How Do Online Courses Work?

By Danni White on March 2, 2017

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Online courses are increasingly becoming a beneficial way for students of all ages and backgrounds to earn college credit for work or an entire college degree. An online program allows you to balance work, family, and other time commitments and obligations.

Online classes offer a good deal of flexibility and are highly adjustable to fit one’s needs. They often attract parents who are looking to return to school to provide for their families better and professionals who need to advance in their career. It is also ideal for those who travel a lot, are returning from the military, or who want to simply add to their resume.

Students unfamiliar with distance education may find themselves asking, “Well, how do online courses really work?”

The truth is, online courses work much the same way as traditional courses. It is the same (in some cases, a higher) level of course requirements and high expectations. And why shouldn’t it be? Students who take courses online do not want to feel as if their education is inferior to those who take the traditional route. And down through the years, educators, lawmakers, and policy setters have worked hard to make that the case.

When I started college at 16, I was accepted into an online program. Admittedly, it was not my first, second, or third choice. I wanted the traditional college experience, not only for the education but for all of the lifelong connections one makes with faculty members and professors and, of course, the friendships one could develop with peers. College life is 50 percent you and 50 percent you against your competition. This makes for an interesting learning and growing experience. It’s one you’re not likely to get at home or even in high school.

While online learning was not the route I wanted to take, I did graduate with a full degree and learned from the same textbooks and teachers that my on-campus peers were learning from. With regard to the education alone, I do not feel like I missed anything or that there are huge gaps that are impeding my current progress (although there are a few minor ones).

Like anything else in life, taking online classes has its benefits and its downsides.

Some noted benefits of online learning are:

•You can learn at your own pace for the most part. All online courses have time limits.

•You can study, read, watch video lectures, and take notes all from the comfort of your living room, library, or coffee shop. In other words, you don’t have to be tied to a classroom.

•Online courses are considerably lower in cost. You can avoid commuting.

•There are a wide variety of courses to choose from — from one class to an entire degree program.

•You can keep your current job, avoiding the costs of relocating and the headache of finding new work.

•Some say that online courses offer them greater ability to focus and concentrate.

Some noted downsides to online learning include:

•Little or no face-to-face interaction with professors or peers. The lack of social connection can make for a lonely experience.

•One must be highly self-disciplined, self-motivated, and self-directed. A big problem in online courses is the time management and organization needed to stay on top of your coursework.

•Online courses generally require more work (writing, reading, test-taking, etc). This is because you have to prove you’ve mastered the material. You don’t have the benefit of weekly class presentations, class trips, lab work, or other hands-on experiences.

•Some online programs lack accreditation and quality and are a complete rip-off for students.

•You may miss out on the lifelong friendships and mentoring relationships with professors and faculty as well as peer friendships.

•When it is time to go to graduate school, you may find it difficult to obtain letters of recommendation.

•When beginning a job search, you may find limited support or direction from your school.

So, with that said, here is a general overview of how online classes work:


Students are typically required to have an up-to-date computer, a reliable internet connection, appropriate flash for viewing videos, and software requirements noted by the school.

A good rule of thumb is to ask ahead of time what is expected in terms of computers and software and then purchase what is needed, work with it for at least a week, and then you’ll be ready to go when class starts.


Typically, your school will send you a “first day of class” email with instructions on how to log on to the system as well as your own username and password.

Colleges use CMS (course management software) such as Blackboard or Moodle to dispense coursework. It is a good idea to log in to the CMS and get used to it before beginning the class. If you need help, be sure to contact your professor or your school’s help desk.


Similar to a traditional classroom setting, your class assignments will consist of reading, writing, listening, and test-taking. Get to the coursework section of the CMS program and review what is required for the entire course.

Depending on the course load, you will probably need to set up a schedule of what and how much you will do each day of the week so you will not get behind. As in any class, you should be taking notes that can be used for your tests.


All online course assignments come with deadlines. (If you find yourself in a program that has no deadlines attached to assignments, you are most likely in a fraud-riddled program.) But if you see dates and deadlines, it is in your best interest to submit your work on time or ahead of time. One reason for this is if you get behind, it can be overwhelmingly difficult to catch up.

Another reason is that professors have the tendency to be less lenient on online students. Remember, they have never met you face-to-face and thus do not have a good sense of your character, work ethic, and ability. In a classroom, you have the added benefit of seeing each other each day or throughout the week. If the professor knows you’re not a chronic procrastinator and a relatively good student, he is more likely to let you down easy on an anomaly. One late online assignment can cost you a good deal of points which affect your overall grade.


Most online classes require you to engage in virtual discussions with the rest of the class. This is in the form of a forum in which the professor posts a question, each student answers the question, and then each student responds to other students’ answers.

It varies based upon class and professor preference. However, if you find yourself in a discussion assignment, make sure you participate. You can always learn something or gain a new perspective from others, even if they are not the teacher.

So, if you’ve always wondered how online classes work, here you are. Online learning may not be for everyone. The best thing to do is find out what works for you and then follow that path.

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