How Do Online Colleges Work?

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In this article, we’re answering a question that has been coming up more and more these days: how does online college work? Earning your degree online helps open doors to exciting new career opportunities, without putting your life or current job on the back burner. Even better, you can do it while keeping up your work, family, and other commitments.

How Does Online College Work?

There are more than 23,000 fully online, accredited degree programs available at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and certificate levels. And a 2018 report found that there were nearly 7 million students enrolled in distance education courses, largely online.

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Online degrees are a popular option that students everywhere are taking advantage of, so let’s explore what online learning looks like, and what you should expect when it comes to the cost and time commitment.

What Is Online College Like?

In many ways, online college is just like traditional college. The courses offered online and on-campus are the same, and cover the same material. They both have the same or very similar assignments and strict deadlines. They both require hours of studying in addition to class time. Academically the two formats are the same, but obviously the delivery is very different.

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Online students must adjust to the virtual classroom, and to new ways of communicating with professors and peers. They may need to be online at certain times or contribute to discussions in a measurable way, for example. And of course they will need to develop the motivation and organizational skills necessary to be a successful in this new learning format.

What Does an Online Classroom Look Like?

teacher discussing lesson with students in virtual class

Online classrooms are designed to resemble traditional classes, so that they feel familiar to students. Most colleges use the web-based software program Blackboard, or something similar, for their online classrooms. These virtual classrooms are extremely customizable, so while the general look and navigation is familiar, each professor has the ability to alter it in ways that suit his or her needs.

When you log in to Blackboard, you will immediately see your personal dashboard, a general hub from which you can access school-wide and course-specific information. You will see a list of the classes you’re enrolled in, and as you click on each one you will be taken to the virtual classroom set up by that professor.

Inside the virtual classroom, you will see any announcements your professor has posted, as well as a menu bar providing access to the modules he or she has enabled. Some of the most common classroom modules include:

  • Blog – to write and share blog posts
  • Groups – for small group work as assigned
  • Discussion Boards – to discuss course material with classmates
  • Assignments – instructions, due dates, how to submit
  • Exams – instructions, when / how long they will be available, link
  • My Grades – assignment and course grades

Virtual classrooms may seem a little intimidating in concept, but they are very user-friendly. You will figure out how to navigate them in no time.

Are Classes Live or On Demand?

student studying with a computer

Both! There are two online learning formats:

  • Synchronous (live)
  • Asynchronous (self paced)

Synchronous courses are live and require students to be virtually present on a certain day and time. During the scheduled class time, you may view lectures in real-time and participate in live discussions via video chat. This learning format most closely resembles on-campus classes, but may not offer the flexibility that most online students are seeking.

Asynchronous courses allow students to complete coursework at their own convenience. You may fit classes in before work, listen to a lecture during your commute, and log back in for an exam while cooking dinner – it’s up to you! There are still strict deadlines for assignments, and you may be required to log in and participate in message boards daily or weekly, but the day-to-day schedule is much more flexible.

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Both types of learning have their advantages and many students opt for a schedule that includes some synchronous and some asynchronous classes. It all depends on your learning style and lifestyle!

How Do You Communicated With Teachers and Students?

online teacher during virtual class

Online courses thrive on effective communication. Your professor will let you know how you can best reach him or her. That might be by phone or email, or you may even video chat.

Your communication with other students will be largely through forums or message boards, where you will answer writing prompts and engage in conversation about the class material.

Are Opportunities to Participate In-person / On-campus Available?

Just because you’re an online student, doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of on-campus resources or activities! If you live in the area, you can meet with your professors or advisor in person.

You can attend speaking events, sports events, homecoming, career fairs and so on. You may even join a study group or a campus organization. Online students can be as much a part of the campus life as they choose to be.

Is Online College Hard?

students taking notes during online class

Online and on-campus classes are generally taught by the same professors using the same syllabus. Students complete the same or similar coursework, projects and exams, and have the same strict deadlines and expectations.

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The only difference between the two is the format, so whether online learning is harder or easier for you depends on your own personal learning style. If you are motivated, organized and manage your time well, you might find that online college is actually easier than traditional college.

What Does a Typical Assignment Look Like for Your Online Classes?

If you have never taken an online class, you might be wondering just what the assignments are like. Here some examples of typical coursework for online classes:

  • Read/Watch and Respond – You may have to read an excerpt or watch a lecture and write a response.
  • Essay / Research paper – Just like in traditional classes, there will be writing!
  • Exams – These may be monitors by webcam, or you might be required to take them at a testing facility.
  • Discussion Boards / Forums – Often online students are required to post original discussion topics and/or respond to prompts in a class forum.
  • Group Projects – Even online, you will use collaborate software to work as a group on an assignment.
  • Journaling – You may need to keep a daily or weekly journal in which you reflect on the class material.

As you can see, assignments are similar to what you would expect in a more traditional college setting.

How Much Does an Online Degree Cost?

student attending online language class

The exact cost of an online degree will vary greatly depending on the school, type of school (public vs. private), degree level and major. The amount of financial aid you receive will also impact the final cost. But it’s important to note that most colleges and universities charge the exact same tuition rate to online students as they do to on-campus students.

In fact, sometimes the online programs end up even cheaper! Here’s why:

  • Often schools don’t charge out-of-state tuition fees to online students. You pay the same rate whether you live across the street or across the country.
  • Online students don’t have additional expenses like campus fees, commuting costs and parking fees, and often do not have to purchase expensive textbooks and course materials.

So you can expect your online degree to cost the same or less than it would cost to earn the same degree on a college campus.

Can Online Students Get Financial Aid?

financial aid for online students

As long as you choose an accredited college or university, you will be eligible to receive the same financial aid as a student attending classes on campus. This includes grants, scholarships and low-interest loans. The first step to receiving this aid is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which you can do starting October 1st each year.

It’s important to submit the FAFSA, even if you don’t believe you will qualify for need-based aid. According to NerdWallet, in 2017 36% of high school graduates didn’t complete the FAFSA, and $2.3 billion in federal grant money went unused!  Most students who apply for aid through the FAFSA receive some assistance. In addition to the FAFSA, you can find scholarship opportunities through search sites such as

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If you currently attend school, check with your school counselor or financial aid office to see about local scholarships or other financial aid opportunities. If you are employed, check to see if your employer offers a tuition assistance program.

What Does It Mean for an Online College to be Accredited? Why Does It Matter?

college tutor giving virtual instruction

Choosing a school that is accredited is extremely important. In order for a college or university to become accredited, it must meet very strict standards established by a board or agency.

In the U.S., there are two main types of accreditation:

  • Regional – the “gold standard” and most widely respected; more than 86% of all colleges in the US are regionally accredited
  • National – usually for-profit schools, vocational or technical programs; requirements aren’t as standardized as for regional accreditation

To determine whether a school is accredited, you can search the U.S. Department of Education’s database. If you choose to earn your degree from a school that is not accredited, you may have difficulty securing financial aid or transferring credits if you need to. But more importantly, the degree you earn may not hold much weight in the professional world.

It may be harder for you to pass licensing exams or find employment than it would if you had earned your degree from an accredited institution.

How Do You Choose the Best Online College for You?

literature student searching online

As you research online colleges, don’t get too wrapped up in rankings or awards. You want to find not just the best online college, but the best online college for you.

Here are some important factors to consider when choosing an online college:

  • Is it accredited?
  • Does it offer the degree program you need to reach your career goals?
  • Will you be able to easily transfer your credits or advance your degree in the future, if you choose?
  • How long will the program take?
  • Are the classes asynchronous or synchronous? (i.e. Will I need to be online on certain days at certain times?)
  • Is it affordable?
  • Do they offer the resources and support services I need? (financial aid, access to library materials, technical support, online tutoring, student advisors, career services, etc)

It’s important that the college you choose offers the support you need in order to be successful in achieving your goals.

How Many Hours a Week Should I Plan for Studies?

female student using laptop in an online class

The number of hours you need to commit to studying will depend on the type of class, the assignments and your own study habits. Is this a subject you are naturally good at? Does studying consist primarily of reading, writing papers or practicing a skill?

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Do you work best in intensely focused long stretches of time or do you require lots of breaks? Factors like these will influence the amount of time you need to dedicate to studying.

The general rule of thumb is:

  • For subjects that are difficult for you: Plan to study 4 hours per week for every credit hour
  • For subjects that are easier for you: Plan to study 2-3 hours per week for every credit hour

Keep this in mind as you select your classes each term or semester. You will need not just enough time to take each class, but enough time to study for (and complete assignments for) each class, too.

How Many Weeks Do Online Classes Run?

It depends on the program! Some online schools operate on a semester-based schedule of around 15 weeks, which most in-coming students are used to. Others offer much shorter terms of 5-8 weeks, to allow students to earn more credits in a shorter time frame.

Are There Accelerated Online Degrees?

student having an educational webinar session

There are accelerated online degrees – at the undergraduate and graduate level – in nearly every field! Many online schools offer accelerated terms of just 5-8 weeks. If you are able to commit to a rigorous schedule, you can earn your degree very quickly be enrolling in an accelerated online degree program like this. All in all…

Online college is not much different from traditional college in terms of the structure, the cost or the time commitment. The only real difference is how the material is delivered, and whether that’s challenging depends on your learning style.

If you’re looking for a way to earn your degree quickly, while still maintaining their job, family and other responsibilities, online college may be the perfect solution for you!

Ready to start your journey?
Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.