How Do Online Courses Work (Comprehensive Guide)

Aria Miller
Published by Aria Miller
Last Updated On: December 29, 2021

Online courses and online degree programs are a rapidly growing trend in the education industry, and for a good reason.

They offer flexibility, convenience and cost-savings to students who would otherwise not be able to access higher education.

If you're considering taking an online course, there are many things to consider before signing up. However, there is still some confusion about how online classes work.

In this article, we’ll answer some common questions people have about how an online course works so that you can make an informed decision if this form of education is right for your needs.

What is the Typical Structure of an Online Classroom?

PC screen with a woman teaching live

There is no single way that online classrooms are structured. However, usually the cornerstone of the program is an online learning management system.

The online learning management tool is the online entry into the program.

It is how the student interacts with their classmates, professors, mentors and facilitators of your online program.

Via this portal, the student can also: 

  • Accesses lectures and course materials
  • Looks at their grades
  • Turns in complete assignments
  • Review the course syllabus.

A good online learning system is mobile friendly so that students can access their coursework on the go.

Read More: How Many Students Fail Online Course Because of Lack of Structure

Do I Need Special Equipment for Online Programs?

Most online classes do require a certain amount of personal computer equipment [1].

Schools try to keep the technical requirements to a minimum knowing that not all students have equal access to high end electronics.

That being said, having a reliable internet connection with up-to-date software will make taking an online class a more pleasant experience.

Most lectures are delivered in a video format, so having adequate bandwidth is important to access course materials.

Online students will also need access to any software required by the class - a word processor at a minimum and often a presentation program.

Is There a Specific Time Students Have To Be in Class?

female student writing and attending online class

Traditional learning and on campus classes have definite start times, and you must be present for the entire class session to gain exposure to the material.

However, most online programs are delivered asynchronously.

This means that the course instructor records the lecture material before the course begins and the students are able to listen to the recordings at a time that suits them.

This is an exceptionally convenient model of instruction both for the professor and the online student.

Additionally, if the student misses something in the lecture or simply wants to hear the information again, they can replay the lecture at will.

Just because the class is online does not mean that you can skip class if the syllabus says you need to be there at a certain time.

Remember that it is critical to review the class syllabus prior to starting your course fully. This is where the instructor will explain what the expectations are for attendance, coursework, and evaluation.

Is There an in-person Component to Online Learning?

Some online courses work on a "hybrid" model, meaning that you can expect to have some instruction done in person through video lectures and some with in-person interactions with an instructor.

The majority of the coursework is completed independently, with deadlines for assignments or projects being communicated by the professor throughout the semester via the learning management tool.

Additionally, some schools may require students to spend a certain amount of time on campus - either at the beginning of a program or as part of a capstone project at the end of a course of study.

Subject areas such as healthcare and education will probably also require working in the field as part of the program instead of traditional courses.

What is Student Interaction Like in an Online Course?

laptop screen of group video call

Students can expect to interact with their instructor and classmates in a variety of ways.

Students interact with their classmates in the virtual classroom through: 

  • Group work
  • Discussion boards
  • Chat rooms

They often provide the opportunity for instant feedback on questions posed by other students.

Students may also be expected to participate in live discussions led by an instructor or teaching assistant at set times during the course term.

These discussions are usually held on the preferred video conferencing software for those courses.

"Online learning is not the next big thing, it is the now big thing.”


- Donna J. Abernathy, Former Editor of Training & Development Magazine

Some programs also allow for video conferencing between teacher and student during "virtual office hours," which provides an immersive learning experience and enables more in-depth communication.

4 Main Challenges in Taking Online Classes

male student getting tired looking at PC screen, and woman looking at her watch frustrated

1. Focus

Although most students are completely comfortable taking online classes, some students find it difficult to stay focused on content without any face-to-face contact with the instructor.

Further, it may be harder for the online student to develop a strong relationship with the professor than it would be in person.

2. Support

Students also report that it can be hard to complete homework assignments without in-person interaction or support from classmates.

They also find that they do not develop deep friendships with their online classmates as they would with in-person interactions.

3. Technology

Some students may have trouble understanding how to use technology (such as lecture playing or video conferencing software) and how to discuss course content using chat or discussion boards.

Most schools realize that for these technical challenges not to become overwhelming, the institution must provide clear instructions on using required programs.

Thus, schools that are serious about online education have a robust information technology help desk to assist students.

4. Time

Another challenge to online education is that of time management. This is absolutely critical in the online environment.

Online students often have more competing priorities than the traditional student. Thus, it may be harder to develop their schedules and rank order all the things they need to accomplish.

5 Benefits of Taking an Online Course

woman reading books, and a man studying online

1. Flexibility

The largest benefit of online learning is flexibility, since students can study at their own pace and fit their classwork around a busy schedule.

The student has the freedom to attend class when it is convenient for them - not the professor. Work, school, and play are much more manageable when you have a choice.

2. Convenience

Online classes work for many people by offering convenience for students who don't want to attend on-campus courses, such as those with disabilities that make it difficult to commute long distances.

Also, they help students who live in rural or remote areas with less access to educational opportunities to fulfill their dreams of a degree.

3. Cost-effectiveness

Furthermore, online college classes can be considerably cheaper than traditional in-person classes because the instructor does not need a lab or a classroom and can use webcams for face-to-face interaction.

The student does not need to pay room and board to the school or have increased transportation costs for commuting.

Related Article: What Is The Average Cost Of An Online Course? 

4. Career-enhancing

In addition, because students have more independence over how they study, they can have jobs or take care of family members during the hours of traditional courses.

This means that older and non-traditional students can take advantage of online classes' flexibility to earn degrees or certificate programs that otherwise would have been out of their reach.

5. Privacy

Online learning also gives students a degree of anonymity, which can be beneficial if they want to avoid being stigmatized or judged for their race, gender, sexuality, religion or other aspects of how they identify themselves.

What Kind of Assignments are Typical in Online Classes?

male student researching using a desktop pc

Generally, any assignment that can be completed in traditional classes or a physical classroom can also be done online.

This usually means that a student will answer homework questions, take quizzes, and complete essays and research papers for classwork.

This is just like an in-person Bachelor’s Degree program.

Most online courses also include group projects where students work together on projects.

These allow students to learn how to interact professionally and how to collaborate.

Students may choose to interact via: 

  • Chat rooms
  • Message boards
  • Email, text
  • Instant messaging
  • Video conferencing

However, they are expected to create a result that is presented jointly to the instructor.

Approximately How Much Work is Expected for an Online Course?

The amount of work for these classes is the same as those with a physical classroom.

Schools usually expect students to work at least three to five hours out of class for every hour spent listening to a lecture [2].

The only difference online courses have is that, in an asynchronous class, students can attend online lectures on their own time.

This makes scheduling a lot easier because students have more control over how and when to do their work.

It also means that it's easier for students not to miss out on important learning opportunities.

If they're not paying attention to the class the first time around, they can always go back and review it again.

This can be an incredible benefit to those whose note-taking skills are less developed.

Related Articles:

How Many Weeks Does an Online Class Last?

This answer varies greatly depending on the program the student enrolls in.

While many online classes follow an in-person school's traditional semester-based schedule, others run shorter, more concentrated timelines.

Students in those programs focus on fewer courses with more intensity.

There are also some programs that operate in cohorts - groups of students that move through a program together on a timeline that does not match the academic calendar of a traditional college or university.

In an Online Class, How are Proctored Exams Administered?

female student writing and attending an online class, and a person answering an exam paper

Of course, not all classes online require proctored exams. For those that do, there are a number of ways they can be accomplished.

First, there is the traditional proctoring system: The student comes to a testing facility and sits for an exam with a live proctor that monitors the test taker.

Second, there's the webcam/whiteboard option - which utilizes live video streaming technology so that the educator can watch while the student takes the examination.

Finally, there is a newer technology that actively monitors the student's computer screen and uses an algorithm to catch cheating or detect plagiarism.

Is There Anything Students Should Know Before Registering for an Online Course?

Absolutely. Students must be well aware of what is taking an online course like. Here are a few tips:

  • A student should thoroughly review and understand the school's remote learning requirements, particularly as they relate to a chosen degree program.
  • Students should read through the school’s course catalog so they can review and choose appropriate classes online based on their personal goals.
  • It is essential that students understand the add/drop requirements for online classes, as those may differ from in-person offerings.
  • And, of course, online learners should be aware of the course type and requirements so that they get the education they are looking for.
  • Finally, prospective students should know that it takes self discipline and self motivation to set their own schedule, meet their due dates, stay organized, and continue working while balancing their other commitments.

Learning online can be challenging, but it will help you achieve and master your goals.

Are Online Degrees and Taking Classes Online Accredited?

person stamping and signing a paper

This is an extremely important question to answer, because entire degree programs from an unaccredited institution might not allow you to accomplish your goals.

Accreditation is based on factors like faculty qualifications, academic rigor, school rankings, and student learning outcomes.

For example, if you're looking for a high-level degree, such as in medicine or law, it is essential that the institution be accredited or else you will not be able to practice your trade legally.

Even at lower levels of online degree programs, accreditation might be a requirement if you want to pursue a higher level of learning.

You should expect to need a Bachelor’s Degree if you want to go to graduate school, so students enrolled completely online should verify that their distance education institution is fully accredited.

The good news is that it is the school, not the method of education delivery, that gets accredited. Therefore, if you are looking for an accredited degree that can be earned online, you simply need to choose a currently accredited school.

Then you can be assured that your classes and degree will come with the gravitas they deserve.

Read More:

How Does Online Course Work: Recap

Online courses are a great way to learn new skills, grow your career, or get your degree.

They offer the convenience of an online learning experience, and provide you with some of the same benefits as traditional on-campus college programs like networking opportunities and access to high-quality professors.

When you enroll in an online degree program, it is easy to fit a class into your schedule because of the flexibility that these programs offer. You can also save money by earning credits online as well.

If you’re looking for ways to get an online degree, improve your job prospects, or just want more flexibility in your schedule, consider starting your online learning journey with online classes.


  1. https://www.campusexplorer.com/college-advice-tips/D1102930/What-Materials-and-Equipment-Do-You-Need-For-Online-School/
  2. https://www.bestcollegesonline.org/faq/how-many-hours-per-week-will-i-have-to-spend-on-online-courses

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