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How Does Online College Work?

By Charlene Lattea, WVU Online | Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Step into the world of online college. Understand classes, exams, benefits, and whether it's right for you.

All around the world today, millions of students attend classes online now that modern technology has created a revolution in learning.

Maybe you are thinking about getting a degree online, but you are uncertain about how it works.

What is the exact process? How are classes set up? How do you connect with fellow students and professors? What if you need more structure in your daily schedule?

In this article, we will provide a step-by-step guide to understanding and navigating online college and prepare you for the exciting new opportunities available to you with this new way of earning a degree, where you are the focal point of your educational journey.

Why Choose Online College?

The popularity of online learning has skyrocketed in recent years, due to the flexibility and the many degree options available.

Most traditional colleges, both public and private, now offer online courses and there are fully online colleges that have no actual campus, except in the virtual world.

You can choose from various majors and degrees, including associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or even a doctorate, and can earn any of them right from the comfort of your own home.

Online learning takes the same amount of time and is structured nearly the same as traditional on-campus coursework, but online learners enjoy a great deal more flexibility in how they structure their time.

It is ideal for those who work full-time, take care of children or elderly family members, are in the military service, or who want to travel. It means you can get to class even if you live in a rural area, or if you get sick, or your car breaks down.

Also, online students can graduate faster, if they choose, and the degree is often less expensive.

How Does Online College Work?

If you have never taken online classes, you are probably wondering what it is like.

How do you attend classes?

How do you interact with your professors and fellow students?

What’s testing and grading like in an online environment?

Let’s look at these, as well as other aspects of online learning:

How to Attend Classes

After logging into your learning platform, you will see announcements your professor has posted, as well as course content and learning modules.

This is some of the typical coursework for online classes:

Assignments – Class assignments are typically completed and submitted via the online platform. You will be given instructions, due dates, and you will upload completed assignments within a designated field on the website.

Blogs – This is a useful resource that promotes active learning and engagement by encouraging students to reflect on their learning and connect with others. By the time you graduate, you will no doubt be very accomplished at writing blog posts on many subjects.

Group Projects – In many online courses, you will use collaborative software to complete group work assignments, which provides you an opportunity to interact with classmates. Some online colleges even book online conference rooms where you can meet "face-to-face" using laptop cameras and microphones.

Discussion Boards – These are online forums where students post questions and answers and take part in discussions. Your professor will typically provide a topic and you will be expected to provide a certain number of posts. Message boards also serve as a community gathering place for information, support, and advice.

Reading/Listening Materials – You will access your reading and lecture materials online. Some professors video themselves giving a lecture, while others provide an audio recording or share information through a group chat. You may read an excerpt or watch a lecture and then be required to give a response. You also may be expected to complete assigned readings from textbooks.

Essay/Research Papers – These are completed just like in traditional classes, but you will be required to upload them onto the website.

Journaling – You may be asked to keep a daily or weekly journal in which you reflect on the class material, assignments, discussions, and what insights you have gained from class activities.

Engaging with Teachers and Students

Online learning provides you with multiple ways to interact with professors and other students. Classes usually require participation, the same as traditional on-campus classes do.

Since most of your schoolwork takes place on a computer screen, you will have to put in a little bit of effort to make connections with others, whether it is through discussion groups, message boards, email, social media, phone calls, or video chats.

You will usually find that you can communicate with professors and other students as often as you want and that you have direct access to them, the same as you would in a traditional classroom.

Online Assessments

Exams may be taken through the class website or downloaded and completed and then uploaded for the professor to grade.

Exams are often timed, and sometimes they are “open book,” meaning that you can refer to your textbook or other learning materials while taking the test. This is not always the case, however, and it depends on the class.

Like traditional on-campus classes, grades are given that are either A-F or pass/fail.

WVU Online Public Health Professor Steve Davis says he often uses Kahoot! as a fun way to conduct assessments of the course material and conduct quizzes.

"I also make extensive use of the Comments function in Microsoft Word to leave detailed feedback within submitted student assignments," he said.

Types of Online Classes

Is Online learning all online?

The answer is, it varies according to the program you choose. Some programs are all online, while others take a “hybrid” approach and offer some in-person classes on campus that allow you to collaborate face-to-face with other students and with professors.

If the coursework is 100% online, the classes are usually in one of two formats – synchronous (live), or asynchronous (on-demand). Keep this in mind as you decide what kind of online program you may wish to enter.

Both have their advantages and many students opt for a schedule that includes some synchronous and some asynchronous classes. It all depends on your learning style and lifestyle.

Online Live Classes

In synchronous formats, classes are held at a regularly scheduled time on a remote learning platform such as Zoom, and the entire class logs on at that time to listen to a lecture, take part in discussions, interact with the professor, collaborate with other students, and complete projects.

This format mostly closely resembles on-campus coursework. It is best for students who prefer real-time interaction and immediate feedback, but it may not offer the flexibility some online students are looking for.

Self-paced Online Learning

Asynchronous classes are completed independently and are self-paced. You still have to check in with professors and the rest of the class for message board discussions and other activities, but you mostly work according to your own schedule to meet deadlines for assignments.

Asynchronous classes are best for students who have other demands on their schedule, or who work best on their own.

Some people are more suited to a virtual degree program because they need the freedom it gives you. You can listen to a lecture while exercising, log on for an exam while making dinner, or fit in classwork on your lunch hour.

How Much Does Online College Cost?

Cost is probably the most important factor you will need to consider in college, especially because there is so much difference in cost among schools and programs.

The cost of an online degree varies greatly, depending on whether the school is public or private, what you major in, and what type of degree you pursue.

The truth is, online degrees are less expensive. This is because you are only paying for the cost per credit and usually some fees, and not for all the extra costs that on-campus students pay, such as housing, food, campus fees, and the costs associated with commuting.

Tuition costs are similar, but overall costs tend to be a lot lower.

Many online classes also use digital course materials, so you save money on textbooks and other materials for each course, which can be very expensive.

Scholarships and Grants

The amount of financial aid you receive will also impact your final cost and is important to consider. The good news is that you can get financial aid for your online education.

If you are attending an accredited online college, you will be eligible for the same scholarships, low-interest federal loans and grants as students at traditional on-campus schools.

Talk to a financial advisor at your school about scholarships, grants, and other opportunities. Also, if you are still employed, talk to your employer about any tuition assistance programs that may be available through work.

Grants may also be offered by state and local governments and individual institutions. The amounts vary widely, depending on your geographical area and the available funding at the schools you are considering.

You may also want to look into scholarships for veterans, minority groups, students with disabilities, etc. Hundreds of private scholarships exist for qualified students, based on factors such as ethnicity or membership in a club or professional society. Some of these include:

Are Online Colleges Accredited?

One of the most important things you should look at when choosing an online school is accreditation, which is an evaluation of its operations and academic standards by a third-party review board to make sure they meet established criteria.

Accreditation can tell you a lot about a school’s credibility.

If you choose a school that is not accredited, it can have detrimental effects on your schoolwork, as well as your future career. For example, you may have trouble securing financial aid, or transferring credits to another school.

Future employers will be looking to see whether you attended a reputable college or university and they will be more hesitant to hire you if you have not. Also, it may be harder for you to obtaining any necessary licenses if you do not attend an accredited institution.

You want to look at more than the school’s reputation. It should provide high-level academic programs, as well as the support systems students need to excel.

The following are some tips for choosing a legitimate, accredited school:

Accrediting agencies

To make sure a school’s accrediting agency is legitimate, visit their website and look at which organizations back them. The two main organizations that oversee accreditation in the U.S. are the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the Department of Education.

The CHEA is an advocacy group that reviews accrediting agencies, encouraging "self-regulation" of academic quality. It focuses on educating the public about diploma mills.

The Department of Education reviews and recognizes accrediting agencies that are reliable authorities concerning the quality of education and training offered by their institutions. They use this status to determine eligibility to receive federal financial aid.

Regional Accreditation

There are two main types of accreditation in the U.S. – regional and national –with accrediting agencies operating at both levels. Regional is the most widely respected.

Regional accreditation shows that an institution meets the highest standards for programs, faculty, and success of students. National accreditation is usually reserved for non-profit schools, vocational programs and technical programs.

When choosing an accredited school, be sure to look for regional accreditation.

Profit vs nonprofit

Today, most of the country’s top colleges offer online degrees, but not all of them are created equal.

Unaccredited and for-profit schools often have very short programs of study, and scholarships that are guaranteed, but their degrees are meaningless. They have low standards of quality, low graduation rates, and high student debt.

It is best to choose a non-profit school that is regionally accredited. To determine whether a school is accredited, you can search the U.S. Department of Education’s database.

Student Retention

Retention rate is a good indicator that the school provides a quality education and that students are happy with the support they receive.

Any accredited online college is required to provide student retention figures to any potential student who asks for the information. So be sure to ask!

You can also look at the Department of Education's College Scorecard. It lists the graduation rates of certain schools, along with other data.

U.S. Department of Education scoreboard.

Job Placement Rates

Schools that have career service centers and that help students secure internships and experiential learning projects are more likely to produce graduates who find successful careers after graduation.

Look at job placement rates for the school you are researching. This is likely to be a good indicator of the professional training you will find in the program you wish to enter. You can find this information on the school's website or by talking to one of their admissions advisors. Many educational and news websites also report job placement rates.

Faculty Credentials

Your professors are your most important mentors in college. Your research should include faculty qualifications and credentials, their areas of expertise, where they have been published, courses they teach, and conferences they have attended, along with other noteworthy achievements.

You can find information about faculty on the program website, or by doing some research on the internet on sites such as LinkedIn and Google Scholar. It is also a good idea to contact the faculty who teach in your program of interest, as well as some of their former students.


Academic advisors guide you through not only the admissions process, but your entire college career, and can answer any questions you may have. They will also help you adjust to the digital learning environment and the school’s interface and direct you to tutoring and other academic resources.

As you get ready to graduate, they will help you with your resume and interview skills, as well as potential jobs and careers. The best online colleges provide advisors and career services remotely to help students make informed decisions to successfully complete their online programs.

Is Online College at WVU the Right Fit for You?

Online degrees are here to stay, in recent years, due to the flexibility they provide for students and the many degree options available. You have the flexibility of choosing from various majors and degrees, and you can earn all these degrees right from the comfort of your own home.

It is now time to do further research and evaluate whether online learning aligns with your personal learning style and life situation.

WVU Online is an ideal starting point in your search for the right school. Our degrees are perfect for working professionals or others who want the convenience and flexibility of online learning from a nationally recognized university.

Learn More

Contact the Coaches at Our Learning Engagement Center

After reading this article, if you are unsure about your goals, or how to identify your interests and skills, be sure to reach out to one of our WVU Online admissions coaches. They are trained to help you look at your individual situation and make the right choice for your future.

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