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How do Online Degree Programs Work? 10 FAQs Answered

How do online degree programs work? What are online course assignments like? Can I get financial aid? Here, we'll answer all these questions.

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Being stuck at home doesn’t mean that you have to call it quits on (or even pause) your education. As we all adjust to lives in our new normal — and spend unusually long stretches of time in the house — uncovering  the motivation to want to continue college, finish your degree, or even start a degree should not be ignored. 

Luckily for us, if you’ve been missing your education fix, there are lots of pretty great online classes, degrees, and courses that you can do without leaving your couch (or having to dodge backpacks in a crowded, sweaty hallway).

Yes, you can attend college online. Yes, online degrees are worth it. And yes, they’re AWESOME.

So, how do online classes work exactly? Keep reading to learn our best advice before entering the world of online degrees.

Here are the questions you’ll find answers to in this article.

10 Questions about Online Degree Programs

What are online college classes like?

It’s helpful to understand that there are two main types of online college classes: online degree programs and in-person programs that were migrated to virtual because of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

Purely online degree programs are typically self-paced. Students can access all of the necessary coursework, lectures, assignments, and other additional class expectations / materials in a dedicated online portal. This portal serves as a personal dashboard to all of their degree needs, including easy ways to access their academic advisors or plan for future courses.

In this scenario, students can simply log on when it is convenient to them. They can listen to course audio files on demand or watch video files (often powerpoint presentations or recordings of live lectures) whenever works for them. Through discussion boards and the occasional prompt from professors or course moderators, they are able to submit assignments, take tests and quizzes, and build community — virtually — with other distance learning students in the class.

If you are currently attending an in person, traditional degree program at a brick and mortar institution, then many of your normal classroom courses may be taught virtually as of the 2019 – 2020 or 2020 – 2021 school year. This means logging into a Zoom or Google Meet call in your normal class time and listening to a live lecture from your professor, taught in real time. This can be helpful for students who like asking questions or struggle with the self-discipline required to take their studies seriously on their own.

How do assignments work in online classes?

Whenever you sign up for college level courses (in general), you should be fully prepared to spend a hefty amount of time completing all of your coursework and assignments. This is true regardless if you take your classes online or in person. It’s true: Assignments in online classes will look very similar to what you are already used to from your traditional classroom courses. You can expect reading assignments, discussion prompts and questions, the occasional paper, worksheets, final exams, mid-term projects, and more.

According to US News, the most common types of assignments in online classes are as follows:

  1. Read or watch, then respond
  2. Research papers
  3. Exams
  4. Discussion boards
  5. Blogs
  6. Journals
  7. Wikis
  8. Case-based assignments
  9. Self-paced adaptive assignments (Students watch short lectures, then answer a set of questions. Based on how they perform, new lectures follow and focus on areas the student needs help with)

Don’t forget that the occasional group project will be thrown into the mix, too. (We wouldn’t know the *ahem* potential downsides of how online college works without them).

Just as assignments vary from class to class on campus, you can expect your online course assignments to vary across classes. For example, a student taking a class called “Student Development Theory” for their Student Affairs Administration degree will likely have a larger percentage of reading assignments than someone taking a course called “Applied Sampling for Wildlife/Fish Studies” for their Conservation Biology degree.

^^ This is true whether you are participating in online programs or completing a degree on an actual college campus. ^^

 One key way to fully understand how to answer “How does online college work?” is to accept that courses in the virtual classroom are not all that different from courses in a physical classroom.

Do students need to attend classes at specific times?

What are online classes like when it comes to attendance expectations? Most often, online learning can be done asynchronously, without specific expectations about when and where you sign on or complete your work from. So long as you are meeting weekly expectations, submitting your homework, and participating in discussions as required, you will most often be able to complete your coursework on YOUR timeline. This flexibility is one of the oft-most praised benefits of earning degrees online.

However, there are occasions where students need to attend classes at specific times — especially if the course was originally designed for in person learning in a traditional classroom. That is where tools like Zoom or Google Meet come in, giving you access to your class and professors without needing to necessarily share the same physical space.

Even in programs designed to be completed solely online and at the individual student’s pace, it is not entirely impossible that the professor will require or ask students to attend special lectures at specific times (such as watching “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” as a class one evening for your Chinese Film class). 

Your online education might look a lot of different ways, but “boring” isn’t likely to be one of them!

Can online classes tell if you cheat?

You 👏should 👏 never 👏cheat. Period. It’s NOT WORTH IT.

Why? You are probably going to get caught. And do you really want to fail this course? Probably not.

Even (especially?) online professors can tell if you cheat, thanks in large part to online tools like plagiarism checkers, video proctoring, IP tracking, and more. And to the chagrin of the most wiley students, universities and colleges are only getting smarter and more strategic in their ability to “catch” academic misconduct. This means that multiple choice exams (where a quick Google search can save the day) are becoming less and less common. Instead, students should get ready to demonstrate even more critical thinking, especially at exam time.

Many students wonder if cheating is easier in online college, and while it is certainly more possible, a 2009 study from the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration determined that it is no more likely for online students to cheat than their traditional counterparts. 

Academic honesty is paramount when getting your college education, whether online or on a university campus. And, as the old saying goes, “In the end, you are really only cheating yourself.”

Do online classes have set times?

Online students are sometimes required to attend classes at set times, but more often than not, they can complete their coursework, assignments, and lectures at their own pace.

However, don’t confuse the fact that online courses mean less time studying or learning. Just because you can access your virtual classes on your own timeline doesn’t mean that you necessarily will spend less time studying — you will more likely spend less time commuting to and from your dorm to the classroom.

The University of Illinois wisely warns students: “Generally, students spend 7 to 10 hours a week on each online course they take. Imagine all of the time you spend attending lectures, studying for exams, and completing assignments for face to face courses – that is a good estimate of the time you will spend working on [your] online course material.”

So while set times may not be the norm, you should still be prepared to devote a chunk of time weekly to each of your online classes.

Can you get financial aid or scholarships for online classes?

You bet! Students can get financial aid or scholarships for online classes at many schools. The kickers are  that 1) you often need to be enrolled part-time or full-time in a degree online program, and 2) that your institution must hold an accreditation that is approved by the U.S. Department of Education. 

Many online colleges and universities that are accredited will accept the same federal financial aid as their traditional counterparts, including aid from the Free Application for Student Aid (or, more colloquially, FAFSA).

Keep in mind that some online programs are eligible for federal work study, too. This means that you can help pay for your college tuition with part time work on or off campus. This can be a huge financial leg up for students juggling online degree programs, family commitments, and jobs!

How do you introduce yourself in an online classroom?

How does online school work when it comes to building rapport with your classmates? We actually believe it is a much more level playing field than what you are likely used to from your brick – and – mortar classroom. Rather than waiting an entire semester to understand the interpersonal dynamics in your classroom (and waiting for the perfect chance to properly introduce yourself, even to your desk neighbor), online classes encourage students to introduce themselves to one another right away.

In your online class portal, there will likely be a dedicated thread or discussion to introductions. We actively recommend that you spend some time in this thread early-on in your course, interacting with and commenting on posts as they are made public.

Pro tips for introducing yourself in an online classroom:

  • Use a photo of yourself rather than the general avatar. It’s easier to make a connection to a photograph than a cartoon or default icon.
  • Share your name and any relevant details about yourself. This can include how far along you are in your degree program, where you work, your hobbies, club memberships, etc. Personal details will make you more memorable!
  • Why are you taking this course? Even if your answer is something as generic as “It’s required for my degree,” it is still a helpful context to offer your classmates. Help them understand your motivations and what brings you here.
  • What are your goals? What are you hoping to gain through the course? What will you consider “success?” Share some more insight to really lay fertile ground for your classmates to get to know you. 

Pro tips for interacting in an online classroom:

  • Be specific. Don’t make your classmates’ eyes glaze over with generic comments. Actively respond to something they’ve said!
  • Make connections. Is there something you have in common? Did they explain something in a way that you hadn’t thought of before? Let them know! 
  • Use emojis and gifs! While there’s no replacement for eye contact, a laugh, or a smile, emojis and gifs are the best the internet can offer to convey your emotions and reactions in the digital age. Use them to your advantage and make others feel comfortable.
  • Use their first name. Just like IRL, using a person’s first name can create a sense of safety and knownness that is healthy for productive collaborations.

How long are online classes?

Online courses range in length depending on the institution, the degree program, and the course itself. On average, students should expect to attend online classes for eight to nine weeks. This is significantly shorter than the typical college semester, which on average include 15 weeks of instruction and one week of exams.

While the shortened timeline can be a huge perk for online students, it’s important to remember that online classes are usually no easier than on campus classes — and in some cases, more difficult. Condensing a full semester class into eight or nine weeks means you need to be ready to hustle. 

At this point, you might be wondering “How do you take online college classes without pulling your hair out?” That’s fair. It can be tough, but it’s nothing you and your planner can’t solve together.

Do you have to do online school on the weekends?

You most likely will have to do online school on the weekends! We all know that keeping on top of course work during the school week can be challenging, even for students with impressive time management skills. 

Getting caught up on your online school work on a Saturday and Sunday can put you in a good place for the following week. You can either be ahead of the game or right on schedule. Either way, you will be able to access your new lectures and actually engage as you listen to them (not rush through them so that you can get your assignment done that you should have done last weekend!).

What should online students know before enrolling?

We love Rasmussen student Hannah Meinke’s round up of “What I Wish Someone Told Me BEFORE Taking Online Classes,” so we’re adapting them here:

  • Online classes are not the ‘easy’ route. The amount of work you need to put in doesn’t change just because you’re signing on rather than signing in.
  • You may actually do better in online classes. Woot woot! Less distractions and the ability to rewatch course material at your own pace are win-wins.
  • You’re going to need technology and IT support to be successful. It’s a reality: You can’t take online classes without access to a device that can get you online. This is a NECESSITY.
  • You can make or break it with time management. The most successful online students can keep track of upcoming deadlines for assignments, readings, and projects. They also avoid procrastinating.
  • Don’t think you’re exempt from group projects. Group projects kind of suck in person, but they really suck online. Get ready.
  • You’ll want to make an effort to make connections. If you want a more personable experience, you will have to put in a little more time and energy than you would in a traditional classroom.

You can research all day long “How do online college classes work?,” but until you give it a fair shake, you will never realize all of the powerful benefits to this uniquely modern approach to education. Give online classes a chance — your sweat pants collection (and future job prospects) will thank you!