FAQs: How Online Courses Work

Recent reports detail just how quickly colleges adopted online learning. According to the Babson Survey Research Group, university and student participation in online education is at an all-time high. Even some of the largest and most prestigious universities now offer online degrees. Despite its growing popularity, online education is still relatively new, and many students and academics are completely unacquainted it. Questions and concerns are normal. This page addresses some of the most frequently asked questions about online degree programs. All answers are thoroughly researched; we include links to relevant studies whenever possible.

The Benefits of Online Education

Question: What are some of the advantages of attending college online?

[Answer] Online education is known for its flexibility, but studies have identified several additional benefits of attending class online. Among them:

  • Communication: Many students are more comfortable engaging in meaningful discussions online than in a classroom. These students might have hearing or speech impairments; speak different languages; have severe social anxiety; or simply need more time to organize their thoughts.
  • Personalized learning: Not all students learn the same way. Web-based learning allows instructors to deliver the same content using different media, like videos or simulations, personalizing learning. Online classes providing round-the-clock access to materials and lectures also let students study when they feel most focused and engaged.
  • Accessibility: Online programs transcend time, geographic, and other barriers to higher education. This can be helpful for those who work full-time, live in remote regions, or serve in the military.
  • Adaptability: Learning management systems that integrate text-to-speech and other adaptive technologies support learners with physical, behavioral, and learning challenges.
  • Efficiency: Studies show online students tend to achieve the same learning results in half the time as classroom-based students.
  • Engagement: Online instructors can use games, social media, virtual badges, and other engaging technologies to motivate students and enhance learning.

How Online Education Works

Question: How does online education work on a day-to-day basis?

[Answer] Instructional methods, course requirements, and learning technologies can vary significantly from one online program to the next, but the vast bulk of them use a learning management system (LMS) to deliver lectures and materials, monitor student progress, assess comprehension, and accept student work. LMS providers design these platforms to accommodate a multitude of instructor needs and preferences. While some courses deliver live lectures using video conferencing tools, others allow students to download pre-recorded lectures and use message boards to discuss topics. Instructors may also incorporate simulations, games, and other engagement-boosters to enhance learning. Students should research individual programs to find out how and when they would report to class; how lectures and materials are delivered; how and how much they would collaborate with faculty and peers; and other important details. We address many of these instructional methods and LMS capabilities elsewhere in this guide.

Question: Can you really earn online degrees in hands-on fields like nursing and engineering?

[Answer] Yes and no. While schools do offer online and hybrid programs in these disciplines, students must usually meet additional face-to-face training requirements. Schools usually establish these requirements with convenience in mind. For example, students in fields like nursing, teaching, and social work may be required to complete supervised fieldwork or clinical placements, but do so through local schools, hospitals/clinics, and other organizations. For example, students enrolled in the University of Virginia’s Engineers PRODUCED in Virginia program can complete all their engineering classes online in a live format while gaining practical experience through strategic internships with employers across the state.
Some online programs do require students to complete on-campus training, seminars and assessments, but visits are often designed to minimize cost and travel. Students should consider these requirements when researching programs.

The Effectiveness and Credibility of Online Education

Question: Is online education as effective as face-to-face instruction?

[Answer] Online education may seem relatively new, but years of research suggests it can be just as effective as traditional coursework, and often more so. According to a U.S. Department of Education analysis of more than 1,000 learning studies, online students tend to outperform classroom-based students across most disciplines and demographics. Another major review published the same year found that online students had the advantage 70 percent of the time, a gap authors projected would only widen as programs and technologies evolve.

While these reports list several plausible reasons students might learn more effectively online—that they have more control over their studies, or more opportunities for reflection—medium is only one of many factors that influence outcomes. Successful online students tend to be organized self-starters who can complete their work without reporting to a traditional classroom. Learning styles and preferences matter, too. Prospective students should research programs carefully to identify which ones offer the best chance of success.

Question: Do employers accept online degrees?

[Answer] All new learning innovations are met with some degree of scrutiny, but skepticism subsides as methods become more mainstream. Such is the case for online learning. Studies indicate employers who are familiar with online degrees tend to view them more favorably, and more employers are acquainted with them than ever before. The majority of colleges now offer online degrees, including most public, not-for-profit, and Ivy League universities. Online learning is also increasingly prevalent in the workplace as more companies invest in web-based employee training and development programs.

Question: Is online education more conducive to cheating?

[Answer] The concern that online students cheat more than traditional students is perhaps misplaced. When researchers at Marshall University conducted a study to measure the prevalence of cheating in online and classroom-based courses, they concluded, “somewhat surprisingly, the results showed higher rates of academic dishonesty in live courses.” The authors suggest the social familiarity of students in a classroom setting may lessen their sense of moral obligation.

Another reason cheating is less common in online programs is that colleges have adopted strict anti-cheating protocols and technologies. According to a report published by the Online Learning Consortium, some online courses require students to report to proctored testing facilities to complete exams, though virtual proctoring using shared screens and webcams is increasingly popular. Sophisticated identity verification tools like biometric analysis and facial recognition software are another way these schools combat cheating. Instructors often implement their own anti-cheating measures, too, like running research papers through plagiarism-detection programs or incorporating challenge-based questions in quizzes and exams. When combined, these measures can reduce academic dishonesty significantly.

In an interview with OnlineEducation.com, Dr. Susan Aldridge, president of Drexel University Online, discussed the overall approach many universities take to curbing cheating–an approach that includes both technical and policy-based prevention strategies.

“Like most online higher education providers, Drexel University employs a three-pronged approach to maintaining academic integrity among its virtual students,” said Dr. Aldridge. “We create solid barriers to cheating, while also making every effort to identify and sanction it as it occurs or directly after the fact. At the same time, we foster a principled community of inquiry that, in turn, motivates students to act in ethical ways. So with this triad in mind, we have implemented more than a few strategies and systems to ensure academic integrity.”

Choosing Online Degree Programs

Question: How do I know if online education is right for me?

[Answer] Choosing the right degree program takes time and careful research no matter how one intends to study. Learning styles, goals, and programs always vary, but students considering online colleges must consider technical skills, ability to self-motivate, and other factors specific to the medium. A number of colleges and universities have developed assessments to help prospective students determine whether they are prepared for online learning. You can access a compilation of assessments from many different colleges online. Online course demos and trials can also be helpful, particularly if they are offered by schools of interest. Students can call online colleges and ask to speak an admissions representative who can clarify additional requirements and expectations.

Question: How do I know if an online degree program is credible?

[Answer] As with traditional colleges, some online schools are considered more credible than others. Reputation, post-graduation employment statistics, and enrollment numbers are not always reliable indicators of quality, which is why many experts advise students to look for accredited schools. In order for an online college to be accredited, a third-party organization must review its practices, finances, instructors, and other important criteria and certify that they meet certain quality standards. The certifying organization matters, too, since accreditation is only as reliable as the agency that grants it. Students should confirm online programs’ accrediting agencies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council on Higher Education Accreditation before submitting their applications.

Online Student Support Services

Question: Do online schools offer the same student support services as traditional colleges?

[Answer] Colleges and universities tend to offer online students many of the same support services as campus-based students, though they may be administered differently. Instead of going to a campus library, online students may log in to virtual libraries stocked with digital materials, or work with research librarians by phone or email. Tutoring, academic advising, and career services might rely on video conferencing software, virtual meeting rooms, and other collaborative technologies. Some online colleges offer non-academic student support services as well. For example, Western Governor University’s Student Assistance Program provides online students with 24/7 access to personal counseling, legal advice, and financial consulting services. A list of student support services is usually readily available on online colleges’ websites.

Technical Skills and Considerations

Question: What technical skills do online students need?

[Answer] Online learning platforms are typically designed to be as user-friendly as possible: intuitive controls, clear instructions, and tutorials guide students through new tasks. However, students still need basic computer skills to access and navigate these programs. These skills include: using a keyboard and a mouse; running computer programs; using the Internet; sending and receiving email; using word processing programs; and using forums and other collaborative tools. Most online programs publish such requirements on their websites. If not, an admissions adviser can help.

Students who do not meet a program’s basic technical skills requirements are not without recourse. Online colleges frequently offer classes and simulations that help students establish computer literacy before beginning their studies. The Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium offers a free online skills course that is open to anyone—not just students in Connecticut. Microsoft’s online digital literacy curriculum is yet another free resource.

Question: What technology requirements must online students meet? What if they do not meet them?

[Answer] Technical requirements vary from one online degree program to the next, but most students need at minimum high-speed Internet access, a keyboard, and a computer capable of running specified online learning software. Courses using identity verification tools and voice- or web-conferencing software require webcams and microphones. Scanners and printers help, too. While online schools increasingly offer mobile apps for learning on-the-go, smartphones and tablets alone may not be sufficient.

Most online colleges list minimum technology requirements on their websites. Students who do not meet these requirements should contact schools directly to inquire about programs that can help. Some online schools lend or provide laptops, netbooks, or tablets for little to no cost, though students must generally return them right away if they withdraw from courses. Other colleges may offer grants and scholarships to help cover technical costs for students who qualify.

Paying for Online Degree Programs

Question: Are online students eligible for financial aid?

[Answer] Qualifying online students enrolled in online degree programs are eligible for many of the same loans, scholarships, and grants as traditional campus-based students. They are also free to apply for federal and state financial aid so long as they:

  • Attend online programs accredited by an organization recognized by either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council on Higher Education Accreditation.
  • Attend online schools that are authorized to operate in their state of residence.
  • Meet all additional application requirements, including those related to legal status, citizenship, age, and educational attainment.
  • Submit applications and all supporting materials by their deadlines.

Students can visit the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid website to review all eligibility requirements and deadlines, and to submit their Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). Note that many states, colleges, and organizations use FAFSA to determine students’ eligibility for other types of aid, including grants, scholarships, and loans. Students can contact prospective schools directly to speak with financial aid advisors.

Disclaimer: Financial aid is never guaranteed, even among eligible online students. Contact colleges and universities directly to clarify their policies

Question: Can students use military education benefits to pay for online education?

[Answer] Active-duty and veteran military service-members can typically apply their military education benefits toward an online degree, though they must still meet many of the same eligibility requirements detailed in the previous answer. Many state-level benefits have additional residency requirements. Most colleges have whole offices dedicated to helping these students understand and use their benefits effectively. They may also clarify applicable aid programs and requirements on their official websites. When in doubt, students should contact schools directly or report to the nearest Department of Veteran Affairs to learn more about their options.

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