How Online Classes Work: 10 Frequently Asked Questions

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 How is an online classroom typically structured?
This varies, experts say. But generally, online students regularly log in to a learning management system, or LMS, a virtual portal were students can view their syllabus and grades; contact professors, classmates and support services; access course materials; and monitor their progress on lessons.

Experts say prospective students should check whether a school’s LMS is accessible on mobile devices so they can complete coursework anytime, anywhere. They will also likely need a strong internet connection and any required software, such as a word processor.

 students need to attend classes at specific times?
Online courses typically have an asynchronous, or self-paced, portion; students complete coursework on their own time but still need to meet weekly deadlines. Sticking with only this style of learning can be ideal for those who juggle work and family commitments and may not be able to log in at a certain hour, Harold Orndorff III, then assistant professor of political science at Daytona State College, told U.S. News in 2015.

[Learn what to ask about flexibility when enrolling in online courses.]

Some online classes may also have a synchronous component, where students view live lectures online and sometimes participate in discussions through videoconferencing. Chip Paucek, CEO of 2U, a company that helps colleges and universities launch online graduate programs, told U.S. News that this allows learners to engage and build stronger relationships.

 online courses have in-person components?
Some online classes may require students to attend a residency on the school’s campusbefore or during the program. The lengths and details of these requirements vary.

Students may complete team-building activities, network and attend informational sessions. Especially in health fields like nursing, certain online programs may require working in a clinical setting.

How do students interact in an online class?
If a course has a synchronous component or requires students to travel to campus, that’s a good way to get to know classmates, experts say. Students may otherwise communicate through discussion forums, social media and – particularly for group work – videoconferencing, as well as phone and email.

Online learners interact with professors in similar ways, though they may need to be more proactive than on-campus students to develop a strong relationship. That may involve introducing themselves to their instructor before classes start and attending office hours, if offered, Marian Stoltz-Loike, vice president of online education at Touro College in New York, wrote in a 2017 U.S. News blog post.

What is the typical workload for an online class?
Just like in traditional classes, this varies – but don’t expect your course to be easier just because it’s online. Many online learners say they spend 15 to 20 hours a week on coursework.

At Arizona State University’s online arm – ASU Online – students typically spend six hours a week on coursework for each credit they enroll in, Joe Chapman, director of online support services at the school, wrote in a 2015 U.S. News blog post.

 How many weeks do online classes run?
While some online degree programs follow the traditional semester-based schedule, others divide the year into smaller terms, and graduation credit requirements may vary. ASU Online courses, for instance, are structured as seven-and-a-half week sessions rather than 14-week semesters.

[Discover how long it takes to earn a master’s degree online.]

Sometimes students can choose the number of courses they take at one time, while in other programs, they must stick to a set curriculum road map as part of a cohort, experts say. Prospective students should determine whether the academic calendar is structured in a way that will enable them to balance work, school and family.

 What are typical assignments in online courses?
These depend largely on the discipline. But in general, students should expect assignments that are similar to those in on-ground 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. These can be challenging for online learners, who often live across various time zones, Stoltz-Loike wrote in a 2018 blog post.

[Explore nine types of assignments in online courses.]

 How do students take proctored exams in online courses?
Not all online classes have proctored exams. But if they do, online students may need to visit a local testing site, with 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 the test-takers’ screens.

 What should students know before enrolling in an online course?
While the registration process for online and on-ground classes is often similar, prospective online students should review the course type and requirements before enrolling, Bradley Fuster, associate vice president of institutional effectiveness at SUNY Buffalo State, advised in a 2017 U.S. News blog post. They should also understand the requirements for dropping courses.

 Are there ways to accelerate online degree completion?
In some cases, yes. For instance, in competency-based online learning, students move quickly through the material they already know and spend more time on unfamiliar topics. In some programs, students may also earn credits for past work or military experience.

Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.