How Do Online Classes Work? – What To Expect

by | Mar 12, 2021

Online learning is growing in popularity by the day. While this method of teaching and learning might be relatively commonplace to you, back in the early 2000s, it was a totally foriegn concept. 

If you haven’t yet taken an online class, you’re probably likely to in the future. Almost all colleges and universities in the United States, as well as many abroad, now offer fully online classes, degree programs, and certificate pathways. 

Online learning is an excellent option for students who need to continue working while pursuing advanced education, as well as those that have personal obligations (such as a family to care for) that make attending in-person classes difficult. You might even prefer online learning because you don’t like having your butt parked in a chair in a stuffy classroom! No judgment there. 

No matter what your reasons might be for attending an online class or program, you might be wondering how online classes work. So, we’ve developed a helpful breakdown with answers to some of the most frequently asked questions to help set your mind at ease. 

Online Learning: What Exactly Is It?

The very first online course as we recognize it today was offered by Nova Southeastern University in 1985. The degree in question? A Master of Science in Computer-Based Learning. Fitting, right?

But you don’t have to be a computer whiz in order to master – or benefit from – online learning. Online classes offer an easy pathway for students of all backgrounds to earn their degrees. You can earn a degree at any level these days, be it an online GED class for a high school diploma, associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, or even a doctoral degree. 

These courses are a mixture of live classroom instruction, video lessons, discussions, collaborative projects, virtual field trips, and interactive coursework. Each online learning experience will differ in terms of how it is structured and what you will get out of it. But, if you’re still wondering if an online degree is worth it, one important thing that they all have in common is that they are versatile, flexible – and a great option for busy, motivated learners like yourself. 

Online Classes

When Did Colleges and Universities First Start Offering Classes Online?

Online learning may be a relatively new concept – after all, the Internet wasn’t really an option for education until the ‘80s, at the very earliest – but distance learning is not. In fact, before online courses, there were what were called “correspondence courses,” or classes that were delivered primarily through the mail. 

After that, some universities offered educational programs via radio and television broadcasts. And in 1982, the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute opened the School of Management and Strategic Studies, a distance education program that used computer conferencing to deliver its lessons and assignments. Then came the Nova Southeastern program mentioned above, followed by a litany of other courses. Nowadays there are many colleges that offer online classes and, with the addition of online learning sites like Coursera and edX, online learning has become more accessible than ever before.

Online Class for students

How Do Online Classes Work? The Most Common Questions

Curious about how online courses work? Hopefully, the answers below to some of the most common questions will clear things up for you. 

Do Online Classes Have Set Times?

That depends on whether the course is considered synchronous or asynchronous. Most classes have a combination of the two. In a combination set-up, you might be required to log in at set times to attend mandatory live classes delivered through streaming videos. You might also have to log in at set times to meet with groups. However, all other content, like texts and slide decks, is delivered asynchronously – you can access it whenever you’d like.

There are some online courses that are 100% asynchronous, too, meaning you can log in on your own time and complete coursework and lessons whenever it is most convenient for you. Some courses even allow you to pace yourself, meaning you can move through the coursework as quickly as you’d like, taking less or more time to complete your studies, depending on your academic needs and other obligations.

Of course, some online courses offer hybrid instruction. This means you’ll complete about 50% of your coursework online and the other 50% in a classroom. 

Questions About Online Classes

How Do You Log In to an Online Class?

Various schools use various types of learning management systems and portals, such as Canvas, Moodle, and Blackboard. What all have in common, though, is that they all use these sorts of electronic platforms to host discussions, deliver classes, and collect coursework.

You will log into this LMS via your web browser (or mobile phone, if you’re using a smartphone or tablet to access your classes) where you can ask questions, view lessons, submit homework, collaborate with classmates, check grades, and take tests. 

How Do I Attend an Online Class?

That depends on whether your class is synchronous or asynchronous. Typically, most online classes will have at least one section that is self-paced, or asynchronous. You’ll complete coursework on your own terms but will still need to meet weekly deadlines.

Others have synchronous components that require you to log into live lectures online and participate in discussions, often through popular video conferencing services like Zoom.

Is There Financial Aid for Online Classes?

Most online college and partner programs offer just as much student financial aid for aspiring online students as they do for students obtaining a college degree on campus. Check school ranking as you’re conducting your online school search to make sure your program offers ample financial aid. This can vary among college classes and programs, but in general, online degrees are just as affordable as on-campus classes. 

Can You Cheat on Online Classes? 

There is a myth out there that when you take classes online, you can cheat freely – instructors won’t be able to tell you’re cheating if you’re not sitting right in front of them. While most faculty agree that students are more likely to cheat when they’re taking online classes, the fact remains that most LMS programs that offer online classes are paired with cheating and plagiarism detection software.

What is the Typical Workload for an Online Class? 

The workload for online courses varies, just as it does with traditional classes. In general, you’ll spend about 15-20 hours per week on our classes. 

How Do You Take Tests in Online Classes?

This varies. Some online classes will require you to log onto the LMS to complete your tests, while others will expect you to visit a local testing site in your area to complete an exam. Here, you’ll take an exam monitored by an on-site proctor.

Some schools also include virtually monitored exams where a proctor might watch your actions via a webcam or a computer software program can detect cheating by checking your screen as you work. 

In some cases, instructors will set their tests up to be open-book exams. In this case, you’ll be able to refer to your texts to find the right answers. 

Do Online Classes Have In-Person Components?

Some do, but this isn’t common. You may be asked to attend a residency program on the school’s campus either before or during the program, but the details and potential lengths of these requirements vary, as you might expect. With these in-person components, you might participate in networking or informational sessions, engage in team-building activities, or even complete clinical hours. 

Are Online Classes Larger Than In-Person Classes?

Not necessarily. Classes in online programs are limited only by what the technology can support, so some schools pack st students in while making an effort to save money. Others do not, priding themselves on a low student-to-faculty ratio. Of course, this is the same conundrum you’ll find in traditional in-person classes, too.

Therefore, it’s important that you spend some time researching your online class of choice – make sure the school offers a good student-to-faculty ratio with small class sizes. Ideally, these classes should contain only 12-14 students or so. 

Will You Interact With Other Students in Online Classes?

Although many students like the freedom of online courses in that you can work at your own pace, others struggle with the independence of taking a class in such a remote setting. However, you will still interact with other students-  just in a different way.

Some online courses have synchronous components that will require you to interact with other students during live course sessions. Others have discussion boards while yet others make you travel to campus for in-person seminars. 

Of course, you can always communicate with other students through group work, videoconferencing, email, phone, social media, discussion forums, and more. 

Online Course Interactions

How Many Weeks (or Months) Are Online Classes?

Most online classes last just as long as those offered on-campus, generally falling into a traditional semester-based schedule. You’ll complete purses over about 14 weeks or so. That’s not always the case, though. Some programs will insert you into a cohort when you enroll, meaning you will have to stick to a set curriculum road map, while others will allow you to take multiple classes at once (or out of a certain sequence) so the timeline can vary. 

What Kind of Assignments Will You Have in Online Classes? 

Many of your assignments in an online class will be similar to those that you might have when studying on campus. Of course, these assignments will vary depending on the discipline. You can expect to complete work such as research papers, proctored exams, and responses to questions in a discussion board.

Occasionally, you may also be expected to work with groups where you will need to communicate virtually and complete remote presentations, too. 

Online Class Assignments

Are There Ways to Speed Up Your Online Classes?

One of the biggest benefits of taking an online class is that it can often allow you to save time in completing your degree – and consequently, to save some money, too. 

Many universities and colleges offer something known as competency-based learning, a model in which students move through course material that they already know with speed and can spend more time on unfamiliar topics. You may also be able to earn credits for past work you completed or military experience. 

Some universities even offer courses on a subscription-based model – you can sign up for as many self-paced courses as you’d like over the course of several months. 

Do Professors in Online Courses Offer the Same Level of Support? 

You’ll still get a ton of support when completing your online courses – but again, it’s important that you look for a university that is highly ranked in this regard. You’ll find that you may need to be more proactive than if you were studying on-campus, since it can be difficult to interact, at times, with an instructor who is working from halfway across the country.

When you take an online course, consider reaching out to introduce yourself to your instructor and find out if office hours are offered. 

Tips for Completing Assignments and Exams in Online Classes

Know Your Tools and Set Goals

To be successful when taking an online class, you’ll want to know what to expect. Acquaint yourself with the tools of the trade. At the very least, you’ll need a computer that’s in great working condition and a reliable Internet connection. Before you start your class, find out the contact information for the school’s technical support.

Learn the basic programs of your computer and make sure all of your browsers, like C chrome, are up to date, as are your antivirus protection, Java, Flash, and word processing software. 

Of course, you’ll need to have an active, up-to-date email account, too!

Online Class Exam

Finally, don’t expect to do less in an online class. Just because you’re working on your own terms, more or less, that doesn’t mean you can slack off! The keys to success will be more or less the same. Log in for all live lectures and complete all of your assignments on time – and as well as you can. Participate in discussions and reach out whenever you need help. 

As you might expect, you will need to do just as much work in an online class as you would for a “real” class. Create goals for yourself and work hard to crush them – that way, you’ll always feel motivated to do your best.

Andrew Green

Andrew is a successful entrepreneur and lifelong learner. Throughout his career, he has watched hundreds of online courses that have allowed him to achieve success in highly competitive fields such as online marketing, investing, and sales. Andrew is committed to expanding his knowledge and expertise and he reviews the premium courses he watches on his online blog.

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