As advocates for the many advantages of online colleges, we at OnlineCollegeWiz can sometimes take certain things for granted. Having spent so much time researching and writing about online colleges, sometimes we forget to cover some essential aspects of online colleges like “how do online colleges work?”

Most students have some basic frame of reference for how a traditional college experience works. Whether through their own experiences in high school or what they’ve seen in pop culture, the traditional college experience for many isn’t that much of a mystery. But not many people have a true understanding of how online college works and what it’s like to earn a degree online.

That’s why we’re going to spend some time getting back to basics to answer the question: how does online college work?

How is online college structured?

To best understand how an online college is structured, it’s best to have something to compare it to. The traditional college structure is somewhat similar to how high school is structured. An academic year is broken into semesters. Typically one in the fall, one in the spring, and shorter, more abbreviated semesters in the summer.

During each semester, students will fill their schedule with courses to earn credits towards their graduation. A typical college course is three credits, and each semester, students tend to take anywhere from 12-18 credits (when enrolling full-time). Students continue to earn 15-18 credits a semester until they’ve reached the number of credits needed to be eligible for graduation. For an undergraduate degree, this process typically takes four years.

So how is that different in an online college? It depends. Many online colleges transplant the traditional college structure to an online delivery method. That means students work with the same semester schedule, the same course lengths, and the same workload per semester. 

But that’s not always the case. Some online colleges that leverage asynchronous courses (more on this in the next section) leverage rolling course start dates, shorter course lengths, and a looser adherence to the semester format. 

If you’re more comfortable with the traditional college schedule or structure, there are online degree programs out there that follow that format. But if you’re looking to break out of that into something that is faster or not beholden to certain times of the year, online colleges also have options for you. 

How do online classes work?

With the incorporation of technology into traditional colleges, traditional on-campus college courses are becoming more and more like their online counterparts. Most traditional campuses use the Same online tools that online colleges use to organize students’ course work and accept student assignments. The main differences in how online courses work lies in how lectures happen and how students interact with one another. 

Online courses are broken down into two distinct types: synchronous and asynchronous.

Synchronous courses mimic the feel of on-campus courses. Students are placed into a class or a cohort of students interacting with one another as they move through the course. These synchronous courses tend to meet at a particular time and are live. This has the advantage of being a familiar, communal education experience, but it has the downside of lacking the flexibility that online courses can afford.

Asynchronous courses have the students work through the coursework as individuals on their schedules. Lectures and readings are offered to students in an on-demand fashion, allowing them to access the materials at times that work best for them. This has the advantage of being far more flexible when working around an existing schedule but does have the downside of lacking some of the person-to-person interactions you’d get from a synchronous course.

How long are online courses?

Because online colleges don’t have to adhere to the traditional semester schedule, they can offer courses in different time lengths. Typically, online courses are offered in either an eight or ten-week format. However, some online courses offer accelerated courses that can be as short as six weeks. 

These different course lengths allow students to tailor their education to their scheduling needs. 

Is online college always online?

A common concern of potential online college students is whether or not their online program is entirely online. Indeed, at some point I’ll have to go to campus, right?

Not necessarily. Most online colleges design their online degree programs to be completed without ever setting foot inside a classroom.  Online colleges have invested considerable resources into ensuring that students who are enrolled online are not required to visit a college campus to complete their degrees. There is a slight wrinkle to that, though.

How do tests work for online colleges?

It wouldn’t be a college experience if there weren’t tests and examinations. If students are enrolling in courses online, how exactly are tests and exams being administered? How are online colleges ensuring that students are cheating their way through their exams?

Online colleges employ several methods to ensure that students are not cheating their way through their tests and exams. Some online colleges use timed exams to ensure that students do not have enough time to look up answers or cheat on their exams.

Another way that online colleges ensure that students are not cheating on their exams is through proctored exams. These can come in in-person proctored exams where online students have to go to a testing facility to take their exam. Students are required to use specific software applications that allow exams to be remotely proctored.

These remotely proctored exams afford students the greatest deal of flexibility as they ensure that an online degree is entirely remote. 

How does online college work?

Online college takes many of the familiar aspects of a traditional college experience and translates it to the Internet. Students studying online still participate in lectures – they’re just either pre-recorded or streamed via teleconferencing software. Group projects and collaborative assignments still happen. They’re just organized via message boards and other online collaboration tools. Tests and exams still occur – they’re just proctored a little bit differently. All in all, an online college isn’t too different from your traditional college. It’s just much cheaper and way more flexible. 

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