In these contemporary times, modern technology has revolutionized the world of traditional learning. Rather than being bound to the classroom, students can now learn and study through the privacy of their own home with online learning. If you are interested in attaining a degree or certification online, this article was written to help answer the question, “how to online classes work?”

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Defining Online Learning

how do online classes work


Although one might think the world of online learning is complex or esoteric because of the technological implications the phrase carries with it, the concept is quite simple. In essence, online learning transpires when a student takes courses online. Thus if you are interested in online education, you need a computer. 


You do not necessarily have to own one, but you should always be able to access one. This can be done in several ways, including through a university computer lab, local library, or friend’s laptop. While you can use a computer with dial-up access to do the coursework, a high-speed internet connection will help you complete your assignments more quickly.


How Do Online Courses Work?


Whether you are taking online courses in high school, college, or for personal interest, online classes work in much the same way. Students get a username and password to log in to an LMS, or learning management system. There are various LMS models, including Canvas, Moodle, and Blackboard, but in general, they all serve as a portal or dashboard that acts as a virtual classroom. On the LMS, students can typically:


  • Contact teachers or professors
  • Interact with other students
  • Access course materials 
  • Watch or listen to lectures
  • Download PDF’s
  • View slideshows
  • Monitor their progress
  • Take exams and quizzes
  • Access technical support services


Important Note:


If you want the most flexibility in an online course, you should look for a program where you can also access the LMS on other devices like a tablet or your smartphone. Not all schools offer this feature. If you have a busy schedule and are trying to work your courses into other responsibilities and obligations, it’s worth finding a program you can log into from a mobile app. That way, you can complete your coursework any time you can squeeze it in. 

See also: 50 Most Affordable Online Colleges with High Graduation Rates


Completing Your Assignments Online

how to online courses work


Some people believe online classes have radically different educational goals than traditional classes, but the objectives are generally the same. An online student will be expected to complete assigned readings from textbooks as well as homework assignments. Rather than physically turning in such assignments to the professor or instructor, you will upload them within a designated field on a website. 


Online classes typically require participation, just as traditional classrooms do. In many cases, a professor may set up a message board for the class and require students to answer questions and ask each other questions about the material to make the learning experience more engaging and interactive. These participatory activities can count towards one’s final grade just as in-class participation does in the traditional learning setting.


The Format for How Online Classes Work


Unlike traditional brick and mortar classes, online coursework is typically completed in one of two formats—synchronous or asynchronous. You will want to keep this in mind as you consider which online degree program is right for you. 


Synchronous Format


In synchronous formats, classes are more scheduled. Typically, the entire classroom logs into class at a specific time to listen to a lecture, complete projects, or interact with the professor and other students. Since the class begins and ends on a particular day and time, you’ll have to carve out time in your current schedule to meet the class requirements. 


Asynchronous Format


The asynchronous format is far more flexible. Although you will still have specific deadlines for your assignments, and you may need to check in from time to time, asynchronous classes are done independently. They work best for students who need to arrange school around other obligations and those who thrive best when they are left to complete coursework independently.


Depending on your school’s particular program, the formats can vary from course to course. Some schools have only synchronous courses, while others have a combination of asynchronous and synchronous classes. You will want to consider your schedule carefully before committing to an online degree program. 


How Do Online Classes Work in College Classes Needing Hands-on Instruction? 


The truth is, not everything can be taught online. There is often a physical component to learning that absolutely requires an in-person experience. And by nature, certain theories and concepts are difficult to grasp without actually putting them into practice. For example, you’re just not going to learn welding or carpentry online in the same way you would if you were in a workshop on campus. 


In fields like nursing, where some of the coursework requires working in a clinical setting, you won’t be able to finish your degree entirely online. And of course, any courses that take place in a lab will need an actual laboratory setting.


Art classes are another example of courses that do not lend themselves as well to remote learning. Art is subjective, to begin with, and color, shading, and other aspects of a project can be distorted when presented digitally. Most art students thrive much better in a studio environment where they get hands-on instruction. 


In these cases, you will likely not be able to complete your degree entirely online. Instead, you would work within a hybrid format where the theory and written portion of your coursework is completed online, but you would meet in a traditional physical setting for various components of your classes. 

See also: How Can I Get an Online Degree in a Field that Requires Clinical Experience?

how do online college classes work


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How Do Online College Classes Work When Completing Exams Online?


In addition to completing homework assignments and participation assignments, online learning incorporates the administering of exams. In some cases, these exams are downloaded into Microsoft Word or a similar program. Once this is complete, the student takes the exam and uploads it for the instructor to grade. In other cases, exams can be taken through the class website. 


Exams are often timed, meaning that the student needs to be confident that there is enough time to complete the test without interruption or distraction. It is also essential that the student make sure that the internet connection is secure during testing periods. While the professor will generally allow you to make up the exam if you are logged off the internet, it is an inconvenience to begin a test all over. This is especially true if you aren’t able to save and retrieve the answers you have already recorded.


Open Book vs. Closed Book Exams


In some cases, a course instructor may make exams and quizzes “open book,” meaning that students can refer to their texts or other learning materials in attempting to select the correct answers. This is not always the case, though. In some events, you will have closed-book exams, and the honor system is used such that students are expected not to refer to their texts when answering questions.


How Do Online Classes Work in Terms of Honesty?


Academic dishonesty has become a significant problem recently. One study reported that nearly three-quarters of all students in online degree programs have admitted to cheating on at least one of their exams. To combat this issue, many schools have their students sign honor codes. Another way institutions are trying to decrease cheating is by adopting strict no-tolerance policies against dishonesty. Other schools have begun using anti-cheat software for exams and tests.


As you might imagine, none of these tactics is 100 percent effective. If you put a high priority on personal integrity, you will realize that cheating during your online coursework is somewhat counter-productive. After all, you are the one paying for academic services, and not the other way around. Academic cheating really means you are only cheating yourself out of the experience you signed up for. 


How Does an Online Course Work as Opposed to a Traditional Schedule?


Every school is different; however, the required credit hours to complete a degree program will be the same whether you are taking online courses or attending them in person. Naturally, transfer students can often apply credits to a new school and reduce the amount of time needed to complete their degree.


The primary difference is that some schools have implemented fast-track programs for online learners that allow them to complete a program in less time. In some cases, students can reduce the time needed to graduate to between 12 to 18 months. This is because the coursework itself can be taken at your own pace. If you are driven and motivated to graduate sooner than the allotted time, you can do more work in less time.


In asynchronous courses, for example, you are not held back by other students’ questions, a professor going to look for a pen, timed exercises that you have to wait for, and other incidentals. Surprisingly, this can free up a lot of time. 


Nevertheless, you will still be expected to do the work. Most often, the minimum amount of logins required for an online class is two to five each week, and the average time students spend on remote coursework can range from 10 to 20 hours weekly.

See also: Are Online Classes Easier Than Classes Taken in the Classroom?

What Are the Advantages of Online Courses?


It’s Less Expensive


It’s no secret that higher education is expensive. Between student housing, activity fees, books, cafeteria costs, and other expenses, it all adds up. With online courses, you are only paying for the cost per credit. If you’re trying to save money, remote learning is definitely the way to go.


You Can Go to the School of Your Choice


If you have your heart set on a particular school, but it’s just too far away to be practical, online degree programs can make your dreams come true. If you live in Maine and want to attend UCLA, you can! Online learning has leveled the playing field for those previously restricted by what part of the country they live in. 

See also: Are Online Colleges a Good Choice for Working Students?


Plenty of options


Online college has come a long way in just a few short years. No matter what you’re interested in studying, chances are you can find a remote program to meet your needs. Whether you want to get a degree in business, animation, science, nursing, public health, or any other field, there are hundreds of programs to choose from. 




People are busy these days. Online learning allows you the flexibility to work one or more jobs, take care of a family, and maintain other personal responsibilities. You can work on your classes between other activities in your life.


No Attendance Issues


If you’ve ever had problems getting to traditional in-person classes, you know how frustrating that can be. With remote coursework, whether your car breaks down, you get caught in a blizzard, or you have a nasty cold, you can still manage to make it to class. 


What Are the Disadvantages of Online Courses?


Loss of Community


For many people, college courses are one of the ways they connect with others. Being together in a classroom of your peers presents an opportunity to meet new people and make personal connections with those that share your interests. This experience is not easy to replicate in an online environment. 


No Structure or Routine

Some people thrive on having a schedule to depend on day in and day out. The idea that they have a commitment to be somewhere specific at a particular time is how they structure their days. If you have trouble when the boundaries between school, work, and home life blur together, life may seem mundane and boring. Physical classes require you actually to get up and go somewhere.


Lack of Focus and Discipline


Some folks do not need a lot of prodding to get things done, and others are born procrastinators. Neither way is the “right” way. They are just personality traits. However, if you are not a highly motivated self-starter, work can quickly pile up on you. Sometimes, the accountability of showing up to class is what some students need to stay on track.


No Campus Life


For many students, the whole college experience—complete with homecoming, football games, Greek life, and social events is something they have been looking forward to for years. Without the campus life experience, college seems less like a great time in your life and more like a chore. 


Lack of Privacy and Space


Before the pandemic, this was likely not a problem, but with everyone in a household working or doing school remotely, that means a full house for many students. There may be no dedicated study space at home, let alone a quiet spot to get your coursework done. This kind of togetherness can take a toll on even the best of relationships. 


Learning More About How Online Classes Work


Once you understand the basics regarding how online classes work, you can decide whether they are right for you. While some people may feel more comfortable with the traditional classroom setting, others will find that online learning is advantageous and even ideal for them. To learn even more about online learning, check out the resources below: