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  • How Do Online College Classes Work? A Look at Today’s Virtual Degree Programs

January 23, 2020
Not every aspiring college attendee is after experiences like living in the dorms and eating at the cafeteria. Today’s student population features a lot of working professionals with numerous responsibilities like providing for their families. For these individuals, pursuing higher education is truly about deepening their knowledge and developing skills they’ll need to be successful in their intended career path. Despite having more complex circumstances than recent high school graduates, adult students are persevering thanks in part to the growth in online programs. These options help remove barriers — far away locations, inconvenient times, etc. — that might otherwise prevent busy adults from earning a degree. Distance learning has become so popular that recent data reveals 33 percent of students pursuing postsecondary education are taking at least some online classes. Whether you’re interested in pursuing graduate-level coursework or you’d like to return to school to complete your bachelor’s degree, distance learning could help you achieve your goal. But it can be an intimidating prospect if you’ve never studied in a virtual environment. How do online college classes work, exactly? Consider this your orientation.

How do online college classes work? Exploring the distance learning experience

Distance learning is slightly different at every institution, but there are generally a few commonalities. A quality program should incorporate everything from a flexible format to resources specifically for online students. Here are some things you can expect from most online college classes:

1. You can find everything you need in one central portal

You’ll need to access a lot of documents, submit assignments, take exams and collaborate with both instructors and your fellow students while taking online classes. That might sound overwhelming, but well-designed programs make it easy by incorporating everything into an online portal called a learning management system (LMS). Once logged in, you can find everything you need within each course.

2. The online format affords you a lot of flexibility

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of obtaining your degree online is that you aren't tied to any physical location. You can study in the comfort of your own home or another location of your choosing, provided there is a quality internet connection. While some online college courses include lecture components that you view at a set time, more and more programs are moving toward an asynchronous model. At Midway University, for example, online courses start on Mondays and end on Sundays. This ensures students are staying on track, but allows them to complete assignments when it’s most convenient for them during the week. The course format is set up in eight-week modules that start five times throughout the year to allow students to complete their studies at a quicker pace. If you’re an adult learner, you may even be able to fast-track your education by demonstrating your existing expertise. There are a number of credit for prior learning (CPL) methods you could use like taking an exam to demonstrate your knowledge, submitting a portfolio of work samples for assessment and acquiring credit for military experience. CPL isn't specific to online programs, but it’s prevalent among them.

3. Course content is presented in a variety of formats

One advantage of online learning you might not have expected is that material is taught using a variety of methods. Depending on the course and your instructor, you might learn by accessing website links, videos and files like PDFs and presentation slides. This combination of formats helps ensure that every student gets the most out of the material. In fact, neuroscience researcher and teacher Dr. Judy Willis explains that stimulating different areas of the brain through multiple senses and subjects helps build connections that improve learning retention.

4. Engaging in discussions is both easy and essential

What you get out of higher education really depends on what you put into it. That tends to hold even more truth for distance learners. One of the best tips for online students is to engage with fellow classmates through social media and the LMS. Rather than having a real-time discussion as you would in a physical classroom, you post messages to a forum. This also allows you to engage with your instructor. Online courses at Midway University may use a variety of forum types. Instructors can set up discussion boards for ongoing conversations involving the whole class, group projects and specific question prompts students are meant to answer on their own. If you’re more of an introvert, you may find you actually prefer participating via forum to raising your voice in a classroom. Aside from forums, there are numerous other communication tools you can use to connect with your classmates and your instructor. You can send private messages, set up a chat room and even have a meeting using your webcam. Meetings and chats are both great options for attending virtual office hours.

5. You’ll complete assignments and take exams just as you would in a traditional program

Instructors need to assess students’ mastery of the material in online courses just as they do in traditional ones. Distance learners submit all assignments — research papers, group projects, etc. — through the LMS. You may be able to upload a file or type an assignment directly into a text editor. When it comes to tests, good online programs ensure academic honesty. That doesn't mean only relying on open-book tests. Instead, online programs have begun using remote proctoring solutions to promote integrity. These technologies verify that the person sitting the exam is actually the intended student — and makes sure that no cheating is taking place. Sophisticated proctoring solutions are able to recognize and flag suspicious behaviors that indicate a student isn't being honest. While it might feel a little strange at first to enable an application that monitors you during an exam, it’s really to your benefit. It makes sure that no one in your class is gaining an unfair advantage. And schools that use such technologies are also providing further evidence of academic integrity, a key criteria for maintaining accreditation.

6. You have access to numerous support services and resources

Like any other type of learner, students studying from a distance occasionally find themselves struggling with their coursework. Online programs anticipate this. They make most, if not all, of their standard academic support resources available to online students. Options include tutoring, workshops and on-demand tutorials. Midway University even has an Instructional Technology staff available to support online students.

Find success as an online student

So, how do online college classes work? There are obviously some necessary adjustments to make, but the material you learn, the assignments you complete and the skills you develop are no different than that of an on-campus student. For the right person, an online program may actually be the ideal higher education option. Now that you know more about online degree programs, you might feel like going that route could be the right fit for you. It might be time to start comparing different options. Institutions like Midway University offer a wide selection of programs, many of which can be completely fully online. Learn more about your options for associate, bachelor and graduate degrees by visiting our Online Majors & Minors page.