How Online Learning Works

Taking Online Classes

The responsibility of mastering course material and knowing when to reach out to an instructor falls to online students in a more definite way than traditional students. Without designated classrooms and times, online students have to be proactive about staying involved and focused on their coursework.

Schedule Formats

Full-time online students can expect to devote between 15-20 hours to their studies each week. Schedules vary by school, department and program type. Students who are busy working or taking care of their family can better compete in the virtual classroom because programs can be tailored to meet their routine. Generally speaking, online programs come in two formats: synchronous or asynchronous.

  • In synchronous programs, students log in to their class at a set time and work through lessons with their classmates, professor and/or an assigned peer group.
  • Asynchronous programs allow students the freedom and flexibility of listening to lectures and doing classwork when it fits into their schedules, although assignments and exams have dates and times by which they must be completed.

Regardless of the class format, online courses require some form of classroom participation. Students should expect to remotely collaborate with peers on group projects and presentations or participate in live chats or discussion threads. Even if you don’t have formal class times, there will be occasions when you need to log in to participate in a group discussion or project at a certain time.

Online Learning Platforms

Online students access their classroom through an in-browser learning module. This student dashboard connects you with instructors, school support staff and classmates from all over the world and organizes all of your course materials, financial records and academic reports. Portals typically include:

  • Course rubrics, instructor office hours and week-by-week timelines
  • Downloadable readings, video lectures, assignments and audio recordings or podcasts
  • Assignment submission instructions and tools
  • Interactive media including quizzes, exams and practice exercises
  • Classroom chat cafes and course-specific discussion threads
  • Research and reference library databases
  • Grades, instructor feedback, academic records and project portfolios
  • Student support services, including instructor Q&As, academic advising, writing centers and tech support

While instructors can restrict access to some course materials, such as a test for an upcoming unit of study, students are basically free to explore upcoming course content anytime during the term. At the best online colleges, instructional units are always available for students to review, as a rule, without restriction. Here’s an example of what your student dashboard might look like:

online education dashboard example
These dashboards are designed to be intuitive and engaging for users, but problems will arise and IT services are available 24/7 for when they do. Schools are eager to improve their virtual classrooms and are happy to identify and work through technical difficulties with students in order to do so.

Technology Requirements

Only a handful of programs will provide you with a computer. Most online students buy their own computer and are responsible for equipping it with the software required by their courses. A typical list of minimum hardware and software requirements looks like this:

  • Mac or Windows Computer and OS: Students must have access to a computer that meets minimum operating system requirements, such as Mac OS X 10.5 or higher for Mac or WIndows XP or higher for PCs.
  • High Speed Cable or DSL Internet: Most commercial DSL and cable modems are fast enough to support online learning modules. If your wifi is too slow to properly load and stream video chats or lectures, use an ethernet cable.
  • Compatible Web Browsers: Schools will let you know which browsers are compatible with their platform, e.g. Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox and Safari. Often only updated versions of these browsers will support the platform, so be sure to download the latest version.
  • Word Processor: Schools will provide their own word processing program or recommend one like Microsoft Word, Google Docs or WordPerfect.
  • Presentation and PDF Software: In order to be able to view and create PDF or PPT presentations, student computers should be equipped with programs such as Preview, Adobe Reader, Powerpoint, Jing, or Prezi.
  • Email Address: Students are assigned an email address once enrolled, but you’ll need a personal email account during the application process.
  • Chat Platform: Some online learning modules contain their own chat functions. Otherwise, your school can recommend one that is best for collaborating with students and instructors, AIM, Skype, and GChat are popular options.
  • Headphones, Microphone and WebCam: Your computer should be equipped with these for presentations and video chat meetings.

Once you have your computer and software ready to go, transitioning into the virtual classroom is fairly easy. Basic computer literacy is all you really need to start — your school will provide thorough introductory tutorials to their online learning platform and its interfaces, applications and add-ons.

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Life As An Online Student

For the most part, online learners are self-starters. They are able to motivate themselves to listen to lectures, finish assigned readings, and contribute to class discussions. Most online students are comfortable working independently, know how to manage their time and freedom, and thrive when faced with the challenge of finding many answers on their own. They do not hesitate to email their instructors and classmates when they do not understand a concept, because they know it is better to ask before deadlines begin to loom.

Getting In

Among accredited colleges, admissions criteria does not vary widely. Typically, applicants must be at least 16 years old and have earned either a high school diploma, GED, or international equivalent to enroll. Application materials required by any accredited U.S. college, online or campus-based are also generally the same:

  • Copies of all official academic transcripts, including high school
  • SAT or ACT scores
  • Personal statement of intent
  • Two letters of recommendation
  • Application form and fee

If you’re unsure about your compatibility with an online program and want to take a single class to try it out, contact the school. In many cases, you will not need to formally apply and enroll to receive transferable college credit.

Accessing Your Classroom

Unlike traditional learning environments, online course materials can be accessed without restriction 24 hours a day, every day. Students can review lectures, discussion boards and supplemental materials at a convenient pace, and when students are most willing to learn. This can make an enormous difference in retaining presented material and scoring well on quizzes, exams and tests.

Most often, tests, homework assignments, and exams will each have a unique and clearly labeled place on a student’s classroom interface. Many learning modules online contain text, video or audio recordings, and interactive materials, such as quizzes or password-protected media.

Attendance Policies

Though they differ from school to school, or class to class, instructors for online classes do check for regular attendance. The most common way to determine if students are putting in the necessary time for class is through a discussion board. Many courses require a minimum amount of participation with the class discussion; this includes replying to others and beginning topic threads. Weekly assignments or exams also indicate that students are actively attending their online classes. Some professors may require their students to email them weekly or bi-weekly during the term.

Online students should periodically check-in with instructors to ensure that all of the course expectations are mutually understood and met. Students should also familiarize themselves with the school’s add and drop policies, which almost every online institution offers, in case the course turns out to be something you don’t need. Most accredited colleges offer a full refund for courses dropped by a certain date each term.

Talking to Your Instructors and Classmates

Online students connect with their instructors without time constraints or barriers like office hours, which can translate to much more unfettered feedback and quicker response times to questions. Email and instant messaging make instructors readily available. The confidence of having a direct line to professors can be very reassuring.

Additionally, many online learners have the opportunity to connect with renowned educators and lecturers via their online coursework. Online learning fosters a spirit of interconnectedness among participants that can be missing from a traditional classroom setting. These relationships often lead to a greater likelihood of networking after graduation.

Online Tuition and Aid

Tuition rates for online programs are usually lower than their campus-based counterparts. This is especially true for students attending large public universities out-of-state. For instance, Indiana state residents pay the same tuition rates regardless of if they enroll in an online or campus based program at Indiana University-East. However, program tuition rates for out-of-state students are significantly lower online:

Comparing Tuition Rates: Indiana University-East (2013-2014)
Residency Status Program Format Cost per Credit Hour Est. Annual Tuition (Full-time students)
In-State Campus $201.68 $4,991.58
  Online $201.68 $4,991.58
Out-of-State Campus $527.97 $13,067.25
  Online $291.60 $7,217.10

Keep in mind that private universities typically do not tier tuition rates according to a student’s state of residency. But as with public universities, private schools often charge lower rates for online programs even though they confer the same degree as a campus-based program.

Additional Fees and Expenses

The financial benefit of completing a bachelor’s program online is likely the format’s biggest draw. Not only are tuition rates frequently lower, online students also usually pay less in additional fees and living expenses than traditional students. This is because online tuition rates are usually packaged to include costs of the course materials, software and related technology fees. Campus-based students, on the other hand, are charged separately for college services and amenities, including:

  • Room, Board and Meal Plans
  • Course-Related Fees and Textbooks
  • Student Activity Fees
  • Administrative Services Fee
  • Parking Fees
  • Lab Fees
  • New Student Orientation Fee
  • Late Transaction Fees

Financial Aid Options

As of 2013, The College Board reports that the average undergraduate student received $13,000 in government aid for the 2012-2013 school year. In order to qualify for financial assistance either online or on-campus, you must complete and submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Once your FAFSA is filed and your Student Aid Report (SAR) is complete, you will be automatically considered for all federal loan and grant programs and state-based educational funds:

  • Grants and scholarships: Awards that do not need to be repaid and are typically awarded based on a student’s demonstrated need or merit.
  • Loans: Tuition coverage that does need to be paid back. Schools may offer you special low-interest loans and deferred payment plans that are more flexible than student loans brokered by private lenders.
  • Work-Study: This federal program provides part-time employment while you are enrolled in school.

Colleges recognize that many students attend school online because of a need to work full-time. As such, online colleges offer students a good deal of flexibility with regards to paying for tuition. Many universities that offer classes online extend payment programs and competitive financial aid programs to students. Other online schools allow for tuition deferral, which allows students to take advantage of an employer’s tuition reimbursement program.

Additional Resources

In addition to consulting with school advisers, students should conduct independent research to confirm school accreditation statuses, review rankings and investigate student satisfaction and retention rates. Get started with some of our favorite resources: