How do Online College Classes Work?

Online classes are composed of video recordings or live lectures supplemented with readings and assessments that students can complete on their own schedules.

But nothing is typical about higher education anymore. The coronavirus has forced a massive and sudden migration to online learning with little time to prepare. As the pandemic accelerated, colleges shifted into emergency mode, shutting down physical campuses to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and moving academic life online. Education experts anticipate more and more online class offerings as a result.   For all students – whether incoming freshmen, seasoned seniors or returning adult learners – here is an overview of what to know about and expect from online classes:

How Is an Online Classroom Structured Typically?

The structure of an online classroom can vary by institution. But generally, online students regularly log in to a learning management system or LMS. Here, they can view the syllabus and grades; contact professors, classmates, and support services; access the various course materials; and monitor their progress on lessons. 

Prospective students should check whether a school’s LMS is accessible on mobile devices so they have the option to complete coursework anytime, anywhere. They will also likely need a strong, dedicated internet connection and know if they required specific software or applications, such as a word processor or Excel plug-ins.

The shift to remote instruction that due to the coronavirus is not typical of online education. Students are experiencing an online format as a result of the pandemic which is categorized as “emergency remote teaching.” This has forced instructors to shift from either a face-to-face or hybrid environment to be carried out fully online. Students that were not necessarily expecting to complete their courses online now must do so. Experts say that future coursework will be revamped into online offerings rather than content that was hastily crammed into the format.

Do Students Need to Attend Classes at Specific Times?

Online classes are often asynchronous or self-paced learning.  Students complete coursework on their own timetable, but still need to keep to weekly deadlines, which offers flexibility for students. Other online courses may have a synchronous component, where students attend live lectures online and may require participation in discussions through videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom. 

Do Online Classes Have In-Person Components?

Some online programs can require students to attend a residency on the school’s campus before or during the program. The lengths and details of these requirements vary upon the program. Students can complete team-building activities, network, and attend informational sessions. In health-care fields such as nursing, online programs may also require completion of work in a clinical setting.

How Do Students Interact in an Online Course?

If a course has a synchronous component or requires students to travel to campus, that’s a good way to get to know fellow classmates. Students can also communicate through discussion forums, social media, and – particularly for group projects – video conferencing, phone, texting, and email. Online learners also interact with professors and advisors in similar ways, though they may need to be more proactive than on-campus students. This could include introducing themselves to their instructor before classes start and attending on-campus office hours if offered. 

What Is the Typical Workload for an Online Course?

Just like in traditional classes, the workload varies – but don’t expect your course to be easier simply because it’s online. Many online learners report they spend between 15 and 20 hours a week on coursework. That workload can vary if a student is either full-time or part-time. 

How Many Weeks Do Online Classes Run?

Many online degree programs follow the traditional semester calendar schedule. Other programs can divide the year into smaller terms. So, graduation credit requirements may vary. Prospective students should also know that academic calendars vary by school.

Some programs allow students to choose the number of courses they take at one time, while in other programs require they must adhere to a set curriculum road map as part of a cohort. Prospective students should examine if the academic calendar is set-up in a way that will enable them to balance the demands of work, school, and family. 

What Are Typical Assignments in Online Classes?

Online course assignments depend largely on the program. Student’s assignments parallel to those in on-campus programs, such as research papers and proctored exams in addition to online-specific assignments such as responding to professor-posed questions in a discussion board. An online course may also require group projects where students communicate virtually, as well as remote presentations. Online learners, who often live across various time zones, need to be prepared for this as a prospect with their fellow students. 

How Do Students Take Proctored Exams in Online Classes?

Some online classes have proctored exams.  Others don’t. If they do, online students will need to visit a physical testing site monitored by an on-site proctor. They may also take virtually monitored exams online, where a proctor watches via webcam or where computer software detects cheating by checking test-takers’ screens.

What Should Students Know Before Enrolling in an Online Course?

Prospective students looking for how to start online college should visit the admissions page for the school. They should also understand all the requirements for the program of interest to them, considering that there may be a higher threshold for certain majors as compared with general admissions. While the registration process for online and on-campus classes is often similar, prospective online students should review the course type and requirements before enrolling. They should also understand the requirements for dropping classes.

Are There Ways to Accelerate Online Degree Completion?

In some cases, it’s possible to earn a degree faster.  In competency-based online learning, students move quickly through the material they already know and may spend more time with new topics. With some programs, students may also be awarded credit for past employment or military experience.  Many universities offer a subscription-based model, which lets students sign up for various self-paced classes taken over several months.

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