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Guide to Online Education

Online degree programs significantly improve access to higher education, and recent reports indicate enrollment is at an all-time high. Currently more than 7 million U.S. college students participate in some form of online learning. However, online education may not be right for everyone. Students must be committed and disciplined enough to complete courses without a campus-based structure. In addition, online programs vary in areas that impact learning, including when, how, and how often students access materials and lectures. Students who understand these differences and the technology behind them are better positioned to choose online programs that reflect their career goals and learning styles, giving them the best chance of success.

This information is just as valuable for the colleges that deliver online degree programs as the students who enroll in them. Research from the Babson Survey Research Group (BSRG) in collaboration with the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) shows that while the vast majority of college leaders consider online degree programs critical for long-term institutional development, actually designing them is challenging. Through careful research, professors and administrators can find, interpret, and apply key online learning data within their institutions. They also benefit from studying online learning technology and how it drives course design, instructional methods, and outcomes.

This guide is designed to give students and educators a thorough understanding of how online degree programs work, and how to use them effectively. It examines online learning and teaching tools, success factors, and other important themes. We will continue to update this information as new trends and technologies emerge.

An Inside Look at Online Education

The following sections provide detailed information about different areas of online learning along with insights from experts in the field.

Expert Advice for Online Students

Get expert advice on everything from online student services and technologies to finding and succeeding in online programs.

Frequently Asked Questions About Online Education

Find answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about online education, including how to find, pay for, and successfully complete online programs.

Instructional Design in Online Programs

Discover how to design online courses and many of the methods, resources, and best practices that guide the process.

Learning Management Systems

Learn more about the virtual classroom, including how it works and some of the tools and features online students and instructors might use.

Online Student Trends and Success Factors

Get a snapshot of who studies online today and the qualities or habits that help them succeed.

Online Teaching Methods

Review the various tools and methods instructors use to teach and support students online.

Student Guide to Understanding and Avoiding Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a form of cheating that often carries severe consequences, and students must understand how to identify and avoid it. Learn how to spot it, and eliminate it.

Student Services for Online Learners

Learn more about the support services online colleges might offer and get expert tips for making the most of them.

Recent data suggests more students and colleges than ever engage in online education. According to the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES), online programs now add students four times faster than their traditional counterparts and account for more than 75 percent of all new enrollment growth. Colleges continue to add new online learning options and technology to keep pace with demand. As these investments grow, so does the field of online courses and degrees. OLC Chief Knowledge Officer Karen Pedersen addressed this shift in a recent interview with

“What we’re seeing in the trends is that a record number of higher education leaders, such as chief academic officers, are seeing online learning as critical to their institutional long-term strategy–70.8% in 2014 compared to 48.8% in 2002,” said Dr. Pedersen. “With this movement, more and more institutions are offering an array of learning opportunities, from fully online programs at all levels – associates, bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees–as well as blended programs where both online and classroom based learning are combined for a rich and engaging learning experience.”

Online education is also becoming more mainstream. For-profit schools once led the field’s growth, but the latest numbers indicate public and not-for-profit colleges now drive online enrollments. Larger universities are especially invested in online learning. According to the NCES, more than 95 percent of institutions with at least 5,000 annual enrollments offer online programs. For large colleges serving 20,000 or more students a year, this share exceeds 99 percent. Many of these universities see online education as a means of serving more students, including a higher percentage of full-time professionals, stay-at-home parents, military service-members, and other non-traditional groups. Dr. Jeff Seaman, co-director of the BSRG and Quahog Research Group, mentioned the following in an interview with

“From (our) very first survey, it was clear that academic leaders believed that the most important aspect of online education was that it could expand access to education to many more potential students,” said Dr. Seaman. “There was, and still is, wide agreement that many individuals who desire an education are unable to attend traditional on-campus programs. Whether because of job constraints, family responsibilities, limited mobility, remote location, or any of number of other reasons, these potential students found regular class attendance on campus was not possible.”

Tracking Online Degrees & Certificates

As online education becomes more diverse, so does its range of learning options. Innovative new technology and instructional methods allow even traditionally hands-on disciplines like engineering and nursing to be taught online, though some programs require internships and other practical learning experiences. Students can also now pursue many different types of credentials mostly or completely online. The following certificates and degrees are among them.

Associate Degrees

A report from the New America Foundation suggests associate degree programs are statistically much more likely than bachelor’s programs to enroll full-time workers, parents, and military families. According to the Foundation, online associate degrees can be an ideal learning solution for these busy students who often find campus attendance difficult. The majority of community colleges, a number of for-profit colleges, and even a few public four-year universities offer associate degrees online.

Bachelor’s Degrees

The NCES reports that bachelor’s degrees are by far the most common credential students earn online. While many of these programs are in disciplines that adapt easily to web-based learning, like business and criminal justice, several colleges now offer online bachelor’s degrees in areas like teaching and engineering. These programs may require students to complete some face-to-face training. For example, the University of Virginia offers a special engineering program that allows students to complete all of their coursework in a live online format while serving internships with approved employers across the state. Online bachelor’s degree programs can also use virtual simulations, video conferencing, and other technical solutions to assess and reinforce students’ practical knowledge.

Graduate Certificates

Online graduate certificates help bachelor’s and master’s degree holders enhance certain skills. Not to be confused with professional certifications, graduate certificates are academic credentials unaffiliated with specific vendors and organizations. Teachers might earn online graduate certificates in family literacy and educational technology integration while MBA graduates pursue them in data analytics, project management, and other relevant specialties. While many students invest in voluntary certificates to improve resumes and advancement potential, some employers require graduate certificates to confirm formal specializations. For example, master’s-trained nurses frequently earn post-master’s certificates to add new patient and medical specialties, or to change specialties within the field of advanced practice registered nursing. It is not unusual for schools to offer fully online graduate certificates to accommodate full-time professionals, but certain programs supplement online coursework with internships, clinical placements, or other on-site learning experiences. The nature, frequency, and extent of this work varies.

Online Master’s Degrees

Undergraduate students may be more likely than graduate students to participate in some form of online learning, but NCES research shows graduate students are more than twice as likely to enroll in 100 percent online degree programs. This trend reflects graduate programs’ tendency to enroll more working professionals balancing school with career and family responsibilities. It is not unusual for four-year graduates to enter the workforce before deciding to return to school to become more specialized, improve their advancement potential, or transition to new fields. Online master’s degrees are also popular among experienced professionals in fields that address steeper practical training requirements at the undergraduate level, like teaching and nursing. Online learning offers these working students a degree of flexibility difficult to achieve in a campus setting.

Online Doctoral Degrees

While they remain less common than other online degree programs, many universities now offer online doctorates in fields like nursing, education, and criminal justice, among others. On-site learning requirements vary by school and program. For example, universities may deliver coursework online, but require online doctoral candidates to report to campus to serve residencies, conduct research, and defend their theses. Online doctoral degree programs frequently leverage live video conferencing and other interactive tools that help faculty mentor and support students from a distance.

Types of Online Learning Programs

Despite its quick adoption, online learning is a relatively new medium. Institutions continue to experiment with new formats, then use specific terms to differentiate them. Students should become acquainted with these classifications early so that they can decipher which programs align with their learning preferences, career goals, and current levels of education. Here are some of the most common online options offered today.

Online Courses

The NCES and BSRG report that the majority of colleges and universities now offer online courses. Some, but not all of these classes are linked to full online degrees and certificates. Universities, community colleges, and college extension programs design standalone online classes specifically for students seeking personal enrichment, focused workplace skills, and professional certifications. According to Dr. Pedersen, many colleges also offer programs that combine online and traditional coursework to provide campus-based students with a richer, more interactive learning experience.

Online Degree Programs

Not all colleges and universities define online degree programs the same way: some let students complete their studies 100 percent online while others require some face-to-face work as well. The nature, number, and location of these visits can vary. Colleges might require online students to report to campus or approved partner institutions for practical labs, on-campus intensives, orientations, and/or exams. They might also require fieldwork or internships, depending on the subject. For example, Masters of Science in Nursing programs typically require clinical placements while Master of Social Work programs require field education. Unless otherwise noted, uses the term “online degree program” to define programs that require no more than two campus visits per year.

Blended or Hybrid Programs and Courses

There is no standard definition for blended and hybrid programs. Many schools use the terms interchangeably; others use them each in very specific ways. Nonetheless, most blended or hybrid programs and courses combine varying degrees of online and classroom-based instruction. These can include:

  • Classes in which students complete coursework online and in the classroom.
  • Degree programs in which students complete some of their courses on-campus and others online.
  • Online degree programs that allow students to complete the majority of instruction online, but require them to come to campus periodically for face-to-face instruction.

Unless otherwise noted, defines any program that requires three or more campus visits each year as a hybrid program.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

MOOCs are online courses available in an open format, which means students need not apply to an institution to enroll. This makes MOOCs accessible to learners from a wide spectrum of age groups and circumstances, including international students. Although a limited number of MOOCs allow students to earn some type of verified certificate at a cost, most are free and award no college credit. Course content is usually delivered through provider organizations like Coursera, edX, and Udacity.

The MOOC movement was launched by prestigious universities like Stanford and MIT. Other colleges were quick to follow suit, but the BSRG suggests interest is waning: only a small number of schools now have MOOCs and few intend to add them. The same is not necessarily true for professional training programs using this format. Udacity now emphasizes corporate MOOCs over academically-aligned courses as other career-focused providers enter the market.

Competency-Based Programs

Competency-based education is a relatively new trend in online education. Unlike online degree programs that deliver most instruction online, competency-based programs offer credit for knowledge gained through life experience and other forms of self-directed learning. Students usually demonstrate key competencies through tests or portfolios. This unique format supports military service-members, trade professionals, and other students with verifiable skills mastered outside of formal education. The majority of today’s competency-based programs offer associate degrees and certificates, but a small number of online bachelor’s programs are beginning to emerge.

Instruction Methods in Online Degree Programs

Online colleges, programs, and courses tend to use a number of different instructional methods to teach students. These methods define how an online program is structured; how and when lectures are delivered; and how students interact with classmates and instructors. The following is a list of terms online colleges use to describe instructional methods and program formats. Knowing these phrases will help students determine which online programs best meet their learning styles and objectives.

  • Synchronous Instruction: Online courses taught in a synchronous format require all students to log in at scheduled times to live-stream lectures, participate in real-time discussions, and/or engage in other types of collaborative group work. Some students prefer these types of programs because they provide an immediacy and interactivity similar to classroom-based courses.
  • Asynchronous Instruction: Asynchronous courses typically allow online students to access recorded lectures and other materials on their own time so long as they meet all course deadlines. Students may also be required to participate in forum discussions and other collaborative work. This format requires more independence and self-direction than synchronous programs, but offers much more flexibility.
  • Self-Directed Programs: “Self-directed” and “self-paced” programs give online students even more learning independence by coupling asynchronous instruction with lenient course deadlines. Students can often start and complete their studies at their own pace with minimal collaboration, though they may be asked to participate in discussion boards and mentoring activities. These students must be organized and disciplined enough to complete their work without a traditional campus structure, but that does not necessarily mean they do not have access to support. Faculty advising, peer partnerships, and student services are just some of the ways online colleges help self-directed learners stay engaged and on track.
  • Cohort Programs: Online cohort programs place students in a defined group that advances through the curriculum together. Courses are sequential and may not be offered every semester—an important consideration for students unable to complete the program straight through. For programs that only have one cohort start per year, students who miss a quarter/semester may have to wait an entire year before continuing their program. When programs are completed without interruption, this structure lets students learn and collaborate with the same peers throughout their studies. A student’s cohort often becomes their professional network post-graduation. Cohort programs are more common at the graduate level and in disciplines that are interpersonal in nature, like teaching, counseling, and social work.
  • Flipped Courses: The term “flipped” is applied to hybrid and blended courses that deliver most content and materials online and use classroom time to address questions, complete assignments, and engage class-wide discussions. This means flipped classes are generally designed to complement campus-based studies rather than online degree programs.
  • On-Campus Intensives: Some online degree programs require students to attend a limited number of on-campus sessions, which are sometimes called on-campus intensives. These sessions may include hands-on practical experiences, orientations, seminars, capstone projects and exams, and other activities that require campus attendance. They may also be used to fulfill residency requirements. The duration and frequency of intensives vary by program and by school. They could be as little as one day to several days long.
  • Field Education, Clinical Placements and Internships: Some programs supplement online coursework with required field education, clinical placements, and internships to ensure students develop and test important skills in a professional environment. In some cases these activities are a discipline-wide requirement based on accreditation or designed to allow students to meet licensing requirements post-graduation. For example, teachers, social workers, and counselors are frequently required to complete field work regardless of how they attend class. Online schools may also offer internships and other practical experiences in lieu of on-site labs for students in traditionally hands-on disciplines like engineering. While nothing is guaranteed, many colleges allow online students to fulfill field requirements in their home communities to limit travel and disruption.

Accreditation and State Requirements

It is crucial for students to consider accreditation and state regulations when evaluating online degree programs. Unlike features that determine whether programs meet students’ learning styles and objectives, accreditation and state requirements tell students whether programs are credible, and if they are allowed to enroll in them at all. The following information clarifies what these concepts mean and how they impact online students.


It is important for students to consider accreditation when researching any college program, no matter how courses are delivered. Before online degree programs can be accredited, independent organizations must carefully evaluate their curricula, faculty, technology, and other practices to ensure they meet strict quality standards. The process is voluntary, but its impact is significant. Students must attend accredited programs to be eligible for federal, state, and some private financial aid. Most colleges also verify accreditation before accepting transfer credits or admitting applicants to post-graduate programs. The benefits of attending accredited online degree programs can extend into the workforce where employers and licensing agencies frequently establish minimum education standards.

The agency that accredits an online degree program is just as important as the process itself. The U.S. Education Department (USED) advises students to verify accreditors’ credibility before they enroll in any program, but especially online degree programs where practices and criteria are less established. The USED and Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) evaluate accreditors and recognize only those that meet certain quality standards. CHEA maintains a list of higher education accreditors that are recognized by both organizations.

State Requirements

While online degree programs improve college access, state regulations can limit it for some students. The Western Commission of Higher Education (WCHE) reports colleges and universities must obtain state approval before enrolling or marketing to its residents. Authorization requirements, procedures, and costs vary. Some states only authorize colleges with a “physical presence” inside its borders; others only approve online programs offered within regional consortia or partnerships. Universities may also be required to seek authorization at the program level, which means students living in certain states may be eligible to enroll in some, but not all of an institution’s listed online degree programs.

Students should review these regulations before applying to online programs based in different states. They can visit the State Higher Education Executive Officers Organization (SHEEO) online to review a list of each state’s regulatory agencies. Students should also contact prospective schools’ admissions offices directly to request an up-to-date list of state approvals as they can change at any time. Some states review approvals on a regular basis while others may only review them at specific times during the year.

Selecting Online Degree Programs

The decision to attend college online is only the first of many that students must make before they begin their studies. Online degree programs use many formats, instructional methods, services, and technologies; online students have varying learning styles, preferences, and educational needs. The goal of, this guide, and future reports is to help students access information they can use to balance these factors and identify programs offering the best chance of success. Dr. Pederson told that it is important for students to ask questions, and colleges to have answers.

“[It] is still about knowing yourself, researching your options, and asking lots of questions to find the right learning solution. This is where institutions need to have personnel available to answer questions and ensure ‘best fit,’” said Dr. Pedersen. “From an institutional perspective, I am a believer in a strong onboarding experience for new learners. It is important that new students know how the institution works and they understand the resources they can tap to ensure their success.”