grants, scholarships, and loans. 

When financing your educational dreams, the first step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is filled out online every year starting October 1. Even if you don’t anticipate qualifying for need-based aid, filling out the FAFSA can lead to scholarship opportunities. Check in with the financial aid office to inquire about local scholarships or financial aid, as well as with your employer to see if they offer tuition assistance. 

Why does it matter if an online college is accredited?

Choosing an accredited school ensures the strict standards established by the accrediting board have been met, ensuring a quality program. There are two main accreditation types in the United States, regional and national. Regional accreditation is the “gold standard,” with more than 86% of U.S. colleges being regionally accredited. National accreditation is more typically for for-profit schools, and vocational or technical programs.

Choosing a school that is not accredited makes getting needed financial aid and transferring academic credits difficult. In addition, the degree earned may not be respected in the workplace, making it more difficult to pass licensing exams or find employment in your field than if you had graduated from an accredited school. 

How do I choose the best online college program for me?

Some factors to consider when choosing a school include: is it accredited? Does it offer a degree program to help me reach my professional goals? Can I transfer credits in or out? How long is the program? Is it affordable to attend? Are classes synchronous or asynchronous? What kind of support services do they provide?

Finding a program that offers the things you need goes a long way to helping you be successful in meeting your education goals. 

What about subject matter that is more suited to in-person instruction? 

While many things are appropriate to learn online, some subjects are not suited to online learning, such as welding, where students must put what they learn into practice. Nursing is another area requiring in-person clinical or lab settings. Art and dance are two other areas that do not lend themselves readily to remote learning. 

In these areas, there will likely be online learning, but students will work in a hybrid format. Hybrid learning format requires some online coursework to be completed, with the added in-person setting for portions of the course.

What about lab courses? 

Online lab courses may include online modules with animation, and many times lab kits that are tailored for the specific course. These lab kits often include instructions and worksheets for the experiments, as well as needed safety equipment. Consider the logistics of doing labs at home, including safety and where you can do experiments and store materials when they are not in use. Sometimes an online safety module is required to ensure student safety while completing experiments. 

Do people like online classes?

Many people enjoy the independence and flexibility of online learning, which allows them to continue to work, live, and maintain responsibilities without pulling up stakes. Online learning can be more easily juggled with work and other activities. Online schools and online courses have come so far in such a short period of time. Test the waters with a class or two to see if it’s an option worth pursuing.  

What are some advantages of online courses?

Some advantages to studying online include: freedom to study anywhere there is internet access, the ability to study while continuing to work, possibly a faster route to graduation, maybe less expensive, and the many options for schools that are available.

What are the disadvantages of online courses?

Some disadvantages of online study include: lack of a physical classroom, the necessity of self-motivation to finish assignments on time, less of a community, less routine, and no campus life. Although listed as disadvantages, these may not make a difference to you.

By Carol Dolan BS RN BSN CDCES:

April  2021

Carol graduated with her BS in Nutrition from Montclair State University and her BSN in Nursing from Rowan University. She is a Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist (CDCES) currently working with adults and children living with diabetes in both outpatient and inpatient settings.

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This concludes our article on how online classes work.